Written by Justin Bateman - http://www.justinbatemanrunning.com

If you're reading this I'm going to assume you've already signed up and trained for an ultramarathon. As such, I'm going to leave out any reference to training and even how to run the thing. Mainly because they're huge topics in their own right and you've only got a week left and you're bricking it. So in no particular order, here are six things that I do in the week leading up to an ultra.

Stretch

If you're anything like me and most runners I know, you don't stretch enough. There's been a lot of research and discussion around stretching and the upshot is far from conclusive. Generally though I like the idea that you stretch to feel better, rather like animals do. So I'll do my hamstrings because they're like iron rods (not a good thing) and my hip flexors because I sit at a desk all day. Your muscles are probably going to be sore and tight after your ultra so I reckon it's a good idea to get everything as loose as possible in the days before the race.

Trust in your training

This applies to any distance but I think it's particularly important to remember the further you go, especially if you haven't run that far before. As with a marathon, you're unlikely to have run the distance of the race in training, so psychologically it can be a bit daunting. You're better off being undertrained and nicely rested than to go in knackered.

Ignore taperitis

While you've been reducing the quantity and intensity of your running to prepare yourself for race day, you might notice a twinge in your knee or a soreness around your ankle that you've never felt before. This is perfectly normal. (Unless you've actually twisted your knee or rolled your ankle. In which case, have a doctor look at it.) It's all psychological. I believe it is all your excitement and potential energy just waiting to burst out on race day, although you should also know that I am not a scientist.. 

Plan your route to the start

Sounds obvious but there's nothing worse than anxiously being stuck in traffic or hoping desperately that you make your train connection before you even start running. Check there are no planned engineering works, allow extra time for leaves/cows/trespassers on the tracks, and if possible have a back-up route (or plan) in mind. I did all of this for the Gatliff 50k and STILL almost missed the start. Bloody South-Eastern Railways.

Laying out the kit on your bed and posting a photo of it to social media sites is a legal requirement for all ultra runners

Prepare your kit 

Depending on the length of the race, this could be no more than a water bottle and couple of Snickers, or it could be a full backpack of tent, sleeping bag and miniature rescue helicopter (just in case). Either way, make sure you know what you're wearing on the day, what you want, and what you absolutely must have. Many races have compulsory items so get them in place or your race might end before it begins. At least with a few days left, you've still got time to buy something vital from the Ultramarathon Running Store (other stores are available but most aren't as good.)

Get a good night's sleep the night before the night before

This is another one which is not only relevant to ultras but is all the more important if your race involves not sleeping for 24 hours or more. The night before the race you will most likely be nervous, excited and trying not to disturb all the kit laid out on your bed (see above). So target the night before that to have an early one and dream peacefully about your impending triumph.

Written by Andy DuBois - http://www.mile27.com.au


There is a lot of discussion in the media and running circles about running technique, and specifically heel strike vs forefoot and the pros and cons of each. Unfortunately almost all the discussions have over simplified the topic and miss a few key points.

Before I go into more explanation let me summarise by saying:
1. There is nothing wrong with heel striking depending on where the rest of your body is when your heel strikes the ground.
2. Changing to a fore/mid foot strike doesn’t necessarily improve your running or decrease your risk of injuries and may even increase the risk of injury.
3. Forefoot strike is not necessarily a more effective, more economical way of running. Read on to find out why.

First of all let’s look at what runners actually do in races, not on a treadmill (where the majority of studies are carried out). Depending on which study you read somewhere between 65-85% of elite runners heel strike during a marathon. So if the majority of elite distance runners heel strike why is everybody trying to change to a forefoot strike? As with most things the answers lie in the shades of grey that most discussions on foot strike completely miss.

Speed
The faster you run the more likely you will forefoot strike. Try sprinting for the bus and see if you still heel strike. If we are going to have a discussion on heel vs forefoot strike we need to put that in context of speed. A 400m runner that heel strikes is probably very inefficient, a marathoner who heel strikes may not be. When talking about speed we can’t talk about absolute speed since for a Kenyan marathon runner 3 minute kilometres are comfortable whereas for the average runner it is a sprint.
 
