Sunday, 2 February 2020

Thoughts from the Spine Challenger

I’m sitting in my dressing gown with a mug of tea and a pork pie. Recovery time!  It’s the day after I returned from the Spine Challenger and I am still very tired and achy, but also proud and happy. Pete and I didn’t make it to the end, but that somehow doesn’t matter.  It was an amazing experience.

The Short Version

My brother Pete and I took part in the Montane Spine Challenger last weekend. 108 miles along the Pennine Way, to be completed in 60 hours. We were carrying food, water, stoves, sleeping bags, bivvy bags, goggles, walking spikes and spare clothes, filling a 30 litre pack and weighing some 8kg. 

We travelled up to Edale the day before (really great to have Sam to drive us up and around and back!), and stayed overnight in the Youth Hostel. At 0800 next morning we started, along with 120 others, our first goal a checkpoint 45 miles away at Hebden Bridge, where we could get dry clothes, and a hot meal and sleep. The day was windy and dry, but as night fell the rain arrived and the next 6 hours were very cold and wet. We got in at about 0130 - much later than we’d hoped. 

Overnight Pete’s ankle got worse and after seeing a medic he decided he had to pull out. I set off again at 0645 with a guy called Richard who we had met and walked with overnight. We continued to make good, if slightly slow, progress. As dusk fell we realised we were going too slow and upped our pace.  I had a low energy spot but after eating 500 calories I recovered. At about midnight Richard’s ankle went and he had to pull out, and I carried on alone.  A couple of hours later, climbing the steps at Malham Tarn, my left hip started hurting badly and I called the safety team. After some 83 miles my race was over. They picked me up from a nearby road, took me to the Malham Tarn CP and looked after me.  Then to Hardraw where I ate, showered and at about 0600 got into a bed.  Pete and Sam picked me up at about 1100 and we drove home.

We have already been talking about how to do it better next year!

The Full Story

Friday 10 January 2020

Finally the day had arrived.  After months of planning and training and sorting kit, it was time to do this thing! My training hadn’t been as thorough as I’d hoped, with calf problems stopping me running over the previous few months.  I’d resorted to calf-friendly cross-trainer sessions in the gym, but they were no match for actually being out there on the ground.  I was reassured by some advice on the Spine site that said: 

“Fitness is important. But running/racing fitness is less important than you might think .... Being topographically embarrassed in the dark and horizontal rain when sleep deprived and up to your armpits in peat bog, and being able to sort yourself out, is a better asset”.

At least I knew that my mountain skills were good, my kit was ok and that my fitness wasn’t too bad.  And anyway, it was all too late to worry. We were on our way!

We picked up Sam (having a driver to ferry us around was a great advantage) and drove north to Edale. Arriving at about 1400, went to registration, had trackers attached to our bags and a kit check. All good! Then we went up to the Youth Hostel before returning to the event centre for a safety briefing. Then back again to the hostel for a final kit sort, and a massive carb filled pizza and a beer before bed. 

Saturday 11 January 2020

The big day was here! Up at 0615 and climbed into hill clothes. Given the weather I was in:

  • Montane mountain tights with merino leggings underneath
  • long Injinji liner socks with calf length Sealskinz waterproof socks (The combination of thin liners plus waterproof socks (Sealskinz and Otter) worked very well throughout.)
  • Inov8 Roclite G275 shoes
  • Wicking long sleeved base layer
  • Long sleeved merino mid layer
  • Rab Bergen Gore-Tex jacket (Heavier than a running jacket, but proved its value later)
  • OMM Kamleika waterproof trousers
  • Two buffs
  • Merino Beanie 

The forecast was not great.  A very strong southwesterly (30-50, gusting 70mph!) with heavy rain in the afternoon and night. 

Pete and I set off near the back of the pack (who cares? - there were days to go!) and followed along up the hill from Edale and then across to Jacob’s Ladder and up onto Kinder Scout. The Kinder Downfall was falling upwards in the southwesterly gale. The path here is a combination of muddy tracks and stone slabs. We ran on the slabs, to keep up some speed. After Snake Pass the paths got smaller, more rugged and muddier, making running hard or impossible. After 15 miles we dropped down into Torside, where there was a very welcome checkpoint with hot coffee. After a brief stop there we were across the dam and heading back up onto the fells. 

