Spine: preparation

My Spine race preparation started long before I even entered the race. I entered the shorter Challenger event in 2013 with one eye on the main race, treating it as a test run. It went fairly well, and by finishing 1st woman (out of 2) I bagged a free entry for the 2014 race. I just wasn’t 100% sure I definitely wanted to do it. The events towards the end of the 2013 race, when a blizzard hit on the Cheviots, scared me. I wasn’t confident I’d make the right decisions (i.e. drop out if appropriate) in those circumstances.

I spent the Spring doing things to improve my confidence in my ability to handle the hills in Winter conditions. A winter skills course at Plas y Brenin (not really relevant to the Spine, but useful in general and fun) and a Mountain Running Essentials course with
Nav4 Adventure (which was great, and I wish I’d done it years ago). I even had some climbing lessons to try and make the scrambly bits (Pen y Ghent and Cauldron Snout) seem a bit less scary.

I didn’t officially confirm my entry until September, at which point I wasn’t doing much running and had had to pull the plug on a training run/walk on the Pennine Way at Stanedge, a paltry ~24 miles in. On top of my existing knee injury I’d dropped a lawn-mower on my ITB and descending was really painful. Through the Autumn I had regular sessions with John at
Holywell Health, and did lots of strengthening exercises.

I don’t know quite how little running I did (I deliberately hid my Garmin). However it was probably less than 50 miles. Not per week, but total in the 5 months between the track race in August & the Spine (one painful 20 mile run and a handful of 3-4 milers).

I wasn’t too worried about the lack of running though. The Spine Race doesn’t involve much running (at the back of the pack at least). Instead my training consisted of weekly hill repeat and stair climbing sessions (both with a 10 kg rucksack). Plus lots of time on the turbo trainer in the garage and some weekends on the route:

i) Hawes-just south of Harter Fell and back
I drove to Hawes after work on Friday night, slept at a camp-site in Hardraw (I never like bivy-ing out before a run/walk) and then headed North. The weather on Saturday was miserable in the morning and I stopped for lunch (coffee and crisps...) at Tan Hill. In the afternoon, after the never ending bog, the Sun came out for a bit, and I broke a gate. I didn’t want to be too late home on Sunday, so I turned around just South of Middleton and headed back to the preceding moor where I bivvied at the wall junction at Race Yate in pouring rain.

The next morning I made the silliest navigation mistake I’ve ever made. I knew where I was going, so I set off without checking the map/compass or GPS. The ground under foot was boggier than I remembered, but I convinced myself this was because of the heavy rain. After about half an hour, when I didn’t reach the river, I realised something had gone wrong. I headed for a high-point to try and find some features I could relocate myself from. But there was nothing, featureless bog as far as the eye could see. I got out the GPS and found myself, more than a mile off the route. I’d followed the wrong wall and headed off at 90 degrees to the way I should have been going. Half an hour of self-admonishment and plodding through bogs back to the Pennine Way followed.

After this misadventure I was running short of time and (after another coffee at the Tan Hill Inn) I headed back to Hawes along roads rather than the Pennine Way.  My waterproof socks had leaked and, after a weekend of being marinaded in bog water, the road slog produced a massive blister across the ball of one of my feet. Finally, to really top things off, I must have drunk some dodgy water at some point. Two days later I had chronic diarrhea, which took a fortnight to clear up, by which time I’d lost 2 kg and had no energy.

ii) official Spine training weekend
This came at the end of the diarrhea, and I felt so crap I nearly didn’t go. The talks were really useful. A lot of the stuff I already knew (from the Challenger or my weekends in the hills), but I did pick up several useful tips (in particular moleskin for blister care and putting a sleeping bag in the drop bag for checkpoints). The Mary Townley Loop was a battle though. I had no energy and was struggling to eat. At 10 miles I thought there was no way way I could finished and warned the organisers I might have to drop later on. But I felt a bit better as the day went on and by the end (I was in the last group to finish at 2am...) I actually felt pretty good.

iii) Middleton-Dufton and back
I wussed out of camping the night before and stayed at a hotel in Middleton (with a lovely chocolate brown bathroom suite). After heading South to fill in the gap from my last recce, it was West along the Tees. In contrast to my last recce the weather was fine and the views (Low Force, High Force, Cauldron Snout) were stunning. Scrambling up the side of Cauldron Snout was a bit scary though. I made it to High Cup Nick at dusk and dropped into Dufton for a quick coffee at the pub. Where the locals warned me of the dangers of wandering around on my own so late at night-apparently I could have fallen down High Cup Nick. I didn’t tell them what I was planning to do next... Which was head back up into the fells and bivvy by Cow Green reservoir, before heading back to Middleton by road and home for just after lunch.

iv) Dufton-Kirk Yetholm
The moment term ended for Christmas I packed my bags and headed off to bag the rest of the route. I got the train to Appleby and walked to Dufton, getting there for lunchtime. Cross Fell lived up to it’s reputation. Misty, and very, very windy (when it caught my rucksack at the wrong angle I’d get blown around). I jogged down to Garrigill to warm up, and found my way through the fiddly field crossings to Alston. The Youth Hostel was full, but they let me bivvy in their garden (much to the amusement of the wives of the middle-aged golfers who’d booked the hostel).