Heel strike and elastic energy
There is an idea that if you heel strike you can’t take advantage of the elastic energy that can be stored in your Achilles tendon and used to propel you forward. This is based on the notion that it is the little stretch you get between when your forefoot hits the ground and when your heel touches (or moves towards the ground) that loads the Achilles tendon. But even if you heel strike the forward movement of the lower leg relative to the foot will load the Achilles if it happens rapidly enough. If you look at the diagram below you will see in figure 1 that if you heel strike out in front of the body the lower leg has to move through a large range before it stretches the Achilles. During this time a lot of energy will leak into the ground. If however, like in figure 2, the heel strike is near or underneath your centre of mass the lower leg doesn’t have far to travel before the Achilles becomes loaded.

image

Different types of heel strike
It’s not as black and white as heel strike and forefoot strike. We have midfoot strike and also what I call a glancing heel strike. To understand a glancing heel strike is to understand why elite runners can heel strike and be very efficient and back of the pack runners can heel strike and be very inefficient.

Glancing heel strike
A glancing heel strike has two main distinctions from a normal heel strike:

  • The foot lands close to or under the centre of gravity.
    The motion of the leg just before contact is either slightly backwards or downwards.

This differs to normal heel strike, which occurs when the foot is out in front of the centre of gravity and the motion of the leg is forward. Let’s look at both of those in more detail.

Foot landing position
If the foot lands out in front of the body then a braking force occurs in the opposite direction of travel. If the foot lands underneath then this minimises any braking force.

Leg motion
If the leg is moving forwards at foot contact then once again a braking force occurs. If the leg is moving backwards or downwards at contact then as the foot comes to rest momentarily on the ground the resultant momentum drives the rest of the body forward. Neither of these are dependant on which part of the foot hits the ground – it can happen with either heel or forefoot.

Effect of shoe on foot strike speed
The lower the heel on your shoe the more likely you will land mid/forefoot regardless of speed. But barefoot runners can still heel strike. Despite what you read, barefoot or minimalist running isn’t a cure for heel striking but A higher heel will lend itself more to heel strike and the higher the heel the more likely (in general) you are to make contact with the ground out in front of your body.

What’s the ideal heel for a shoe?
That depends on the person, the speed they run at and the distance they run. For a 200m sprint you wont need any heel at all since your heels won’t touch the ground. For an ultramarathon a little bit of support under the heel is probably a good thing as the cumulative load on the calfs and achilles is reduced with a slight heel.
How much support? I recommend anywhere from 2-8 mm depending on the individual. Go too low and it can overstress your calves and achilles.

Should you change from heel strike to forefoot strike?
The focus shouldn’t be on what part of your foot hits the ground but where the rest of your body is when it hits the ground. Minimising braking forces and conserving forwards momentum is the goal as this will improve running economy and decrease your risk of injury. To do this you need to land more under your centre of gravity and have the leg travelling backwards or downwards at point of contact. Unfortunately without slow motion video it’s very hard to determine where your body is when your foot hits the ground. A variable that is easier to measure is your stride rate. In general the lower your stride rate the more chance there is of your foot landing out in front of you.

Stride rate
A quicker stride rate, or cadence, reduces the chance of your foot landing forward of your body and this is of far more importance than which part of your foot hits the ground first. Changing your stride rate will take time and conscious effort. Be aware it will also load muscles differently so you should make any change gradual. Start by focusing on stride rate during speed sessions (you are doing speed sessions aren’t you?). Particularly notice what happens to your stride length when you fatigue. In many runners fatigue increases stride length making you less effective.

Is there an ideal stride rate?
You may have read that 90 is the magic number that we should all be aiming for. This is untrue and stride rate has a number of variables which change from athlete to athlete. Some athletes when they increase their speed increase stride rate, others increase stride distance, others do both. The key point is that if you increase stride length then that length should not come out in front of you, it should come from the distance the leg goes behind your body.

Hip extension
One reason why we fatigue as our cadence drops and the foot lands in front is that we may lack hip extension. This means we get more stride length in front of the body rather than behind it. Developing greater dynamic hip extension will help increase stride length without the foot landing forward of the body. If you have plenty of available dynamic hip extension then it may be the glutes and/or hamstrings don’t have sufficient strength to propel you forward far enough to allow a longer stride.