The weather wasn’t too bad up over Black Hill - strong winds but mainly at out backs, and the rain still holding off. At Wessenden Head we checked in with the safety teams and found Sam waiting for us to cheer us on. We enjoyed some more jogging down to the reservoir, but then faced the steep climb out of the valley and up onto Black Moss.  As we climbed the rain arrived and the light started to fade as we entered the night.  By the time we reached Black Moss reservoir we had head torches on and were fully battened down in our waterproofs with the rain battering us hard. 

The next few hours are a bit of a blur in my memory, just a combination of dark, endless driving rain, flowing footpaths, mud and cold. At the next checkpoint (Standedge, by the A62) we were advised to put our goggles on by the safety teams, but Pete and I found that the combination of fogging up and the rain made them impractical.  I protected my eyes as best I could with my hood and we battled on.  At about that stage we teamed up with Richard, who was moving at our pace, and joined us in the battle over the moors. At the M62 checkpoint there was no burger van, but we took the opportunity of the slight shelter of the MRT vehicle to put an extra layer on (I added a Rab primaloft jacket), which was much needed by this stage. (We later heard that 20 people had DNFed at that point with cold/hypothermia!) Then off again into the cold wet night, with Richard by this stage, navigating by the simple route line on my watch.

 We were buoyed by the news that at the Whitehouse there was an MRT aid station with hot drinks and shelter, and it was wonderful to drop down onto the road there and be enveloped by the warmth and generosity of the team. Two cups of hot sweet coffee and several bits of cake later we re-emerged to find that the wind had eased a bit. The next few miles were generally on better, harder,  paths as we weaved around and between (mainly inseen) reservoirs. Then a return to paths turned into muddy streams by the rain, weaving through peat bogs as we climbed the ridge above Todmordon and slogged across to the imposing Stoodley Pike Monument. But as we approached it the wind eased and the rain stopped, and suddenly reaching CP1 at Hebden seemed possible.  

The tracks down from the monument were good and turned into roads as we descended into Charlestown. But then there was a sting in the tale - CP1 was at about the same height as us, but we the path took us up a very steep 220m climb, then a drop and another steep climb before we could negotiate the steep muddy drop down to the welcome warmth of checkpoint. It was a dispiriting climb, but eventually we were making our way down the final zig-zags and could see the lights waiting for us.  

It was 0130. We’d been on the go for over 17 hours with hardly a break and had covered 45 hilly, wet, muddy cold miles.

As I stepped out of the woods a cheery voice called out “Hi Jell! Well done you made it! I’ve got your drop bag here. Come this way and we’ll get you sorted out.”  I waited with him for Pete, and we were taken to an efficient and friendly team in the “Faff Room”. There we were sat down, took off our muddy shoes and trousers, and found dry clothes in our drop bags. I remember being tired and not really tired at the same time. Just the feeling that it had been a long day.

We went through for some food and drink and pondered plans. We were later than we hoped, and knew we had to leave in a few hours, but decided to get at least some sleep. So, at about 0245 we took sleeping bags up to the bunkrooms, were allocated a bunk and crept in amongst the other sleepers. Alarm set for 0515, to allow us to be out again by 0600. 

Sunday 12 January 2020

I woke at 0500 after a couple of hours of reasonable sleep.  I kicked off my sleeping bag and swung quietly down from the bunk and went in search of coffee and breakfast. Pete soon joined  me, and we ate together in the small busy dining room.  I wasn’t that hungry and didn’t eat much of the scrambled eggs and baked beans on my plate.  Pete was worried about his Achilles, which was swollen, and while I returned to the Faff Room to repack my bag he went in search of the medics. When he came back, I could tell what the conclusion was.  He was out of the race, and I was on my own.

Well not quite!  We had planned to stay with Richard, who we’d met the night before, and he and I set off again, out of the centre and up the steep zig zagging path, at about 0645.  This was much later than we’d planned or hoped, but it was what we had!

We slogged back up to the Pennine Way, and then it was away again, along muddy paths over moors and past reservoirs and over hills.  It was raining as we set out, but it cleared after a couple of hours, and the rest of the day was dry and less windy - much better walking weather!

The day is a bit of a blur!  We stopped at around noon to boil some water and make a dried meal, which was a good energy boost. Soon after that we encountered an unexpected diversion, and then saw Pete and Sam, who were following our progress. In general the paths and tracks were easier than the previous day, but plagued with muddy fields turned into slippery slidey swamps by the passage of hundreds of feet.  They were dispiriting and made progress slow.

