Let’s not beat about the bush, The 2017 Spine Challenger was probably one of the poorest race executions of my life. Less running, more a death march to Hawes, and for long portions of it I was convinced there was no way I could finish. However, somewhere deep inside me, my stubborn side refused to let me stop and with some great support from a number of people, I made it to the finish.
I’m not going to give a blow by blow account of how this unfolded here. For that I would encourage you to read the two previous parts to this race report, namely Part 1: Highs and Lows to Hebden and Part 2: Defeat Then Victory On The Road To Hawes. In this final article I would instead like to focus on the lessons I learned from this race, the kit I used during it and what lies ahead following it.
Let first start by having a look back at the pre-race objectives I set myself before the race, to see how I got on. They were pretty simple this time around, namely:
- Have fun!
- Finish within the cut off!
Well I finished the race well within cut off but would I describe it as a fun experience? Probably not during or in the immediate aftermath if I am brutally honest but it is an achievement that I am really proud of none the less. Lets therefore chalk this one up as a 50% success rate and get into what I learned from the experience.
Okay, where do we start?
The first thing may sound obvious but race preparation is key to success or more specifically the final few weeks before a race are. My training had gone well and my kit was largely tested and sorted – more on that later. However a rather stressful two weeks at work in the run up to the race, including a lot of international travel, left me wiped out both physically and mentally.
As I am sure those who have already read the previous parts to this race report will agree, it was the mental side that really let me down during this race. Yes you want to be fresh as a daisy physically on the start line of a hundred miler. It is however mental strength that will ultimately get you through the race, particular the tougher moments you will experience in its later stages. For this race I was experiencing those mental lows in the days leading up to the race and ultimately dragged them over the start line with me and out onto The Pennine Way.
If I look back across the 52.5 hours I was out on the course, then I can say hand on heart there were only really two sections that I was genuinely enjoying myself. Saturday afternoon and evening, roughly Crowden to Stockley Pike, I was moving well and having fun. After that the last few miles running down into Hawes were also really good. Outside of those times I was struggling with my demons and constantly fighting an overwhelming desire to throw in the towel. While I ultimately overcame this and got to the finish, which is an achievement I am really proud of, it was not a pleasureable experience and one I would definitely like to avoid in the future if I can.
So my number one take away lesson from this race is I need to find a way to control and manage these mental demons. Better preparation before the race would of course help as well, feeling well rested naturally aids confidence. We all focus on tapering from a physical perspective but the mental side, having the space to relax and sleep are things I totally overlooked for this race.
Better forward planning to ensure that things are not left until the eleventh hour would also help, and allow me to more easily accommodate the unexpected curve balls that work can sometimes throw. Coping strategies during the race when the doubts surface are also needed. Hopefully I can use the fact I beat them during this epic adventure as a weapon moving forward.
The other key lesson is that I should have run more. Now this is linked to the first part, as of course once you have lost the mental hunger its difficult to keep up the motivation to run and this showed in my stats after the race. In reality, once we arrived at checkpoint one I did very little running until the final few miles into Hawes.
The fact that my legs felt so fresh at the finish in Hawes and had totally recovered within a couple of days, shows I had so much more physically to give during this race. Ultra marathons require you to be as efficient as you can, not just when moving but also when stationary at the checkpoints and other stops. I’ve put this to good use in other races, so should have done much better here. 52.5 hours is still a pretty respectable time but with the weather conditions we had, I should have done much much better!
One of my major concerns heading into this race were my feet. During Lakeland 100 last year I suffered from a bad case of trench foot, after getting my feet soaked during the early stages of the race around Eskdale. The Pennine Way is notorious for its bogs and this combined with the snow and mud meant I was going to struggle to keep my feet dry. I’ll go into more detail on how I approached this in the footwear section later in this article.
Suffice to say that my strategy worked and with the exception of a tiny patch on the bottom of my right foot, I totally avoided trench foot. What I did suffer from were hot spots on both heels, which in the case of my right foot was made worse when I ripped some skin off using cheap zinc tape. I suffered from similar hotspots in the later stages of Lakeland 100, so another lesson learned is that I need to find a strategy for coping or even preventing this. Some sort of taping to provide additional protection may be the solution but at the very least additional research is required before I tackle my next long distance race.
