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.

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

With the 2014 Spine Race just over 4 weeks away and Christmas in between, the focus of this weeks blog is selection, use and care of navigational tools, with specific emphasis on the Spine Race itself.

This, of course, is a subjective theme, as many racers will have their own tried, tested and proven systems. In this case it is best to stick with what you know to be successful.

However, from my own observations and experience in the Spine Mountain & Medic (Support) Team, I know there will be Spiners out there who might be wondering which navigational tools will be best for the race, how they work and how to look after them.
In which case, this blog might offer some assistance.


The recommended mapping for the Spine Race is the three 
Harvey 1:40,000 Scale Pennine Way series (South, Central & North).

There are several reasons why this is a good choice:

1) The Pennine Way 'corridor' is laid out as 'strips' on the map sheet, so only the area of travel needed is shown. 
This enables the route to fit onto just three map sheets.
Compare this with Ordnance Survey maps for which you would carry a lot of extra paper.

At 1:25,000 scale: OL1, OL21, OL2, OL30, OL19, OL31, OL43, OL42, OL16 (9 maps)

At 1:50,000 scale: 110, 109, 103, 98, 91,92, 86, 80,74
1:50,000 is a smaller scale than 1:40,000, so we can
readily rule this out.

There may be some merit using small sections of 1:25,000
in areas where navigation is perceived to be difficult, as the extra topographical detail (contours & rocky features etc) may be of help in more efficient route finding.

it is true some navigators do not get along with the Harvey maps. The scale takes a little getting used to (2.5 cm on map = 1km) as do the contour intervals of 15 metres, which when tired is not so easy to add up as the 10 metre contour intervals shown on OS maps.
To get over this: If you need to scale a short distance use the scale or romer on your compass base plate (we shall return to this later). If you need to find out how much ascent/descent there is on hilly ground, count the thicker 'register' contours which are at 75 metre intervals (eg 3 register contours x 75m = at least 225m, but not more than 300m).

2) Harvey maps concentrate on features readily identifiable to walkers, i.e. unlike Ordnance Survey maps, features not actually on the ground such as parish boundaries [which are sometimes confused with rights of way] are omitted.

3) The Harvey maps show the Pennine Way in red, this varies from dots to a solid line depending upon the ease of route following (i.e. dots = no visible path, solid line = road).

UPDATE Feb 2014, newly available mapping at 1:25 000 scale:
For those who prefer 1:25 000 scale, A to Z have recently published in booklet form Pennine Way, North & South. 
A to Z have used Ordnance Survey mapping, creating a corridor of 2 to 3 km either side of the Pennine Way. 
The booklets are 26cm x 24cm when opened, so are convenient for map cases, which you will need as one downside is that they are not waterproof!
Efficient positioning of the map 'corridor' means weight is not really an issue in comparison with the Harvey series.
Additionally, there is a useful route-planning section at the end of each booklet, indicating distances, locations of restaurants, cafes etc. Theres also a conventional index with places given a page & AtoZ style grid locator as well as a Ordnance Survey 6 figure grid reference.
With the arrival of the AtoZ option, there is a useful and practical choice of mapping available for Spine Racers.


Two questions arise here: One compass or two? And what features should I look for on a compass?

Starting with the the first: I always carry two compasses when navigating in the mountains.
The reason for this was learnt the hard way when I once lost my compass on a snowy winter mountain day in the Lake District (despite me thinking it was physically tied onto the chest zip of my salopettes). I had a GPS as backup, but the problem with this was that you need to be actually moving for the GPS compass function to work properly. I wanted to stand still and plot my direction of travel but my equipment was forcing me to move in order to obtain a bearing. 
That day I fully appreciated how important is the ability to: Stop Think Orientate & Plan.

Ok so next, what type of compass?
Navigation on the Pennine Way varies from easily following signs to complete absence of path in places. Add to this a covering of snow and you are into challenging expedition route finding.
Hence, I would go for a small, lightweight, orienteering style/thumb compass for the straightforwards journeying sections.

For the more challenging stuff, I would switch to using a conventional walkers compass.
I find the Silva Expedition 4 a particularly good and versatile choice, it has:
A baseplate large enough for easier use when wearing gloves.
Smooth moving and fast settling direction needle.
Fluorescent markings for night navigation.
Romer scales for 1:40,000 1:50,000 & 1:25,000 maps. 
(Romers take all the work and estimation out of giving a 6 Figure Grid Reference. They are also very useful for directly scaling short distances on the map without the need for conversion.) 