Towards the end of the day(light) we dropped into a gorgeously cozy MRT checkpoint at Lothersdale, where we sat down, had blankets put over our legs and were plied with coffee and cake. Such generous and lovely people, as with all the volunteers.  As we sat there and asked about times and distances, we realised that we were running slow, and needed to up our game.  Reluctantly leaving the warmth of the MRT tent and volunteers, we set off again, pushing the pace harder now.  We knew that were were very much amongst the tail-enders, and time was ticking away if we were going to get this done.  

Our strategy worked. Richard pushed and led me along at a good pace, and the miles were falling away. As darkness fell and headtorches were switched on we slogged through interminable farmland, interspersed with roads and tracks, including a long section along a canal. 

At one stage, at about 2000, we stopped to change headtorch batteries, and I was suddenly exhausted. I think I had neglected to eat enough to keep fuel levels up, and as Richad fiddled with batteries, trying different directions to make his headtorch work, I felt energy drain away. I said something about not having the energy to finish, but Richard (and I am very grateful for this) told me to pull myself together and that we were going to do this! We’ll get to Malham and reappraise there.  Just to Malham. Just focus on the next checkpoint.  It was just the dressing down I needed, and I downed a few hundred calories of snacks as we set off.  It was hard at first, but the energy returned and we were soon striding out again, through more mud and paths and roads, ever following the line on my watch and the GPS. 

We had been told there was a Lidl at Gargave and it was open until 2200. As we entered the village the clock was striking and we feared we’d missed it, but it was actually only 2100 and we had an hour before it closed. As we approached the pub a friendly voice said: “You must be Jell and Richard” (trackers are wonderful things!), and invited into the bar for a quick rest. We had a chat with a medic in there as we both had pains that were bothering us - me in my left hip and Richard his right ankle. He recommended paracetamol to see us through, and after using the loo, we went round the corner to the Co-op (not a Lidl after all!) and I bought paracetamol, mini pork pies and energy bars. We headed off over the bridge and up the hill out of town in better spirits, munching on the tasty fatty goodness of pork and pastry, and feeling more optimistic,

We knew we were running out of time, and we were amongst the last people still out there. But we did the sums (again and again!) and knew that if we could get to Malham Tarn by, say, 0100, we could have a hot meal, and then would have something like 18 hours to do the last 20 miles.  It was doable.

Richard had been strong all day, stronger than me and helping to drag me along, but at about 2330 I suddenly realised, crossing a muddy field by the river just south of Hanlith, that he had lagged a long way behind me. I stopped and when he caught me up, he told me that paracetamol hadn’t touched his ankle and he had shooting pains up his leg, and couldn’t go on. We limped as far as the road, where he called the safety team. Once I knew they were on their way to pick him up, I set off again, alone for the first time, for Malham. 

I got a little lost in the dark, and had to use the map for the first time! (A last minute route change meant that that little bit wasn’t on my GPS.) But I soon sorted myself and (after falling in some deep grey mud, which coated both arms and one side on my body!) I was soon in Malham. I wasted a little time looking for the checkpoint, but then gave up and plodded on out of the village and up towards Malham Cove. I saw a couple of girl Spiners, but they soon pulled ahead of me as we started the long climb up the stone steps at the Cove.

As I climbed the steps the old pain in my hip got worse and worse.  By the time I was half way up I was in agony and couldn’t put any weight on it to step up. I finished the steps ten steps at a time on my right leg, followed by a rest to let the pain subside.  At the top I stopped for a break and more paracetamol, hoping the pain would fade.  I was just a couple of miles short of the Malham Tarn checkpoint, where I could have made a hot dehydrated meal and rested for 30 minutes, but it was too far. I could barely walk on my left leg, and still had 20 miles to go. After mulling it over for a long while I too called the safety team and pulled out. (They said they wondered what I was doing and were just starting to worry about me, having seen me stationary for an hour or so.) (I later discovered that the notes against my name said “Legs don’t work. Going to the road.”, which caused a little confusion to some of the safety team!) 

While I was sitting feeling sorry for myself a slim, fit, determined runner appeared, said hello and nimbly floated away across the rocks.  Only later did I realise that this was John Kelly - the lead runner in the main Spine race, who had set off 24 hours after us. He retained the lead and went on to win the 2020 Spine.