Should you change your cadence?
First of all become aware of your cadence and how it changes – if your cadence slows as speed increases or slows when holding the same pace as you tire you can assume you are over-striding. Quicken your stride rate slightly to get your foot back towards your body when it hits the ground. If your cadence is pretty constant at different speeds and less than 90 there may be nothing wrong with that. The only real way to know is to get someone to video you and look at it in slow motion. But it is still worth playing around with cadence to see if a small change feels more economical. Experiment in your speed sessions and see if you feel any better with a slightly higher stride rate. If you do then gradually start to work that into slower speed running. Like any change it should be increased gradually to give the body a chance to adapt. But whether your cadence is 84 or 94 or 104 you need to look at the whole body to determine if that’s a good or bad thing. There is not a magic number that applies to every athlete, our bodies are all individual. So don’t worry if you hit the ground with heel first, there may be nothing wrong with that, despite what you may read in some seemingly scientific articles. Unless you take into consideration the position of the rest of the body when your foot hits the ground it is meaningless.

Written by Stu Westfield - http://stuwestfield.blogspot.co.uk

INTRODUCTION
I'd like to start by saying a big thank you to all the Spiners & Challengers (from previous races as well as the 2014 edition) who took time to complete the survey. I'd also like to acknowledge the contributions from those who did not complete the race, but still shared their experiences. I have made every effort to word this blog with sensitivity to these racers, I am mindful of the commitment and investment of time and energy it takes to stand on the start line and face down the Spine. But if any offence is caused, it is unintentional and please accept my sincere apologies.

The insights offered by all the respondents have been extremely useful in adding context to the conclusions. I'm also sure that other racers will appreciate trying out your ideas and methods to see if these might help with future successes. As one respondent said "knowledge is power" and the Spine is no exception when it comes to informed choices in all aspects of kit and training.

The aim of the survey is not to find a 'formula which fits everyone'. Indeed I doubt whether such a thing exists anyway. Even before the race starts, there are so many variables such as previous experience, expertise, fitness and physiology. I shall pick up this thread further into this blog when I return to the theme of the 'complete racer'. What I hope does come from this survey is range of ideas, suggestions and further discussion which racers can test out and see if there are improvements for them too.


So what prompted me to start this survey?
Well, as a member of the Spine Race Mountain & Medic Safety team (M&Ms) I have a vested interest in working for every racer to:

  1. Fulfill his/her potential
  2. Have a safe race
  3. Have the best possible experience (although enjoyment sometimes comes as a         retrospective emotion in the bar after the race!)


Of course, footwear choice is an important factor in all of the above. Who's racing with what kit is a frequent topic of discussion among the M&Ms and it helps us form an idea of who might require what kind of help during the race. 

RESULTS
So to the results...We had 36 respondents, of which 17 were Spiners and 19 Challengers.
Anecdotal evidence and my M&M observations of the races in 2012, 13 & 14 indicate that the Spine and Challenger are different propositions in terms of feet attrition and tissue damage. For instance, by the mid to late stages of the Spine, enough time has elapsed for additional complications such as trench foot and infection to become race limiting factors.

Examination of the survey results further justifies scrutinising each race separately to draw out specific observations for the 110 & 268 miles.

SPINE CHALLENGER (Edale to Hawes 110 miles)

  • Of the 19 respondents, 5 did not make it to Hawes, 14 finished.
  • The most popular shoe type was Salomon Speedcross (6 wearers).
  • Other Salomons on show were a couple of SLab & one XA Pro.
  • Most Salomon wearers kept with the same shoe for the whole of the Challenger (one changed from SLab to Speedcross.)
  • 6 out of 7 Salomon wearers completed the Challenger.
  • A range of Inov8 shoes also featured strongly: GTX 268 Boot (1 wearer); Trail Roc 255 (2); 295 (2); Roclite (1).
  • Of the Inov8 wearers 4 out of 6 completed the Challenger.
Of all the shoes worn only 4 respondents changed shoe type during the Challenger. Interestingly, only 2 respondents used a shoe type with a mid to high level ankle coverage. All other shoes fall into the low ankle category.
 