There are lots of other compasses out there and I'm not sponsored by Silva, so there's no vested interest in my suggestions.
Note: Before you go and buy an Expedition 4 you need to be sure of two things:
1) It is the civilian version (i.e. 0 - 360 degrees on the compass bezel, not MILs)
2) It is the modern version with 1:40,000 romer. The old version has 1:63360 inches scale.


I often hear and read comments such as "this/that compass is rubbish" (or substitute more colourful language in the appropriate place). However, before blaming poor quality manufacturing, we must also look at how the compass has been used and stored. For example:

1) Has the compass been stored next to another magnetic source. It doesn't take a stack of guitar hero Marshall speakers to ruin the magnetism or polarity of a compass. 
The speakers in the footwell of your car also have adequate potential to do this. 
Reversal of needle polarity (so that south points north & north points south) could also result.

2) Similarly, if you try to use the compass whilst under electricity pylons, this might affect accuracy. In fact other electrical devices such as mobile phones or your GPS could do the same if too close to the compass (eg in the chest pocket).

3) Metal bracelets, metal belt buckles and metal underwired bra's have could influence the compass needle (I have not tried the last one!). So when using the compass, hold it away from your body.

4) Less frequently seen, a compass needle which does not 'settle' might be affected by magnetism of underlying rocks. Although more likely is that the needle has become de-magnitised so some extent. The compass needle is a magnet and magnets do not like being dropped or banged about (memories of secondary school science lessons here).

I have a fabric sleeve which slips over my compass when I'm not using it. This also helps prevent the base plate becoming scratched and opaque. 

4) It helps to think of the compass as a precision instrument which will reward the user with accuracy and longevity. But if your compass is the same one you had when you did your bronze DofE award with the scouts, then it might be time to retire the old workhorse and buy a new one.


A wristwatch should also be included in your navigational tools. Estimating the time for a navigation leg is an important factor in determining your progress along that leg, or indeed whether you have gone too far.

Your watch doesn't need to be anything flash...like one of those nice (but expensive) Suunto's.
It just needs to be reliable, waterproof and have numbers or hands which light up. This last feature is desirable so that during fading dusky evenings or moonlit nights you don't need to ruin your night vision by switching on the head torch before you need to (for this reason ex-military guys are very keen on head torches which also have a red-light function).


GPS is on the Spine Race compulsary kit list. The times I find a GPS most useful is for quick position relocation using the grid reference screen. Mostly my GPS is switched off and kept in the top of my rucksack.

For me, by using a map and compass I am observing and connecting with the environment, which enhances my enjoyment of journeying. Simply following a GPS tracklog would distance me from this experience and lessen my pleasure in being outdoors.

But following a tracklog at night or white out, with no actual path or other visual reference features is not an efficient strategy. There are varying position triangulation inaccuracies depending upon satellite availability and overhead tree canopy. Also consider what the the actual tracklog on the GPS screen represents in real life...it could be 50 metres wide or more!
Therefore to register off-track the actual route taken can and does weave from side to side, thus wasting time and energy. 

But don't just take my word for it, here's a tracklog following error experienced by a Spiner on a recent reccie...

Hence, my GPS unit is one of the most basic and inexpensive. It is the older version of a Garmin E-trex10. At the other end of the scale it is possible to spend a small fortune on the latest units and mapping packages. 


A budget compromise might be to consider the Garmin E-trex 20
It is essentially similar to the basic model, but with the additional option to download maps (at extra cost) and a colour screen.


For Spine Race conditions I would seriously recommend additional waterproofing, no matter what the manufacturers claims are in this regard. In the 2013 Spine several GPS units completely failed due to water and condensation ingress, at times and in circumstances when they were most needed!

There are some good transparent weather proof bags available inside which mobile phones and GPS units can be both stored and used. It would not hurt to also add a sachet of silica gel to soak up condensation build up within the bag...as the unit will be transferred from cold/cold &wet outdoor conditions to warm indoors and back outside again, several times during the race.