The final point I would like to make is that this is the first race where I felt I could have benefited from time on the course prior to the event. Previously I have shied away from this, as I see the sense of exploration and discovery of new places a key part of my racing experience. That said a better feel for this course and what lay ahead would really have helped my mental state and also potentially avoid some of the navigational mishaps we had.
So in summary, the key lessons I am taking away from this race are:
- Find some mental coping strategies for dealing with demons both before and during the race
Ensure that future tapers consider the mental side of preparation, including time for rest, relaxation and sleep.
Start race preparation and planning earlier to ensure there is less of a rush and mental stress in the final few days
Look into and test different techniques to protect the heels of my feet before my next hundred mile race
Even when I am not chasing a time, have a proper checkpoint strategy prepared and stick to it
If I can run, run!
My Kit List
I have struggled with thinking how best to approach discussing the kit I used on The Spine Challenger. Kit is the subject of much debate on the forums and as Spine runners we all spend most of 2016 thinking about and testing various items. So as you can imagine, I have a lot to say on the subject.
On the whole I was pretty happy with the kit I chose and found it worked well for me. I’ll include a full kit list at the end of this section but thought I’d start by going through the key areas most Spine runners will debate in the lead up to the race and give you a little more detail on what worked and what didn’t.
Before we get into that though, I should give a word of warning for those reading this ahead of doing future races. My comments below are based solely on my experience of using this kit in the 2017 race, which was predominantly warm (above freezing) and a little damp. Had the conditions been colder or even wetter then I’m sure the kit requirements would have been significantly different. I also run hot and don’t tend to feel the cold as much as some, especially in the early part of an ultra, so can maybe get away with less layers than others.
Anyway that’s the disclaimer over, lets get into the detail.
I wore the following from the start all the way to Hawes. Yes they smelt a bit by the end!
- Brynje Super Thermo base layer
- Rab MeCo 120 long sleeve base layer
- Runderwear Merino briefs
- Montane Cordiella running tights
Apart from the smell they were all excellent, the Brynje being a revelation and I can see why so many Spine racers are such big fans. The Montane Cordiella running tights also worked well, protecting me from all but the worst of the weather.
I should also point out that I am a massive fan of Merino wool and have been for a number of years, first as a mountaineer and more lately as a runner. I especially love its warming properties when wet, so opted to use this as much as I could in my clothing for this race.
On the start line I wore a Rab Vapour-Rise Alpine jacket in addition to the items listed above, but soon switched this for my waterproof jacket when it started to snow, dumping it with John when I first saw him at Crowden. After checkpoint one I put on a Salomon Trail Runner Warm Mid top and Rab Primaloft Vest under my waterproof, which I had carried from the start as spare layers in my pack. If I was not wearing these then I always had them in my pack.
Leaving Crag Bottom I switched the Salomon and Rab Primaloft Vest for a Helly Hansen Warm Ice base layer under my waterproof. This I wore to Malham when the Helly Hansen top was replaced with the Rab Vapour-Rise again, for added protection into the second night.
I also carried the following items of clothing in my pack throughout the race which never got used:
- Montane Fireball jacket
- Spare Rab base layer top and Salomon tights – required items
- Two pairs of socks – Injinji Perforance Merino and Ashmei Merino – one pair a required item
- Extremities Tuff Bag Over Mitts
- Spare pair of Rab Merino liner gloves
- Two spare buffs
- Buff thermal beanie
- Inov8 merino neck gaiter – required item
Overall I was pretty happy with the clothing I wore but would question the benefit of the Rab VR in the weather we had. If if had been colder I think it may have been more useful but it wasn’t and as such I didn’t need it for the majority of the race. With hindsight I should have left this and the Salomon top behind and just carried the Helly Hansen base layer and the Montane Allez Micro Hoodie instead. It is always better to go with thinner lighter layers in my experience, as it gives you more flexibility. Zips can also be useful to aid venting and reduce unnecessary stops to add or remove layers.