The field crossings and moors en route to Greenhead seemed to take forever and I didn’t get there until early afternoon. After a meal at the pub I set off along Hadrian’s wall. I’d been planning to get as close as I could to Bellingham, but not long after dark a gale hit and I was literally getting blown off the wall. So I headed for the road, and stopped for the night early at the Once Brewed youth hostel. It was good to get my gear dry, but I was worried about what the Cheviots would have in store.

Next morning, in the dark, I actually managed to temporarily lose the wall and end up in a bog. I then encountered a bad tempered farmer’s wife who wanted to know what I was doing out scaring the sheep at this time of day. And then, while on a section of submerged flagstones, one of my feet went off the side and I ended up waist deep in cold water. Not the best start to the day. The forest tracks generally made for fast going though, apart from the mud road from hell. A short stretch of foot deep flooded ruts, which took 15 mins of stumbling and swearing.

After Bellingham came into view it seemed to take for ever to actually get there. I stopped for lunch at the coop, grabbing armfuls of sandwiches, crisps and Mars bars. I don’t usually eat Mars bars (too sweet and icky) but I had a craving for them. After eating most of the food sat on a bench, I headed for the hills and more forestry tracks, fuelled by regular Mars bar breaks. The forestry tracks really dragged and it started raining heavily. Soaking wet I really didn’t want to camp but there was a ‘closed’ sign on the door of Forest View in Byrness so I thought I was going to have to. Until a passer-by knocked on the door and Joyce kindly opened up for me. Not only did I get a proper room for the night, she even dried my clothes and I bought even more Mars bars from her food cupboard.

I was unsure about heading off on the 27 mile stretch over the Cheviots in bad weather, but (having identified potential escape routes) decided to give it a go. Getting to the first refuge hut was a long slog in the rain (and I needed all my layers to stay warm). But then the Sun came out, it was a gorgeous day and the rest of the ridge flew by. The descent into Kirk Yetholm dragged, but I finally got there at 6 (roughly 12 hours after leaving Byrness). And celebrated by getting a room (they gave me the Pennine suite complete with reception room, which I tried not to cover in mud), a pint and a meal.

The muddiness of the route had me worried.  My rough plan was to spend ~18 hours a day moving at 2.25 miles an hour (giving a total of 40 miles a day and 6 hours for eating/sleeping/faffing). But the conditions underfoot were making it hard to keep up this speed. Would I still be able to do it after 4 or 5 days? And I was also troubled by the number of layers I had had to wear to keep warm in really not too cold weather and the amount of weight (2.5 kg) I lost over the 3.5 days.

My knee was fine throughout the final recce, so I thought it was sorted. Until I made the mistake of standing on a moving train with a big rucksack on (on the way to Berlin for Christmas). For a couple of days stairs were really painful. It settled down a bit, but the niggle was well and truly back.

As well as the recces I spent a lot of time pampering my feet, memorising the route and eating. 

All year I’d had problems with the balls of my feet blistering towards the end of 100+ mile races. I knew I couldn’t manage 3-4 days with feet in that state so I had to stop it happening in the first place. I adopted a nightly ‘foot care’ routine: removing the dry skin with a (pink...) pedi-egg (far more effective than anything else, even the over-priced ‘Micro pedi for men’) and then smothering them with E45 cream. While I sorted the hard skin on my soles out, I screwed up on the toe-nail front (TMI warning). My toe-nails are a bit battered and often need trimming around the edges to stop bits growing into the surrounding skin. And on one of them I got it wrong, leaving a sore, slightly pussy toe. Normally this would sort itself out in a few days, but not if I was going to marinade it in bog-water for ~20 hours a day.

Memorising the route sounds batshit insane, but that’s sort of what I tried to do (my head is really good at storing pointless information). I knew I’d be close to the time-limit so wouldn’t have time to spare for navigation issues. I bought all 3 Pennine way guidebooks and read them repeatedly. Most evenings I ran through the route in my head while looking at the map and with my eyes closed. I also made a file for each stage with a summary of the tricky bits and maps (nabbed from one of the guidebooks) with the locations of shops and cafes in the towns.

Thanks to my farming genes, at 158 cm and 60 kg, I’m not exactly stereotypical runner shape. With hard training for Summer 100s I’m secretly happy when my weight drifts down to 57 kg. However below that I tend to get a bit fragile, so my aim was to go into the Spine with weight to burn (literally). Having lost weight on my recces, I spent Christmas eating everything in sight to get back up to my usual 60 kg.

As race day approached I wasn’t exactly brimming with confidence, due to my knee, the wet conditions under-foot and a nasty looking weather forecast. But the plan was to take it day by day and keep going as long as I was on course to meet the cut-offs and (mostly) having fun.