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

If you are training for a 100k or 100 mile race is there any point including speed sessions in your training? When the winning time in most of these races is slower than 5 minutes per kilometer you may think not. If the fastest runners are running that slow then surely speed is the least of your concerns?

Whilst that may intuitively make sense I believe there are a number of very good reasons that all runners should include speed work in their training even if the race is 100 miles long.

1. Increase Your Maximal Aerobic Capacity

Often referred to as your VO2max your maximal aerobic capacity is a measure of the maximum amount of oxygen your body can utilise during intense or maximal exercise. Elite endurance athletes have very high values , Kilian Jornet ( course record holder and multiple winner of the UTMB) is reported to have a VO2 max of 92.

An easy way to understand the benefits of a high VO2max is to think of it in terms of a cars maximum speed. If your cars maximum speed is 200km/hr then cruising at 100km/hr is going to put little stress on the engine. Whereas if the maximum speed is 110km/hr then cruising at 100 is going to have the car almost at its limit. ( Whilst this analogy is dependant on a few other factors as well as VO2max it does hopefully illustrate the point)

There is a large genetic component of VO2 max and it is believed you can only improve this figure by 10-30% (although improvements up to 60% have been measured) . Whilst this may not seem like much it can make a big difference to your aerobic running speed . The most effective means of increasing this is through high intensity interval training (HIIT)

As we age our VO2 max starts to decrease for a number of reasons so including some HIIT in your program will help stop the decline of your maximal aerobic fitness.

2. Improve Your Ability To Use Lactate

Lactic acid is the bad guy in running but research is showing that it’s really a good guy in disguise. The body can be trained to take the lactate part of lactic acid and use it for energy. High intensity workouts can teach your body how to utilise lactic acid as a fuel source. This allows you to exercise at a higher intensity for longer or recover quicker from a period of higher intensity work like climbing a hill.

3. Increase Your Aerobic Pace

The pace at which you can run a marathon at is dependant to a large degree on how fast you can run a half marathon. If your half marathon PB is 1.30 then you aren’t going to break 3 hours in a marathon.

Elite marathon runners know that if they can’t run 10km in under 28 then they have no chance of running a marathon in under 2.08.

There is a similar rational for ultrarunners. Being able to run shorter distances faster means that you should be able to run slower for longer.

Someone who can run 10k in 35 minutes will find running at 5 min k pace very comfortable whereas someone whose 10k time is 45 minutes will find it harder to maintain 5 min k pace.

Any type of training that can improve your speed at shorter distances will help your speed at longer distances (provided you do a suitable amount of endurance training as well).

3. Improve Your Dynamic Flexibility

Running at a faster pace means your muscles go through a greater range of movement than running at a slow pace. Running lots of miles at a slow pace means your muscles will adapt to the reduced range of movement. The problem in an ultra is as we tire our muscles tighten up, further restricting our range. This results is your running reverting to a shuffle and then eventual walk. Having a greater range of movement means that as your legs tighten you are still able to run effectively.

4. Improve Your Running Economy

Running economy is a measure of how much oxygen you use to run a certain pace. The more economical you are the less oxygen you will use. Economy is independent from VO2 max. Two runners with the same VO2max may have different running economies which means the more economical runner will find it easier at a certain pace than the other runner.

Factors influencing running economy range from the ability of your body to utilise elastic energy, your biomechanics, and the neuromuscular and biochemical process that occur in your body during exercise. Speed training has been shown to improve all of these factors.

5. Force Your Body To Adapt.

Training is based on the overload principle. Apply more stress on the body than it is used to and it becomes stronger thus better able to withstand the stress next time. Too much stress of course will just lead to injuries. If we are running at a slow pace then the only way to overload the body is to run further. This obviously has its limitations. Most of us have a limited amount of time available for a long run and the longer the run the more recovery time we will need. For example you may be able to recover from a 30km run in a day, 40 km in 2 days but after 60 km you may need 3-4 days off. Are the benefits gained from a 60k run worth having 3-4 days off?

Speed training allows us to overload our bodies in a short period of time and because the volume of training is low recovery is quicker.

Are These Factors Relevant In Ultrarunning?

For most ultras the key is to set off at a pace that feels very comfortable and try and hold that for as long as possible and then hope you don’t slow down too much in the later stages.