Finally I did suffer from some chaffing in the never regions but that is hardly surprising for the time we were out and some precautionary lubing in this area may help prevent or slow this in the future.
I started out with my Montane Spine Jacket and Salomon Bonatti Trousers which were more than adequate for the conditions we faced. I did switch to a heavier set of waterproofs (Mountain Equipment Shivling Jacket and Berghaus Paclite Trousers) on the Sunday morning, as we were expecting worse weather. However this never materialised so ended up being an overkill.
The Bonatti trousers were great in use but were tricky to get on over larger shoes with gaiters, as the zips in the lower legs are not quite long enough. The Paclite trousers however had full length zips and while slightly heavier were easier to remove or vent.
Hands and head
On my head I took my usual approach of wearing a buff of some kind, cut in half to act as a sweat band. I then added a thin buff merino beanie on top of this when the weather warranted it or if I was cold. I don’t tend to wear hats and this combination worked perfectly for me.
I chopped and changed gloves a lot during the race and used all of the following at various points:
- Montane Powerstretch glove from the start in the snow
- Rab Merino Liner Glove with either the Montane Prism Mitt or Buffalo Mitt as it got colder on Saturday and into Sunday
- Inov-8 Race glove from Sunday morning to the finish
Of all of these the Montane Powerstretch and Prism Mitt, plus the Inov-8 Race glove were by far and away the best gloves. The Buffalo Mitts were okay but I much preferred the Prism and would use them in preference in future races. Again as the weather was not that bad there was little benefit to wearing a liner glove apart from when wearing a mitt.
Many people opt for waterproof gloves but I personally prefer to accept my hands will get wet and just go with gloves that can be layered and are warm when wet, all of the above being good at this. I did include a waterproof over mitt in my pack just in case but never used these during the race and would question the benefit in the future. I also had a warmer hat and neck gaiter but personally don’t like using these, so saw them as emergency items only.
How you keep your feet dry and in one piece, while still providing grip and support across a range of surfaces – snow, ice, thick mud and slippery flagstones – is the dilemma of ever racer setting foot on the Spine course.
I decided to go with my trusty Inov-8 Roclites, which have worked really well for me in previous races like The Fellsman. I started with a pair half a size larger than my normal size and also packed a pair a full size bigger should my feet swelled. This occurred after stopping to sleep in the early hours of Sunday morning, so I ended up using both pairs during the race.
I went for a non Goretex pair as I have found the Goretex turns shoes into buckets when water flows into them, which it typically will when standing in anything deeper than a puddle. Instead I wore a standard pair of Roclites with a pair of breathable military boot liners purchased from eBay and recommended by many past Spine racers. At full calf length I hoped they would provide more protection, although a plunge above the knee could still see water getting inside.Sock wise I wore a pair of performance Injinji socks made from merino wool, along with a thicker pair of Smartwool knee length mountaineering socks for warmth. The extra thickness of these socks combined with the boot liner, was why I chose to increase my shoe size by half a size over my normal pair. I changed my socks and boot liners three times. Once at Hebden Bridge, again at Gargrave and one final time before our ascent of Pen-y-ghent.
This combination worked extremely well. While my feet did get a little damp from sweat, they never got wet and I avoided trench foot, one of my biggest fears going into the race. I also smeared my feet with Gurney Goo following a tip from a friend, to try and slow the ingress of water into the skin.
The one outstanding question is whether the hot spots I got on the heels of both feet was due to a combination of sweat and having slightly bigger shoes than normal? I didn’t get any sense of rubbing or heal lift, so am not quite sure on the answer, hence my lesson learned outlined earlier in this article to look into ways I can protect them in future races.
For icy conditions I carried a set of Yaktrax Pro, which are super light but give amazing grip when icy. I wore these once on the first night and carried them in the side pocket of my pack for the rest of the time, within easy reach if required.