Having agreed to make my way across to the road about a mile away I was faced with a challenge.  The top of Malham Tarn is surrounded by a tall dry stone wall, with (as far as I could see) no gates or gaps. So I had, in the end, to climb it, which is not a great idea if you have both legs working!  I eventually found a spot, and gingerly made my way up and over, happy not to have fallen or pulled a big stone on top of me.  From there I limped over to the road.

As I was shutting the gate a car came round the corner and to my surprise it was two of the safety team, one of them a doctor.  They scooped me up and sat me in the back of their 4x4 and we were on our way to Malham Cove.  As ever, the service was amazing.  One of them carried my bag and poles into the medical room, and I was given a seat and a hot coffee and food. The doctor took a look at my hip and told me it would probably hurt for a couple of weeks, but should get better on its own. I sat, weary now that the race adrenalin was wearing off, and watched skilled nurses and doctors patching up feet and blisters with carefully cut blue tape. As I sat a few more runners came in, and it was only when video cameras arrived that I realised I was sitting next to Eoin Keith, who went one to come second overall, and a couple of other elite runners.  

I waited for another hour or so, nibbling pork pies and drinking coffee, until a car arrived to ferry me up to Hardraw. I chatted in the car until the weariness beat me and I fell asleep. At Hardraw I was again helped into the hall where I was reunited with my drop bag and its dry clothes and spare food. The wonderful staff plied me with a huge portion of cottage pie, which I greedily devoured before being driven up to the Youth Hostel. At about 0530 I had a shower, put on warm clothes, climbed onto a bunk and pulled a warm duvet over me. And fell into a deep sleep.

Monday 13 January 2020

The next thing I remember was Pete waking me at about 1100. I groggily got up, and we got my stuff together and out to the car, where Sam was waiting. And then started the long drive home. I chatted and dozed and slept. We stopped at a services on the M6 and I found I had stiffened up and could hardly hobble across the car park. To add insult to injury we were met with a sign that said “Toilets - Up Stairs”! A burger and a coffee later we got back in the car for more chatting and snoozing, and we were soon back in Hampshire and the Spine was over for 2020.

I spent the next couple of days doing not much! Pottering and dot watching, as the main Spine Race developed.  I was rooting for Eoin Keith, as I’d seen him at Malham, but John Kelly kept his lead and was a worthy winner. Eoin came second.

On Wednesday morning Pete called, and after the usual hellos and how are yous, the conversation changed to: “Next year .....”

We’ll be back!

What did I learn?

A few thoughts that may be useful to anyone considering the Spine Challenger

  • Waterproof socks work well.  I had Sealskinz on Day 1 and Otters on Day 2.  The Otters seemed warmer, but both worked well. I wore injinji toe sock liners underneath, which worked well too - no blisters.
  • I could do with a slightly thicker waterproof to deal with the wind driven rain.  My old eVent Rab soaked through in the end and I was in danger of getting too cold. 
  • My old “blue shiny” Rab synthetic insulating pull on is getting a bit past its best!  I could do with a thicker synthetic layer. 
  • Although we went into this thinking about is as a run, for mortals like us it is really a fast walk, with some running bits to keep the pace up!
  • Many things were good:
    • Rucksack - Osprey Talon 33 - an old faithful
    • Alpkit Carbon poles - I used poles the whole time after the first couple of miles. A godsend 
    • Inov8 Roclite G275 Trail Running Shoes  - Size 7 (I am usually a 6) to allow for foot expansion and the waterproof socks.
  • A couple of things could be improved:
    • Goggles - the cheap goggles Pete and I got were bulky and steamed up. Need something better.
    • Pack liners - The water got into my pack liner and soaked into my sleeping bag. Need beter liners!  (I noticed Eion Keith had a quite thick plastic liner with a sealed top.)
    • Front pouch - It would have been good to have easy access to more snacks and supplies. An OMM chest pod added to my bag might do the trick.
    • Water - I was carrying over a litre of water, but didn’t drink enough.  Need to consider either a bladder or some bottles I can get to easily. A flexible bottle in a pod on a rucksack strap might be the answer.

But most of all, I learned that I can keep going. 45 miles on Day 1. 40 miles on Day 2. Without the hip problem I truly think I would have finished. 

Sunday, 24 September 2017

A Tiny Microadventure

How quick can a microadventure be? Is 8 hours enough, if it includes bivvying on the edge of a wood, going to sleep listening to owls, waking to a beautiful morning, cooking breakfast on a fire and wandering home in the solitude and peace of an early autumn morning? If that is enough, then I just had a great microadventure!