What defines your comfortable pace ? A combination of your running economy , VO2 max, biomechanics and neuromuscular and biochemical processes all of which can be improved by speed training.

Other Advantages Of Speed Training

Learning to run when your legs are tired is an important part of training for an ultra. There are a few ways to fatigue your legs, one is to run for a long time and the other is to run faster. Doing a long run the day after a speed session is a great way to train your legs to run when tired.

A one hour speed session can be as useful as a 2-3 hour run. Whilst ultrarunners obviously need to incorporate some long runs into their program speed training provides a time efficient means of boosting performance.

Can Marathon and Half-marathons Be Counted As Speed Training?

I often hear ultrarunners talking about how they did a marathon on the weekend and counted it as their “speed” session. Whilst they might have run the marathon at a significantly faster pace than an ultramarathon, a marathon cant be considered speed work as it doesnt stress the body in the same way that speed work does. Yes it may place a large stress on the muscles but for most of us our lactate levels, oxygen consumption and heart rate is nowhere near high enough to stimulate the same training adaptations that speed work does.

The Risks Of Speed Training

If you arent used to running fast then heading out to the track and running 400m repeats is a sure way to injure yourself. Just like it is necessary to build up your mileage slowly it is also necessary to gradually increase your speed work. For runners not used to speed work fartlek training is the best way to introduce some into your training schedule. Simply include some faster paced efforts randomly during a normal run. These efforts may be as short as 100 metres or as long as mile. They are not all out efforts, merely faster than your normal pace. As your body adapts you can increase the speed and number of efforts.

What Kind Of Speed Training Is Best For Ultra Runners?

There is no one size fits all training approach as each individual responds differently to different training sessions. What works for one may not work for another. There are a wide variety of speed training sessions you can do ranging from 100m uphill bounds to hour long Tempo runs. Future blogs will go detail how to do some of the more common sessions ultra runners should include in their training routine.

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

As you may have guessed from a previous blog on speed training for ultrarunners you’ll know I’m a big fan of speed training and tempo running is a great speed workout. But what is a tempo run?

A bit of research on the internet shows that a tempo run can be simply defined as a 20 minute run at threshold pace which is 25-30 seconds per mile slower than current 5k pace or a run at 90 % of your maximum heart rate. Of course if you feel 90% is too hard then 75-85 % of max heart rate is also tempo intensity as is a run of 20-25 minutes in duration at between 10k and 15k race pace.If you are very fit it’s your 15-21k pace. It can also be defined as 70-80% of your aerobic capacity or a run of 20-25 minutes at 20-25 seconds per mile slower than your 5k pace or 40-45 minutes at 15-20 seconds slower than your 10k pace. The fastest pace you can manage for an hour is another common way of describing tempo intensity.

Just in case you didn’t quite follow me there, it’s a 20-60 minute run of between 75-90% of your max heart rate or at a pace somewhere between your 10-21k race pace

So to that’s pretty straight forward then, not much confusion on that issue!

Why is there such a big discrepancy on what the experts recommend as a tempo run?

Problems with defining tempo running

Most scientists and coaches definition of a tempo run is a run at just below your anaerobic threshold pace but the definition of anaerobic threshold isn’t as clear cut as you may think. Some say its the point where your body can no longer clear the lactate being produced in your muscles as fast as your body is producing it and therefore it starts to build up, others says its the point where respiratory rate increases without a matching increase in oxygen intake, others use a figure of blood lactate of 4mmol

The problem is that whilst we’d like to be able to define exactly how fast, far and at what heart rate a tempo run should be done researchers are even questioning whether a definitive point or threshold even exists. Some argue that blood lactate accumulates continuously and no specific threshold can be determined.

Whether it exists or not (and I believe it may exist in some people and not in others) both science and runners agree that training just under this supposed threshold does improve running performance significantly, particularly for races 15k to 42km.

But with no consensus on exactly what anaerobic threshold is and if it exists and no agreement on the ideal tempo intensity or distance how can we determine the most effective tempo run for us and is it a worthwhile training session for an ultrarunner

Why ultrarunners should include Tempo running

For ultra runners tempo pace (however you define it) will be quicker than race pace. However there are still substantial benefits to be had from doing tempo sessions. As I have argued in the speed training for ultra runners blog, if you can improve your pace at shorter distances then you have the potential to improve your pace at longer distances

For example if your marathon pace improves from 5 min ks to 4.30 minute ks then running at 5.30 minute k pace will seem very comfortable.

