2020 The Spine Race

The Spine Race was one of those rare experiences where I couldn’t have possibly imagined beforehand exactly what it would be like, but afterwards I couldn’t possibly imagine it any other way. Granted, I get to look at it through the rose-colored glasses of having achieved exactly what I set out to achieve. If I had come away with the win at some of my other recent races it assuredly would have shaped my recollection of the experience.

But as someone who analyzes data for a living, I’m quite practiced at forcing my own bias aside and looking at only the facts. The facts here are that this race is a truly unique adventure, well-organized with only the necessities organized, and with a group of people who care about every runner first to last being able to safely experience that adventure in full. Thank you to everyone who made that possible and who make the race what it is, from the other runners to the staff and safety teams and volunteers to the random people who showed up in the middle of the night to cheer, hand out food, or provide some brief company. Apologies if there was anyone along the route who didn’t get a more timely thank you and only saw me in “race-mode” or sleep-deprived zombie mode instead of my normal cheerful, chatty disposition. 😉

The race also did such a great job with coverage over on their Facebook page that I almost don’t need to write this report beyond linking to a bunch of their photos and videos. But if you want to hear a bit more about the why and the what of my experience specifically, then my unfiltered ramblings await below.

I don’t remember exactly when I first heard about The Spine. It was one of those things I had come across and that I had added to my list of “cool to do one day but not sure when” stuff. I’ve always had a strange attraction to winter ultras, possibly stemming from years of doing triathlons in the summer and ultras in the winter, possibly due to my aversion to running in the heat, or most likely due to just the overwhelming feeling of calm and peacefulness I get from being in the wilderness on a winter’s night. I don’t know that many winter nights on the Pennine Way could be described as calm and peaceful, but still I was drawn to the experience, the challenge, and the opportunity to explore a new land so extensively in one go (the race is quite aptly named – it runs right up the middle of the entire upper half of England).

Then, we moved to the UK. Boom! I was signed up within days of registration opening.

Preparation

As I’ve often mentioned before, the task so many of us face in fitting racing around a family and a demanding job is quite the optimization problem. I’m an engineer, and like to think I’m rather good at such problems, but still sometimes the constraints are too much and training falls well short of where I wish it would be. Fortunately for a race like The Spine, though, the most important training is the consistent years of accumulated miles and experience that I’ve now built up. The build over the last few weeks and months can for the most part just mold that accumulation into something a bit more customized to the specific demands of the race. It’s like changing tires on a race car to something better suited for an upcoming course.

But no matter what, the training I can actually do is infinitely more valuable than the training I wish I could do. So I arrived at the start line in Edale largely the opposite of how I went through college: I was the person who had paid attention and worked hard throughout the class, and hadn’t crammed for the final exam. In any case this wasn’t a race where just cramming would do. There is no couch to Spine program.

If you would like to see my build to the race, or those previous years of accumulation even, it’s all on Strava (yes, Strava upgraded me to a “pro” account after this race… I’ve put in my notice at work and am just waiting for the 7 figure endorsement deals to come rolling in). Or, if you’d rather just see the Strava activity and skip the whole race report, that’s linked below.

The Spine Race – John Kelly’s 287.9 mi run

Race report: https://randomforestrunner.com/2020/01/2020-the-spine-race/ Had watch in Ultratrac mode for the first half to try to save battery, which turned out to be a bad idea for a few reasons. One is that the GPS and distance is off a bit for that portion. Actual race distance was 268 miles, plus “bonus miles” I put in.

Pre-race

I usually try to force myself to run with restraint at the start of these types of races. Usually, that’s the best approach. A number of factors had come together to cause me to at the last minute decide to take a markedly different approach here, though.

  1. I knew that after a relatively pleasant start (relative to what I’ve come to expect from British mountain weather) that conditions would become pretty horrible. I wanted to make the best of the better conditions.
  2. I hadn’t been able to do much research on my competition. I was familiar with a few of them, like Eoin Keith (whose pre-race blog post was one of my best bits of intelligence), but for the most part I felt I needed to feel them out and see what kind of pace they were willing / able to go. I did at least know that Eugeni, one of my top competitors, preferred to run with people. If I could push the pace a bit early on then I felt he would either drop back and run with a slower group, or expend too much energy trying to keep up and then burn out.
  3. During registration and before the race there seemed to be a rather prevalent belief that I was favored to win the race. Well, if my competitors also had that belief then it seemed like reinforcing it early on could yield a significant advantage in the all-important mental game. If nothing else, I had to have confidence that my greatest strength would be my ability to endure in the later stages of the race. So rather than have it end with a speedy race over the Cheviots, I would much rather have everyone run out of gas, including myself. I believed I would run out later and not as destructively.

My strategy was 100% geared towards winning the race. I wasn’t there to run a time trial. Of course I wanted to win in the best time possible, but going for the best time and going for the win can produce quite different strategies, and I wasn’t willing to sacrifice my odds of the latter for the sake of the former. With that in mind, it’s also important I note up front that I have nothing but respect and admiration for everyone I competed against at the Spine. They were all wonderful people and I wish them all the best. But a race is a competition, and between the start and the finish my goal is to do whatever I can to beat them.