Finally I wore a pair of Montane Alpine Pro Gaiters over the top of my shoes. As I outlined in part one of this race report, I broke one of the cardinal rules of ultra running by wearing these for the first time at the start of the race. My feedback is that they were truly excellent and probably one of the best bits of kit I used during The Spine Challenger, providing excellent protection from the snow initially and mud later on during the race.
After footwear, the pack you choose is probably the most important choice a Spine runner will make. I played around with a few but settled on the OMM Classic 25. A traditional rucksack rather than race vest but it seemed the most comfortable for me when carrying a load and provided a range of pockets to stow kit which could be easily accessed while on the move.
I added two OMM Go Pods to the shoulder straps which were perfect for storing a water bottle and my GPS. I tried the OMM H20MM bottle holders but found these a little annoying in use and preferred the increased flexibility the pods provided.
Alongside this many people opt for a front pack to allow you to get access to more kit while running or walking. I tried a variety of these including the OMM Trio Case and Raidlight Avant Ultra, before eventually deciding on the Salomon Custom Front Pocket.
In practice I found this setup worked brilliantly, especially the Salomon front pocket which easily held everything I needed between stops and made the overall pack feel more balanced. The shoulder straps of the OMM Classic 25 don’t exactly have the thickest of padding and I could definitely feel it in my shoulders after 30 hours, but that is the compromise you pay for the savings in weight.
For this race we were required to carry enough kit to be able to sleep out overnight. As a supported athlete, I did not have any plans to stop in the open unless it was an emergency, so went with the bivi bag rather than tent and bivi option, for which I chose the Terra Nova Discovery Light.
You sleeping bag is probably the single heaviest item you carry after water, so is quite a key choice. However to get really lightweight you need to spend lots of money and the Rab Neutrino Endurance 200 seemed the best compromise, coming in at just over 700g and hitting the minimum temperature requirement on the nose (zero degree comfort limit).
These remained unused in my bag for the duration of the race, so I cannot really comment on how effective they were in the field.
Aside from the meals I had at the M62, Checkpoint One, The Hare and Hounds in Lothersdale, The Buck Inn in Malham and The Pen-y-ghent cafe in Horton, I ate various amounts of the following during the race:
- Buttered hot cross buns (loads)
- Salted peanuts (one bag)
- Pepperami and biltong (4)
- Cheese sticks (4)
- Nakd bars (4)
- Flapjacks (2)
- Mars bars (4)
- Bananas (4)
I carried just over 3000 calories from the start, 1000 calories of which was from a dehydrated Expedition Foods meal. I had planned to eat this at checkpoint 1.5 at Malham Tarn but opted for a pub meal in Malham instead. I was eating regularly during the race, never felt hungry once and even had some food left in my bag at the end.
As I outlined in my lessons learned earlier, I definitely could have been more efficient with my stops and probably could have got away without the food stops in Malham and Pen-y-ghent Cafe, maybe using the dehydrated meal at CP1.5 instead as originally planned. In reality though those two stops were used for morale rather than the need for nutrition, so with the way my race was going it made sense to include them.
For cooking I carried a Vango Titanium Micro Stove, which is identical to the Alpkit Kraku stove many others use. I paired this with an Alpkit MytiMug 650, which would hold the stove, gas canister and Optimus Sparky Piezo Igniter. I also added a small sheet of tin foil and a paperclip, so I could fashion a windbreak if required. Experience has shown me over the years that these kind of stoves can become as effective as candles in breezy conditions!
For hydration, I left most meetings with John carrying half a litre of Mountain Fuel and half a litre of water with a Nuun tablet in. I had the capacity to carry 2 litres as per the race regulations but never needed more than a litre between stops, another key benefit of being a supported runner. There was the offer of water at the majority of mountain rescue safety points and checkpoints but I never needed this.
I carried two 500ml bottles, one an OMM bottle up front on my chest harness and a second in the mesh side pocket of my pack. At the start of the race I used an Elite Nanogelite Thermal bottle as my second bottle, hoping the insulation would stop the water freezing away from my body heat. This worked well, however the Elite bottle did not fit into the OMM Go Pods on my harness, meaning I either had to decant the water between the bottles or try and dislocate my arm whenever I needed a drink from the bottle on the side of my pack. As the weather warmed up I therefore switched to using two OMM bottles making it easy(ish) for me to switch them as the front one became empty.