Its no coincidence that the majority of the winners of ultra races are also very credible marathon runners, often sub 2.30.

If we agree that tempo running is beneficial for ultrarunners then the next step is working out what a tempo run actually is and how best to use them in your training.

Tempo running for an ultrarunner

The fact that there is no consensus on tempo runs implies that the correct pace, distance and speed will be specific to the individual and the race the individual is training for.

When looking at any training run we should always have an understanding of the purpose of a particular training session. How do we want the body to respond?

For an ultrarunner two of the most important training effects are an increase in sustainable aerobic running pace (in terms of both speed and duration) and an increase in strength endurance to handle the repetitive loading on the legs that occurs during an ultra.

For this to happen we obviously need to run at a speed close to our supposed threshold to stimulate the body to respond by pushing that threshold up but also run for long enough to cause enough damage to the legs to force the body to respond by increasing strength endurance.

Pure speed training is great for speed but the load on the legs will be less since you are covering far less ground.Long runs do put a reasonable amount of load through the legs if they are long enough but most of us cant run long more than once a week so tempo running is an ideal mid week training run that develops both speed and strength endurance in the legs.

Tempo runs have a good balance of speed and duration that can help us develop both speed and resistance to fatigue.

With this in mind I would argue that shorter tempo runs of 15-20 minutes have limited value for ultra runners (except as a means of progressing to longer runs) as the time is not sufficient to place a significant load on the legs.

I believe that starting with 2-3 efforts of 15 minutes and then as your mileage and fitness increase build the time up to 90 minutes. One of my favourite tempo runs is 2 x 45 minutes hard with a 10 min jog in between. Keep in mind the pace for the hard sections will be slower than half marathon pace and probably very close to your marathon pace.

Strictly speaking 90 minutes isn’t a tempo run but I believe what you lose in running at a slower pace you gain from the extra load on the legs involved in running relatively fast for 90 minutes.

How fast should a tempo run be?

The fastest pace you can maintain for the specified time. If you can’t maintain the same pace for the whole run then it’s too fast. If you use a heart rate monitor it will be somewhere between 80-90% but will vary depending on a number of factors including fitness, fatigue levels and the weather so don’t be a slave to a number on your watch. Go with how you feel.

Running out and back courses are a great way to determine if you are pacing your runs correctly. Eg if you run out for 10 minutes then turn and run back to the start in 10 minutes then your pacing was good. If you made it back with time to spare you started too slow if you made it back in more than 10 minutes you started too fast.

How often should you include a tempo run in your training?

This will depend on how long your tempo run is. Anything lasting an hour or less can be done weekly (depending on your other training of course). Longer runs like the one I mentioned above are very demanding and are best done once every 2-3 weeks.

Written by Chris Baynham-Hughes - http://baynham-hughes.com

I regularly find myself having to explain what a mountain marathon is so I figured there must be loads of people out there missing out on what I see as the best type of event out there. I’m pretty late coming to this sport myself and I’m by no means an expert, but it is hands down my favourite.

Let me know what you think, if I’ve missed anything, if you have any questions, if I have anything wrong, etc.

Note: There is a Glossary at the bottom for terms I reckon may cause confusion. I’ve tried to make them in italics.

So it’s like running a marathon in the mountains right?

Errr, no. Contrary to the title it’s actually a cross between Fell racing, Orienteering and ultra running (in time rather than distance); oh, and there is an overnight camp involved too which you need to be self sufficient for. Confused? Let me try again…

The event has various different formats (described below) but they are essentially a variation on this theme: You have to travel (run, walk, crawl, slide) across open fell land to find controls and place your dibber in to record that you’ve been there. Another way of looking at it is a long distance Orienteering event held over open fell land.

However you look at it, it is a genuine test of mountain skills.

What are the different formats available?