Perhaps this indicated a strategy/willingness to put up with the inevitable mud and wet ingress into a low sided trail running shoe and push onwards with the best possible pace for the duration of the Challenger.
 
However, when asked what would they change if they were to do the Challenger again, several respondents indicated they would switch to lightweight boot or high sided hybrids. A strategy adjustment based on a real experience of the terrain and how much time they actually spent running.
 
SPINE RACE (Edale to Kirk Yetholm 268 miles)
  • Of the 17 respondents, 6 did not make it to Kirk Yetholm, 11 finished.
  • Most popular brand of shoe (worn at any time during the race) was Salomon (8 wearers)
  • Again a range of Inov8 (worn at any time during the race): 285 (1 wearer); 315 (3); 319 (1); 355 (1)
  • Other types of shoe (9 types all different)
  • Of the 6 respondents who did not finish all wore shoes in the 'other' category. I do not think it is possible to draw any firm conclusions from this due to the small sample size in this area of the survey.
  • Of the finishers 8 wore the same type of shoe all the way.
  • 11 respondents wore low sided trail running type shoes.
  • Of the 8 respondents who wore mid to high ankle footwear/boots, 6 started the race with them, 2 changed to them during the race (including Meindl Burma boots)
  • All the respondents who wore mid-high ankle boots (or switched to them) during the race completed the Spine.
Spine racers (with the exception of the very fastest, like Pavel & Eugeni) inevitably have a slower overall pace than the Challengers. So with more of the time spent walking, it is no surprise that a greater number started and finished wearing boots with mid-high ankle coverage.
 
Reasons given are primarily to keep mud and moisture out for longer. This would prove especially beneficial in the later stages of the race (2013 deep snow drifts on the Cheviot, 2014 over-saturated ground and deep mud).
 
In 2012, there was a high rate of attrition, particularly with blisters. this was due to very cold weather freezing the rutted muddy ground. The thinner soles of some trail running shoes gave little cushioning and support in these ankle-turning conditions. Also the cold exacerbated immersion injuries by restricting blood circulation to the extremities.
 
SPINE & CHALLENGER GENERAL COMMENTS
Changes of socks featured in many comments as did whether GoreTex linings in footwear were beneficial, or not.
 
One idea promoted was: Injinis Socks + Seal Skins + water repellent foot balm. 
 
Several racers said they would not choose GoreTex lined footwear again as it seemed to retain moisture and their feet stayed wet, causing blisters. Many of these racers were wearing low sided footwear, which (without a gaiter) would not be good at keeping out the mud. Solutions offered were to use a GoreTex sock but not a GoreTex shoe.
 
Another respondent regularly changed his socks in order to "reset the immersion clock".
 
Keeping water out of footwear is a major consideration. Given the British winter climate and the increasing popularity of ultra-trail races, it is surprising that there are not more commonly available boot-trainer hybrids or trail running shoes with built in gaiters.
 
Grip has been a sore topic for some racers as each year we have seen retirements due to slips, trips and falls. The single most common cause is on the stone slabs which have been laid along much of the Pennine Way to prevent erosion of paths. When the stone is freshly cut and laid it offers good grip, but as soon as it becomes wet and slimy, or covered in frost/ice they are treacherously slippery. One respondent said Salomon XA Pro offered him no traction on this surface. Another advocated putting Yak Track spikes on for the slabby sections.
 
SUMMARY
In summary we can see general trends and approaches which differentiate the footwear systems employed for the Challenger and Spine Races. Many racers have used conventional trail running footwear with great success and remain happy with their choice. Others, would now consider using lightweight boots, either from the start, or much earlier in the race. It is perhaps no huge revelation that many Spiners are already doing this. What is important, is that whatever footwear strategy you (as a Challenger or Spiner) choose, it is thoroughly tried and tested by you (within the limits of safety around bogs and other water courses etc) well before the race itself.
 
Footwear is one element to consider in your preparation and build-up to a successful 2015 Spine / Challenger campaign.