For future races I will look into another option for carrying a larger bottle on the harness, so I could use two Elite Nanogelite Thermal bottles instead if the weather warranted it.
Warm sweet tea was my drink of choice at checkpoints, as it is in every ultra I do, even though I don’t touch the stuff normally. This was supplemented with some coke in the later half of the race, a couple of small cartons of coconut water and also some Morning Fuel on Sunday morning and Ultimate Recovery Fuel on Sunday night.
I never had any concerns about being dehydrated and was peeing regularly, in fact too regularly at times, much to the humour and I’m sure annoyance of Richard. This was actually more likely due to a mildly irritated bladder rather than drinking too much, which I’ve had before in times of stress and had developed just prior to the race. Nothing serious and just a repeated annoyance really. Sorry about that Richard!
There are various other items I carried, some mandatory and others personal additions. The simplest way to cover these is to go through the kit list. All my kit came in at a fraction over 6.5kg before the addition of food and water. So not the lightest but not really heavy as well.
Compass and Maps – A-Z Adventure Map Series Pennine Way and Silva Expedition 4 compass. I also had the Harvey maps available in the van but never used these.
GPS – Garmin GPS Map 62s with OS 1:25 maps and route pre-loaded
Whistle – there was one built into the chest strap of my pack and I added another small one to my compass
Goggles – a pair of Cebe Ski Goggles with clear lens (never used)
Knife – Swiss Army Signature
Head Torch with 1 set of spare batteries – Petzl Nao, the older model that pushed out 575 lumens. I had this programmed to give me 16 hours per battery, which reduced the power to 100 lumens but was fine for 90% of the time. The first battery saw me through the first night, into the second and was still going strong after 15 hours when I swapped the battery. I had a fully charged spare Petzl rechargeable battery with me at all times, along with a Petzl e+Lite as an emergency backup
Gloves – various combinations of Montane Powerstretch glove, Rab Merino Liner glove, Montane Prism Mitts, Buffalo Mitts or Inov-8 Race glove. I carried a pair of waterproof shell overmitts as well (never worn)
Neck Gaiter – Inov8 Merino neck gaiter, never worn
Base Layer Top – Rab MeCo 120 long sleeve base layer, never worn
Base Layer Bottoms – Salomon running tights, never worn
Appropriate layering for Mountain/ Fell Running – see clothing section above
Kahtoola Microspikes/ Yaktrax/ Similar ice spikes – Yaktrax Pro
Minimum Compulsory Medical Kit – I carried a Lifesystems Light & Dry Pro First Aid Kit and added to this the mandatory medication, an inhaler, some compede, zinc tape, toilet paper, gurney goo and water purification tablets
Sleeping Bag – Rab Neutrino Endurance 200, never used
Shelter – Wild Country Discovery Lite Bivi, never used
Waterproof matches/ and or lighter – Optimius Sparky Piezo Igniter
Spork or similar – plastic spork, never used
3000kcal of food (inclusive of food you eat whilst racing) – see nutrition section above for further details
Mobile phone – my iPhone 6s in a waterproof case, with the bluetooth off and in flight mode for the majority of the race
GPS Tracker – provided by the Event Organisers/ Tracking Company and attached to my shoulder strap
Personal additional items
In addition to the above I also chose to carry or use the following items:
Poles – prior to last years Lakeland 100 I had never used poles in ultras but quickly realised what a god send these can be on longer hilly runs. I used a pair of Leki Micro Vario Carbons throughout the race, which are superb. For snowier conditions I would definitely consider adding a snow basket to the bottom of them
iPod – I carried an old iPod nano and headphones to boost morale if required. I used them briefly on Saturday night and Sunday morning but otherwise they stayed in a zip lock bag in my front pocket
Money – I carried £100 in cash just in case
Sun glasses – I wore a pair of Adidas Evil Eye Half Rim Pro glasses with optical inserts and either clear or orange lens for the entire race
Watch – I wore my Suunto Ambit 2 throughout the race running in good GPS mode and 10s recording interval. I topped this up a couple of times and fully recharged it when I slept before Pen-y-ghent. This worked well and managed to record the full course, which you can see for yourself on my Strava profile.