Traditionally a two day affair, event organisers have sought to recreate the same magic in other ways, here are the available options:

  • Full Mountain Marathon – a two day event, times will vary by course and competence (see below).
  • Overnight Mountain Marathon – 1-2 days worth of fun squeezed into a single night; e.g., Dark Mountains
  • Mini Mountain Marathon – typically 4 hours in duration; e.g., RAB Mini Mountain Marathons
  • Mixed discipline – Cross between Adventure racing  and the MM really; e.g., Haglöfs Open5 – 5 hours to do the same thing, but there is a running and a bike course, you split your time how you like

It takes two baby… well, most of the time

The standard format is for mountain marathon’s to be competed in pairs; this is less common on the shortened versions. The pair must stay together and are jointly responsible for kit (although must be carrying enough personal kit to be safe too – see ‘Kit lists’ below). Few mountain marathon’s offer a solo class, most notable are the Saunders Lakeland Mountain Marathon (SLMM) which now has two solo classes and the RAB (see ‘Events’ below)


It varies, but rough open fell land is the general order of the day. You can be lucky enough to experience bogs, babies head sized tussocks, heather, mud, technical rocky ground, sheep trods, foot paths, bridle paths and even the odd bit of tarmac (but only to link fells together). In short it has everything, just not necessarily all in the same day/ weekend. Some MMs distinguish themselves by having courses with lots of steep and big climbs, so take your pick!


Linear Courses

As competitors cross the line they are given a map and a control sheet. The control sheet has the grid reference of all the controls they must visit and a description for each one. On a Linear course the boxes must be visited in order. The fastest to visit the boxes in order is the winner. Competitors decide their own route between the boxes.

There are different lengths of course available to accommodate different abilities; this makes the sport very accessible.

Non-Linear Courses

Fixed control courses – I’ve made this name up, but it is where competitors cross the start line and are given a map and a control sheet; they can visit the boxes in any order, but they must visit all of them. The primary example here is the Klets’ solo class at the SLMM. Selecting the most efficient order to collect the controls in is essential to a good placing (as I have found to my peril).

Score Class – Competitors cross the start line and are given a map and a control sheet. Most of the time the map is marked with the box locations, but the control sheet states which ones are open, the control description and how many points each box is worth (between 5 to 40).

Competitors have a set amount of time and can visit the boxes in any order they wish to. Competitors must make it to the finish within the time period allotted or they face a penalty; i.e., for every minute they are late they lose points. If you’re half an hour late then you lose everything. So you’ve just trashed yourself for a day out on the fells and have nothing to show for it. It happens to the best out there too, it’s not just an amateur’s mistake!

In general there are two types of Score Class: long and short. Long tends to be 7 hours for day one and 6 hours for day two with the short score being an hour less each day.

Other considerations:

The different formats bring different challenges. Linear courses ensure that everybody irrespective of experience knows exactly where they should go next, it takes out a lot of the tactical thought and it is more about covering the distance quickest. On a clear day though it can lead to long snakes of people heading to the next check point and the necessity for sharp navigation is removed. This is a big shame as that is a key part of the test.

The Score class is deliciously tactical and top competitors are capable of assessing the location of the boxes, the quickest line and how much they can run within the time limit over the ground presented to them. Equally at the other end you have people walking so they are also very inclusive as people compete at all ages from 14 – 80+. The other bonus on a score class is everybody is running in different directions, so there are fewer ‘snakes’ appearing to lead you to the boxes. The Score class also has the jeopardy of the clock and the prospect of losing all the points you toiled for.


All full length MM formats involve and overnight camp. At the end of each day competitors head to Download to and get a print out of their day. It not only shows the timings and each control visited, but it also allows the organisers to know people are off the course and to give the competitive standings at the end of each day. Competitors then pitch up for the night, refuel, recover, chill out and socialise (if the midges allow!) This of course means that competitors must carry all their kit to camp; this is also true for the one night format (Dark Mountains), but not the mini mountain marathons.

Some MMs provide an option to purchase beers and milk for the overnight camp – I think this says a lot for the relaxed atmosphere of the events as well as a nod to the fell running culture. How do you tell the fell runners from the Orienteers? The fell runners are drinking beer and the Orienteers are complaining that the control point was two metres out of position. Oh yes, that’s a MM geek’s joke right there!

Food and drink:

Competitors must carry in all their food for the event and carry out all their litter afterwards. With the exception of beer cans and milk cartons bought for the overnight camp. Sadly this means people try to stash their litter in squashed cans, but thankfully the majority don’t.