FURTHER SPINE/CHALLENGER RACE SPECIFIC TRAINING
Through Ranger Expeditions, I offer navigation, hill and race skills as 1:1, team and group training courses with specific focus on The Spine & Spine Challenger races (skills which are also highly relevant to other ultra-trail races too). 
 
We also deliver the very popular Pre-Spine Masterclass, the day before the race start in January.
 
From my work on the Spine Mountain & Medic Safety team, knowledge of the Pennine Way, expedition leadership and journeying in remote environments (including traversing the infamous Bigo Bogs in the Uganda Rwenzori jungle - descriptively named in the best African traditions: bigo because its big, and bog, well there was an awful lot of that too) and competitive events background, I have developed a complete racer approach to training and racing strategies. 

 


This approach encourages athletes to look at all aspects of their skills, routines and strategies. 
As with the training we offer, the focus is on what works best for the individual, using strengths to the best possible effect but not losing sight of the need to develop weaker skills, sharing knowledge so that racers can take complete ownership of their performance, which in itself can feel like a huge positive step forwards.
 
This is particularly important with races like the Spine & Challenger, as many incredibly accomplished ultra runners have been de-railed by just one or two shortfalls in the hill skills necessary to thrive and finish these demanding events.
 
Our focus is always on you, building confidence and solid ability in skills so that you can safely and competently go forwards with your own independent racing and mountainous adventures. Our courses include plenty of opportunities for practice and discussion with a firm emphasis upon enjoyment. 
 
Whatever your background, or current ability, Ranger Expeditions can help with your Spine/Challenger training needs.
 
Stu Westfield
Ranger Expeditions / Spine Mountain & Medic Safety Team











Tel: 07890 620274
Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
www.rangerexped.co.uk
 

 
 
 
 
 






Written by Andy DuBois - http://www.mile27.com.au

The long run is obviously the most important training session of the week for an ultra runner but how long should it be?

I was initially of the opinion that longer was better but after building up to a long run of 75km before my first ultra and dying big time in the race I re-evaluated my ideas.

For my second race my longest run was only 45k and it was run at a much slower pace than my previous long runs. This was a resounding success as I was still running strong with 95 miles of running in my legs.

Why the big difference and why did running less ks at a slower speed in long training runs result in me running more ks at a faster speed during the race?

Whilst you may read about some of the pro’s putting in 8 hour training days on a regular basis the majority of us haven’t got the time to do this or the bodies that could handle that kind of training so we need to be a bit smarter about how we go about it. The often quoted rule when training for marathon is if you can do 30-35k in training then you can do 42k come race day. Using the same percentages for an ultra would have you running 70+k run for a 100k race or a 120k+ for a 100mile race. Clearly not a realistic goal.

So what is the ideal distance?

Unfortunately there is no best answer for this as it depends on a number of variables including the amount of ascent descent covered in the run, the speed you run at, the terrain you run on, what your body can handle, the recovery time necessary after a long run and the amount of training you have done for the rest of the week. Manipulating these variables to discover the optimum long run distance for you is more art than science but there are several guidelines you can apply.

1. Recovery Time

The longer the run the more recovery time you’ll need. There is a point of diminishing returns where the longer your run the more days recovery you will need. This obviously impacts training for that week. If you need any more than a days rest before you can run again then I feel your long run is too long (or you are running it too fast)

2. Intensity

A common mistake for runners making the jump from marathons to ultras is to continue to run their long runs at the same pace. This is fine if you are training for a 50k but if you are training for 100k or more then you need to slow down. Your long run should feel easier than the long runs you did training for a marathon. Running your long run faster is not necessarily better. The aim of the long run is to build endurance by improving the bodies ability to burn fat, increase capillary density and mitochondria in the muscles. The faster you run the less fat you burn so the less stimulus there is to improve your fat burning ability. the faster you run the more damage you will do to your muscles which can affect the rest of the weeks training.

3. Terrain

Your long run should be done on similar terrain to your race. You can’t expect to cope with running 100k with 5000m of ascent descent if your long runs are 40k and covering 500 m elevation change. A good aim is to work at increasing the elevation change per km to the same as expected in the race. Ie if the race has 5000m in 100k then that’s 500m per 10k. You should aim to gradually increase the elevation change so that you get to approx 1500-2000m for 30-40km.