Power – I carried a Anker Powercore Mini battery and cables for my phone and watch. In practice I tended to charge these when I was stopped with John, using a bigger Anker battery pack I had there and as such never used the Powercore out on the trail
Spare buffs – I carried a few spare buffs to use as sweat bands as required but these were never really used
Stuff sacks and pack liner – I packed most of my kit into various lightweight waterproof bags, which kept it all nice and dry. I packed my sleeping kit and emergency spare clothes into a single bag at the bottom of my pack, with other stuff in separate bags on top, for ease of access during the race.
So what next? Throughout the race and in the immediate aftermath I was adamant there was no way I was going back. I felt like I had hated every minute. Now that I had my finishers medal that box was well and truly ticked and I was happy to move on. Even with the euphoria of reaching Hawes, when I was interviewed at the finish and asked if I would be back next year, I politely replied “ask me tomorrow”.
Well tomorrow arrived and my mindset had changed. Yes there were the rose tinted specticles that always come with time. Yes there was the return to normal life, which always seem boring and mundane immediately after a race. The key driver however in this change in mind-set, was watching the dots of friends and strangers on the tracker continue north on their journey towards Kirk Yetholm in The Full Spine Race. I was jealous. I wanted to be there. I wanted to still be running!
Maybe if I’d run more in The Challenger and really pushed my body to the limit, I would have felt differently, like it would have been impossible to continue? My legs however felt fine and I knew I could have continued. How far was the question.
My sensible head felt I should return for another go at The Challenger. Change the dynamic, go unsupported this time around and try for a time I could really be proud of. This would then set me up nicely surely for a crack at the full spine in a few years time.
However as the days rolled by and The Full Spine reached its conclusion I so wanted to be part of it. Why wait? Why not go back next year and see if you could make it all the way to Scotland?
When the entries for 2018 opened my hand hovered over the race selection field on the entry form. I was terrified of the consequences but also really intrigued. Making it to Hawes had given me a new found confidence in my abilities, so I went ahead selected The Full Spine option and clicked apply.
I’ll live with it for a few days I thought and see how it feels. Well the answer is it felt pretty good and when my application was duly approved I had no hesitation in taking up my place.
We will have to wait eleven months to find out if it was the correct decision and before that my focus shifts back to The Lakeland 100 and my second time around this fantastic course in The Lakes. 2018 will once again see me return to Edale and the start of The Pennine Way. This time however I will have the Scottish Border and Kirk Yetholm, some 268 miles away firmly in my sights 🙂
So there we have it, we have reached the end of my race report for the 2017 Spine Challenger. A huge well done and thanks if you have stuck with me all this way!
All that remains is for me to say a huge thanks to a whole load of people. Many of these I covered in my post in the immediate days following the race but will briefly mention again here.
A huge thanks to my family and friends for their love and support during the race. All your updates were greatly appreciated and definitely helped me make it to the end.
To my wife Lea especially a massive hug. I cannot even comprehend the stress that races like this put upon her, especially with the dot watching and not knowing how I feeling. The running is by far and away the easiest part. Keeping family life moving while supporting me from afar is the real test of endurance.
To Richard and all those others who I met and ran with during the race a massive thank you. Your company was extremely welcome and congratulations to each and every one of you that towed the start line and left Edale. You are legends one and all.
Thanks of course to John Figiel my excellent crew, who patiently encouraged me on when I was at my lowest ebb. You support was key to my success and I am extremely pleased (and not surprised) to see you have signed up for the Challenger yourself next year. Best of luck with your race mate, I’m sure you will storm it.
Finally a huge thanks to the race organisers, the volunteers and staff, and mountain rescue teams that looked after us and supported us across the entire course. Your cheery smiles and words of encouragement were amazing and it felt great to be part of the Spine family and I really look forward to seeing many of you again next year.
Roll on January 2018!