Naturally it’s up to you what you have for overnight, but food is also a major weight consideration. I heard a story of a very experienced pair who got together and in pre-event discussions one had been assigned the food duties whilst the other was sorting tent, etc. during the event a packet of crisps was passed over along with the advice of “make ‘em last”. Whilst amusing, personally this doesn’t make much sense to me as food is so key to recover for the second day, but people do come up with some ingenious solutions for these events.

Water is collected en route from streams and at the overnight camp there is a water bowser, tap or stream. Overnight camps generally have a stream nearby for washing too.


Ohh what an at-mos-phere, I love a party with a happy … Ahem.. Sorry. The Atmosphere at these events is very relaxed and inclusive. I’ve recently heard people say, “oh, maybe in a few years I could think about trying one of those” but this is so far from reality. My advice would be to give it a go, pick an entry level course – in general there are guide times e.g.,(SLMM http://www.slmm.org.uk/courses/ )but if not have a look at the winners times and the average times for each course to give you an idea of how long you’ll be on your feet; or pick a score class when you can call time out whenever you feel like it.

People are very friendly, it’s done in pairs so it is a pretty safe event and if you do get into trouble others will stop and help you even if it means sacrificing their own race standings – as I said above, it’s a test of all your mountain skills!

Again, as mentioned above, there are usually beers on offer before and even during the event and people from all ages and experiences take part. Naturally at least one of you needs to know their way around a map and compass, but if you don’t see the ‘how do I train?’ section below.

The general feeling of the events is very much like that of a fell race or Orienteering event. It’s inclusive and a bunch of likeminded people – show respect for the mountains, the environment and your fellow competitors and you’ll fit right in. Just in case you’re wondering what that means – don’t litter (you carried it in you carry it out), respect the uncrossable boundaries (marked on the map), don’t climb dry stone walls and fences. In short, leave no trace.

How do I train?

If you can’t navigate or are not confident then I thoroughly recommend you go on a course. There are a number about, the FRA run some from time to time, but the two providers I’d recommend outright are:

Nav4 is run by Joe Faulkner, recently described on Facebook as “The Gandalf of the Mountains” and has forgotten more about practical running navigation than I will ever know. His event CV is more than impressive with success in both adventure racing and long distance fell/ ultra scenes. He organises several ultras and has completed the toughest events out there including both the 1992 and 2012 Dragon’s Back races. Kudos. He’s laid back, clear and is an excellent coach.

Mountain Run is run by Charlie Sproson. I met Charlie on the Dragon’s Back in 2012 and he too is laid back, clear and an excellent coach. He has designed courses for the SLMM, Dark Mountains and this year’s RAB MM which was outstanding and he will certainly give you an insight into the (evil) mind of a course designer.

Be aware that the MM format will test both your micro and macro navigation. At the more advanced level it will test the accuracy any estimates you make as to how much distance you can cover based upon the terrain presented on the map. MMs generally don’t announce their location until a few weeks before the event so you can’t go and practice.

As you would expect, you can hone your micro navigation at your local orienteering club, your fell running skills by getting out there or doing races and mountain based ultras are also a good training ground (not so much the ones that go around the fells on bridle paths; e.g., UTLD, as it just isn’t the sort of terrain you’ll be covering).

Flipping this question on it’s head, mountain marathons are excellent preparation for events like the Dragon’s Back (not 100% sure on this, but I don’t think anybody who had a pure trail running background actually finished in 2012).

What Kit do I need?

Kit lists vary from event to event and also by the conditions on the day sometimes, but one of my favourite things about MMs is the ingenious ways people come up with to be within the letter of the law, but as light as possible. The Balloon bed is sadly a lesser spotted item these days, but it has to be up there with the best solutions ever; not least because of the comedy it provides when the odd rogue balloon bursts in the night.

Here are some links to some event kit lists as examples:

Getting your kit right is essential. Both bulk and weight are critical considerations and your kit will get honed over time, however this shouldn’t be seen as a barrier to the event. My advice would be enter, beg/ borrow/ steal kit then once you realise it’s the event for you then you can start on the delightful journey to kit nirvana.

A friend of mine managed to get his kit for the LAMM down to just 3.4kg including 0.5 ltr of water and all his food (0.5kg). This is beyond obsessive and I salute him for it! My kit is down to less than 5kg as a solo competitor (primarily as I take loads of food) and for the RAB which I did as a pair I managed to get my kit into a Slab 12 race vest (although this did arose suspicion and a kit check at the end – passed of course). Every gram counts and it’s a great money pit.