You can also use this principle based on time rather than distance. Ie If you are hoping to run 100k with 5000m of elevation change in 20 hours then that’s 250 metres per hour so a 4 hour run should have at least 1000m of ascent descent.

If your race is on technical trails then it makes sense that your long run isnt done on road or gentle fire tracks and vice versa – train specifically for the course.

20130319-091350.jpg

Photo by Stefica Key

5. Back to back or single long run?

Running back to back suits many runners better than a single long run. Covering 50-70km in 24 hours is a lot less stressful on the body than covering the same distance in 12 hours. So for example running 25-35k on Friday afternoon followed by 25-35k Saturday morning would place less stress on the body than running 50-70k non stop on Saturday.

The one proviso for this is that you don’t run any harder just because you are doing only 25-35 compared to 60. When you set out Friday afternoon tell yourself you are running 60k and adjust your pace accordingly. When you stop after 25-30k you should feel comfortable and not be exhausted.

Another way to use back to backs is to do a shorter but higher intensity run the day before the long run to get you used to running long on already fatigued legs.

6. Walking in your Long Run

Too many runners think that walking is a sign of weakness , after all if you are a runner isn’t walking cheating? However in an ultra – particularly a trail ultra almost everyone walks some of it. So you may as week practise it. Walking in your long run also allows you to cover more mileage with less risk of injury . For example running 40km non stop will put a lot more load on your legs compared to running 50k but broken up into a 5k run 1k walk. For more info on how to improving your walking during an ultra have a look here

7. The really long run

Once or twice before your main race I think it’s worth spending a weekend getting one or two long days on your feet. Before all the successful 100milers I have done I have spent a weekend around 4-5 weeks before the race covering 120-160km in a period of 2-3 days. As I compete in trail races this is all done in trails and includes a fair bit of walking. I have found that although I generally need 2-3 days off after this the benefits gained outweigh the lost days training. The pace for these should be very very easy and the goal is more to spend 8+ hours on your feet for a couple of days rather than trying to run a certain pace. It’s also a great chance to test out your nutrition strategy and race gear. Depending on what your weekly mileage is and how long your long run is will govern how much you run and how much you walk.

8. Injury Prevention

Always remember the more you run in a fatigued state the more susceptible to injuries you will be. The length of your run should always be moderated by what your body can handle and what it can recover from. Keep in mind that some injuries such as tendon injuries are cumulative so whilst you may feel ok after one long run, a month later you are in pain. Progress slowly and always err on the side of caution.

So why did a much shorter run at a slower pace give me far greater training benefit than a longer run?

That 45k run was run over 6 hours and included well over 2500m of ascent and descent. It was preceded by a 30k run the night before which also included nothing but hill reps. I recovered well enough from this to hit the track two days later and clock up some respectable 1 mile repeats (sub 5.30). Previously the long run built up to a point that I would need at least 3 days to recover from. Being able to back up from long runs and run at speed a few days later made a massive difference to my endurance at the back end of a 100 mile race.

Thats not to say this is the best option for you. This worked for me when I was training for UTMB with the massive amount of ascent and descent but for less hilly 100 mile races I have trained differently.

By considering all the variables and listening to your body you should be able to find the optimal distance for your long run.

Written by Stu Westfield - http://stuwestfield.blogspot.co.uk

A few weeks ago, I posted a picture taken at the start of The Spine Race 2013 with the text line:
"Spine Race Legends 2013 - In 2014 we'll be making some more..."

 
But even the Spine Organisation and Staff could not have dreamed the stories of personal achievement, from the first to last man home, that would emerge from 2014.
 
Who could have foreseen the relentless tenacity shown by Czech athlete Pavel Paloncy, bursting onto the UK Ultra scene and smashing last years 268 mile course record by an jaw dropping 14 hours! Or, Marcus Scotney's successful Challenger mission, nailing the course record by just over 3 hours in a textbook performance.
 
 
Further down the field we had several Spiners returning after previous DNFs...
Jon Zeffert coming back for a 3rd attempt, thank God you did it this time Jon! 
(More from Jon later). 
 