Sunday, 22 January 2017

Dusk Running

The day's activities took longer than planned, the way they should at the weekend. Lounged a bit too long over coffee. Took a bit longer than expected before going out shopping. Lingered over lunch in a French cafe, enjoying the bread and the coffee. Didn't rush round the supermarket.

So it is already gone 4 and the light of the winter's day just starting to fade as I tighten my laces and head out into the chilly afternoon. No real plans on where to go as I set out except that it would be good to do at least 10 miles. I hesitate in the drive, pondering options, then turn right, the route almost planning itself from that simple choice. Out of the village, watching the dying rays of the sun peeping from behind the low cloud. I would go.up to the old drove road, under the motorway, loop south through the woods and then home via more woods and fields. All paths and tracks run a hundred times before, comfortable and welcoming in their familiarity as the post Christmas running routine re-establishes itself.

Gentle running, trying to keep my heart rate and breathing under control, up the long hill to the drove, then enjoying the long easy downhill on the hard ancient track. Fieldfares chackchacking from the hedges. A sparrowhawk looping ahead of me in the evening light. Landing in a tree and waiting for me before taking easy flight along the lane.

Climbing into the woods it starts to feel darker, I get the headtorch out of my bag, but I'm loath to switch it on yet, not wanting to impose its unnatural light on the grey winter dusk filtering into the trees and bushes. Owls start their company-seeking hoots, and I run quietly, feeling a part of the big wild outdoors, hardly seen in the gathering gloom.

The last few miles take me uphill, back towards the still glowing western sky, Venus shining so brightly that I feel that I am running by planetlight. Too dark to run without my torch, but I do it anyway, relying on the sky-reflecting warning of puddles and on sheer providence to avoid fallen branches and unseen holes.

The road back into the village is barely visible, but the narrow strip of light between the tall dark hedges leads me on until houses and warm front rooms appear. And I am home again.

Sunday, 23 October 2016

Maffetone Style Training - Day 0

After a lot of thought and reading a lot of blogs, I have decided to try low intensity, long endurance training, as featured in Dr Phil Maffetone's advice and philosophy. (Much more on his website.) This morning, armed with a heart rate monitor and watch, I set out on an experimental run, just to see how it felt running at a low heart rate. I'll be starting the training proper after the OMM next weekend, so this was more of a trial run.  Here are a few thoughts....

Saturday, 1 October 2016

Looking Backwards and Forwards - The Ups and Downs of a Running Year

We are getting to the end of the running year, and I have been looking back on what was, in the end, not a very successful season. I have many happy and proud memories, but also regrets and disappointments.  I find myself looking back over a year of ups and downs (physical and emotional), shaking myself down, and looking forwards to next year, pondering how I can do it better.

Here are my thoughts....

Tuesday, 10 May 2016

Stroud Trail Marathon - What We Learned in 26.4 Brutal Miles

A couple of days ago I ran the Stroud Trail Marathon, alongside my friend and running partner G, running her first marathon. It was hard. It was very hilly. It was the hottest May day for four years which meant it was very hard. We had trained well, but by mile 8 we both agreed that we were feeling more drained that we would usually feel at that distance, and by 15 miles I was definitely flagging.

But for us this wasn't just the challenge of running 26.4 hilly miles on a hot day (though it was definitely that!) It was also a step along the way towards Race to the Stones, a 100km ultra, which is a scant 9 weeks away, so this was also a training marathon and a learning marathon.

And here are a few things I (we) learned....

Sunday, 8 November 2015

Lessons from the OMM

Last week Pete and I went on our annual pilgrimage to whichever set of rainy mountains the OMM team pick. This year it was the Tweedsmuir Hills in the Scottish Borders, which was an area I had never visited.

We'd entered the "Medium Score" event, which is like a big orienteering event spread over many miles of mountains and moorland. As we crossed the start line we were given our maps, which showed the finish point for the day (and overnight camp) and many control points dotted around the area, with different numbers of points. We had six hours, carrying everything we needed for two days in the hills (tent, sleeping bag, clothes, food...) to get to the overnight camp, collecting as many points as we could manage. And then we'd do it all again the next day, with a new map and a new set of controls.

A short video of our exploits is here (although in reality we walked much more that the video suggests!)

This was our sixth mountain marathon, so you'd think we were getting the hang of it by now, but there is still plenty to learn.  Here's a few thoughts....