I’ll do a secondary posting on kit, but my final word on it would be that all sorts of weird items become essential; e.g., 2 plastic bags big enough to fit your feet in. Why? Well, your shoes are guaranteed to be soaking at the end of day one, so if you’ve gone with the luxury of a fresh pair of socks then at the overnight camp you will be happy you have bags to put your feet in before they go in your shoes and it will ensure those sock stay dry at least until the next morning.

I’m sold, where can I find these great events?

Without a doubt the most challenging and ultimately rewarding event I’ve taken part in is Dark Mountains (http://www.marmot-dark-mountains.com/ – you may even spot me on the website J) however I would not recommend this for beginners. There is a score format which does make it accessible, but only if you have solid mountain skills and can make a good decision; i.e., to call time on it when you are starting to deteriorate. Last year I did the A course (second from top) with Braddan Johnson and it took 15.5 hours – we battled through extreme winds, rain, sleet, hail, snow (blizzard and whiteout) almost got into our bothy at one point, but finished in everything we had out there (my top layer was 2* long sleeve super warm tops, Montane Fireball smock and a Paramo adventure light smock) we also mis-punched on the last control so we didn’t even get a finish! Despite this I rank it as the best single day event (MM and non-MM) I’ve taken part in.

SLMMhttp://www.slmm.org.uk/ This is the first one I did and I’d recommend it to anybody. Super friendly, great time of year for weather and the courses (as per the link above) have something for everyone. I also love it as I can compete as a solo as this way my Nav indiscretions only affect me!

RAB MMhttp://www.rabmountainmarathon.com/ I have a rapidly growing love for the Score format and this event is run to perfection. The course this year (designed by Charlie at Mountain Run) was terrific with starkly different terrains on the different days. Great atmosphere and highly recommended for both beginners and experienced alike.

LAMMhttp://www.lamm.co.uk/index.html Very much want to try this one out. Self dubbed ‘The connoisseur’s Mountain Marathon it has a history of steep and big mountains, but it’s remote Scottish location means that it really means Friday and Monday off for those of us further afield.

The Highlanderhttp://www.handsonevents.co.uk/?page_id=13 Featuring a Ceilidh at halfway it kinda sets itself up for a sociable event! It’s in Scotland surprisingly enough and takes place at the end of April. Again, it’s one I’m keen to have a go at.

The OMMhttp://www.theomm.com/events/OMM_Original/ The Original Mountain Marathon (OMM) (formerly the KIMM – Karrimor International MM ) has had a bit of bad press within the community of late, and the weather at the end of October rarely helps things. I will however report back after doing it myself this year!

RAB Minihttp://www.darkandwhite.co.uk/mountain-marathons.asp Again, something I want to try, more of a long distance Orienteering event in that you don’t need your overnight kit – I hope to get one or two in the bag this year or next.

Haglöfs Open5 Serieshttp://www.openadventure.com/open5/ These are a combination with mountain biking. A fantastic format and one I will certainly look to try out next year.


You don’t need to be an expert or have all the best kit. You just need a sense of adventure and basic understanding of a how to use a map and compass.


Control Description –What I refer to as the cryptic clue, it states where the box is, examples include ‘Crag foot’, ‘Stream junction’, and the dreaded ‘Re-entrant’ (often the most ambiguous of the lot). Once you understand all the terms it’s pretty simple really, and really quite helpful (not how I felt about them on my first MM!)

Controls – These are also known as “dibber boxes” essentially it’s an electronic box which you place an electronic “dibber” in, it beeps to let you know it has recorded you being there.

Dibber – An electronic key which are commonly used for timing in events such as ultras and are regularly used in Orienteering competitions. They are the modern day equivalent of a control punch (used to punch a specific set of holes in your orienteering card to show you’ve been to the location)

Download – Dibber is placed in a dibber box to download all the information from it – showing which controls people have been to.

Open Fell Land – Uncultivated high ground where there may be no path, a sheep trod, footpath or even a bridleway running through it. Still not sure, look at the Bob Graham route or even better, go out to a Fell race details of when and where are here: http://fellrunner.org.uk/races.php

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