Plus a 3rd Spine finish by Gary Morrison & 2nd Spine finish (to add to his 2012 Challenger finish) by Mark Caldwell. Seeing these two old Spine warhorses crossing the finish line together was, well...you had to be there. 
 
Then of course, David Lee, having been holed up in the first refuge hut in 2012, showing abundance of SMJ (sound mountaineering judgement) towards his fellow racers during epic blizzard conditions, returned this year to lay the ghost to rest with a superb finish.
 
But, I'm getting carried away with so many inspiring stories. Back on topic...
 
When Eugeni proudly carried the Catalan flag to the finish last year, we were all in awe and agreement that his time of 5 days and 4 hours might remain unassailable for several years. However as 2013 progressed I began to think differently, mainly as a consequence of the navigation and hill skills training courses I was offering Spiners. Looking at Eugeni's primary navigation method (GPS) and the resultant tracklog following error caused by sideways drifting and correction, I calculated he could better his time by at least 6 hours with no extra expenditure of energy.
 
Seeing a tracklog of a Spiner's reccie on Crossfell later in the year added further evidence
to my theory...
 

 

 
This inspired a curiosity to widen the scope of inquiry to analyse all the elements required of a competitor to firstly, make it to the finish and secondly, how to do this with the maximum possible efficiency. The answers to these questions were clear for anyone to see, one simply had to look at the previous editions of The Spine to see what worked for whom and why. 
 
My aim was not to find a "one-size-fits-all how to crack the Spine Race formula". Rather to seek out those methods, techniques and ideas which could be used in combination to help individual Spiners build a 'complete racer' armoury of skills which suited their personal physiology, ambition and capability.
 
I was also interested in why The Spine appeared to sythe through the ranks of talented and big name ultra runners with no respect for previous ability. What I found was that many competitors who would class themselves as an 'ultra racer' had shortfalls in navigational awareness and winter weather hill skills. Perhaps many have become used to way-marked courses or events in more temperate conditions. 
 
2012 Spine finisher Richard Lendon wrote an excellent blog on his comparison of the Spine Race with the Marathon Des Sables (which he also completed in 2012). Given that the MdS is still spoken of as the hardest footrace on earth, Richard's first hand assessment that The Spine is harder should serve as fair warning to the under-prepared.
 
Lets put the environmental factors into context. The United Kingdom has one of the highest lapse rates on earth. (approx 1 degree C drop per 100m in height). This extreme rate of temperature drop with altitude and is due to our wet maritime climate. It is why on a British hill, which is so small in comparison to the Alps (where the montaine air is dry) people can get into hypothermic difficulties very quickly.
 
A brief word on course reccies. It could be said that 2013 was the year of the course reccie. Many racers spent lots of hours on the Pennine Way. I would not argue against this from a hill fitness perspective. But, many of the racers who reccied the trail did not finish the Spine. I believe the reasons for this are as follows: A spring, summer or autumn reccie does not effectively simulate winter conditions. Also I would question the usefulness of a reccie if the terrain will be covered at night time during the race. So by all means use reccies to help with fitness and familiarisation on a few sections of the course, but also combine an element of skills learning or practice with the exercise. Eg night nav, efficient putting up of tent in strong wind or cooking a meal.
 
The Spine is no ordinary ultra, it is a race which requires expedition skills, a high degree of self management and a calm, sorted mindset. From this I developed (through Ranger Expeditions) the pre-race Spine Masterclass event, which this year took the theme of 'The Complete Racer'.
 
Eleven Spiner's and Challengers joined us on the Friday afternoon before the race. This was not the time to suggest big changes to strategy, rather we offered a confidence building session, with plenty of small hints, tips and course specific navigation advice the sum of which all added to big savings in energy expenditure. Enabling racers to maximise their potential and journey further than would otherwise have been possible.
 

 

I promised I would return to Jon's story.
Jon's ultra running achievements and athletic ability is beyond question. Following his two Spine DNFs, he had the self-awareness to recognise that he needed to acquire expedition and navigation skills to achieve his much sought after finish. I provided 1:1 training and mentoring in terrain which posed the same navigational challenges that are encountered on the Spine. We also included a night nav session in dense woodland to simulate the forests around Bellingham (CP5), which have a certain reputation for contributing to off-course errors.
 
Once Jon had a couple of days to reflect on his achievement, I asked him what was different about 2014. His answer is illuminating to all potential Spiners...
 
"I just had the absolute belief that I was going to finish this year and wasn't going to let anything stop me. On a practical level we started really slowly and slept in 90 minute cycles making sure we ate every 30 minutes. I made sure I didn't get sucked into other people races, by day 3 we had caught a lot of people who went off quickly. Physically there was never a point where I felt I couldn't carry on and I had put in a solid year of training. We only made one real nav error on the last day, so being confident in night nav was a big difference from last year."
 
 
This year's Spine Mountain Safety Team comprised of:
Joe Faulkner and Stu Smith (from Nav 4 Adventure)
John Bamber, Paul Shorrock and Mist SAR dog, looking after racers in their famous style at Greg's Hut on Crossfell, CP1.5 Malham Tarn and various other road heads.
Aspirant mountain leader Ben Taylor was without doubt the find of the week. His combination of enthusiasm and solid hill skills made him an instantly a valued member of the team. Having seen him at work on the mountains, I am convinced he will make an excellent leader.
And myself Stu Westfield plus Peter Lowton (Ranger Expedtions).
We were joined and ably assisted at various stages on the hill by returning Spiners and members of Anna Kropelnicki's highly professional Dr & The Medics Team.
 
Joe and I first worked together in the 2013 Spine where we (along with other members of the M&Ms (Mountain & Medics Safety Team) ran an excellent Checkpoint 5 at Bellingham. A day later we took turns to break trail through thigh deep snow onto the Cheviot during the infamous blizzard. 
 
This year Joe, Stu, Ben and I, were involved in various mountain action during the race before co-incidence happily saw us again at Checkpoint 5. We arrived to find that Ally and Amanda had done a superb job getting the site set up organised and running slickly. But they had done so at the cost of sleep, so I suggested Joe and I could look after things while they rested. There were a lot of racers due in the coming hours and with our Mountain Leader hats on the machine continued with us calculating projecting arrivals with a range of pace times and doing the same for departures. This information allowed us to deploy road head monitoring staff (enter Andrew Hayes with Shadow the husky and Flip Owen) and then swap them out for rest time and refreshment back at the CP.
 
My mountain duties on The Spine concluded with sweeping back along the Cheviot ridge to check on racers as we passed them. I was joined by Ben, 2013 Spiner Russ Swift and Dr Matt Edwards. We paused to brew up tea, hot soup, cheese and crackers at Auchope Refuge (sadly no port or single malt yet for us on duty). In between banks of hill fog the sky was such a wonderfully clear moonlit night that we navigated without head torches for some of our trek to Mozie Law. Along the way we checked on the the welfare of all the remaining racers, stopping to top up their water, offer some route finding advice,changing their batteries etc.
 
For me, the remarkable fact of the 2014 Spine Race is the number of finishers who arrived at Kirk Yetholm looking so fit and fresh as if they had just gone for a day's bimble in the hills. Their strategy and self-care had worked so well, I'm sure many could have raced onwards for another 100 miles.
 
From the first running in 2012, The Spine Race became an instant classic. But as the race now matures, people are learning more about what it takes to become a Spiner. In the context of the investment a competitor makes (time, money, energy, emotion) the cost of a couple of days race specific navigation & hill skills training with a qualified mountain professional is relatively inexpensive. The benefit of acquiring and refining these skills has proven to make all the difference, not just to Spine performance,  but also to competitiveness in other shorter mountain races such as the Tour de Helvellyn and Fellsman Series.
 
If you're based up in the Lakes District & Northern Pennine Way area, I wholly recommend Joe Faulkner and the guys at Nav 4 Adventure for your navigation and hill skills training needs.
 
If you're around the Peak District or south UK, then join the growing number of racers who have joined a Ranger Expeditions navigation & hill skills course or enjoyed 1:1 training to help them on the road to success in The Spine.
 
 
 
Stu Westfield
Spine Mountain & Medics Safety Team 
Ranger Expeditions 
email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
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