All pretty accurate, until the bit at the very end. Come on… think I’m gonna tip my hand before the race even starts? 😛

Section 1 – Edale to Hebden Bridge

Photo: Spine FB

With my strategy in hand, I took the lead going up Jacob’s Ladder, the first climb. I continued with a brisk pace, looking back occasionally to see that a few people were pursuing me. After a couple of careless missed turns on my part they caught up and we continued on together through what I think I’m supposed to call a “fiddly bit.” We slogged our way up through a drainage where the swollen creek had often engulfed the path.

This is the portion of the race that I considered great conditions, relatively speaking. 😄 Always look for the silver lining; it can be a huge mental edge.

Continuing over the top and through the mud and heather we eventually came across runners from a fell race going in the other direction. It was great to be able to give and receive some encouragement as we passed, and especially to see Jasmin Paris out amongst them. The bad part of it all, though, was that as I stepped around one of them I caught my waterproof pants (or I guess I should say trousers) on a rock. It ripped a nice gash in the shin, leaving them a bit less than waterproof for the remainder of the race.

Photo: Mick Kenyon

We descended and went through a small aid station, with me, Andre, and Eugeni continuing out the other side and across the dam. We chatted a bit through the short flat section, but then we turned and started some rolling hills. I took the opportunity to again test my competitors.

At that point I was also quite aware that not everyone had taken the bait. Eoin, for example, had held back. I much expected this, with him being such an experienced veteran, confident in his own pace and knowing the course amazingly well. I had to be careful not to run myself and everyone else out of fuel so much that Eoin could just continue on steadily and effortlessly overtake us as we hobbled helplessly over the Cheviots. I continuously asked myself “is this a pace that I could somehow extract from myself near the end of the race if I absolutely had to, however painful it might be?” If the answer was no, I eased off. If yes, maybe, or I hope so, then I continued on.

Photo: Mark Haywood

Gradually, I started to put a gap on my competitors. I decided to press my advantage, and as we went over Black Hill and crossed the motorway they fell back out of sight. I wasn’t foolish enough to think that I could win a 268 mile race this early on, but I knew that staying out of sight would make it mentally more challenging for my pursuers, with Eugeni in particular liable to drift back and join another runner or group.

At the same time that gap provided me a valuable insurance policy that I could trade in for extra sleep, food, footcare, or maybe even a refreshing warm shower later in the race (a move out of Jared Campbell’s playbook, who can somehow manage food, a shower, and a change of clothes in under 10 minutes between Barkley loops).

Unfortunately I used that insurance policy much sooner than I planned, and not how I had hoped to use it. Coming down from Stoodley Pike I followed my GPS track in what seemed like the wrong direction, but nonetheless was where it pointed. I soon found myself in a field with the discernible path having disappeared on the opposite side of a hill from where I should be. I went up and over, with the farmer whose field I had mistakenly ended up in kindly pointing me back towards the proper route. At times like this at least my foreign accent could help excuse my mistake.

As I finished the descent and started the final climb before the checkpoint I found that my mistake had allowed Eugeni to overtake me. I was rather upset with myself, knowing that I had wasted all that effort only to have him right back with me. As I suspected, he came with me as I surged past him into Hebden Bridge. As we headed down the short descent to the checkpoint he told me how important it was to get plenty of warm food. I wasn’t sure if he was genuinely trying to offer advice, or if he just wanted to me to take my time there.

In any case, I know what I’m doing. 😉

Section 2 – Hebden Bridge to Hawes

At Barkley, there’s a term called “scraping.” Normally it refers to a veteran leaving a first timer behind to fend for themselves. With the steep terrain and dense forests it doesn’t take much to lose sight of someone there, and so much as a few seconds for an ill-timed bathroom stop can result in disaster for the newcomer. Here much more separation was required, but there was still one trick I could use: the interloopal scrape (or for Spine, the checkpoint scrape). I switched out a few pieces of gear, shoved the quickest bit of food they could prepare down my throat, and set back off into the night.

On the climb out of Hebden Bridge I landed a bit awkwardly on my right foot and felt a bit of pain shoot up from my ankle. Like so many other rolled ankles it didn’t concern me, and I suspected it would be fine within a few miles. My larger concern for the moment was Eugeni, and I was happy to make it back up the short climb without seeing a headlight in pursuit. We went back through the village and returned to the Pennine Way, giving me the opportunity to see that there was still a good group of runners within striking distance of me.

There was a Japanese film crew at the race creating a documentary and they had enlisted Pavel Paloncy, a Spine champion, to help with the filming. He joined me for this section as we moved through rolling hills and bogs, each top giving me an opportunity to turn and see Eugeni’s head torch still frustratingly in sight.

As we reached Oakworth Moor, a boggy section that at least had the benefit of occasional stone slabs, I started to run a bit low on water. Running along across the slabs I kept my eye out for a decent water source. I’m a firm believer in keeping a relatively steady flow of hydration and nutrition, without any periods of feast or famine (unless I’m going down for a significant sleep, then I’ll gorge myself a bit).

So eventually I relented, and Pavel looked on with I think part disgust and part curiosity as I dipped a water bottle straight into the top of a bog (hey, this is what they mean when they say that Scotch is “peaty,” right?). It was what has become one of my most important pieces of kit for this type of adventure – my Katadyn BeFree bottle. It has a built-in filter with an impressive flow rate, but it was still a bit stomach-turning to hold up the bottle and see the reddish liquid and sediment inside.

The bog water lasted me until Lothersdale, where an unofficial aid station had been set up. I refilled with some wonderfully clear water, grabbed some handfuls of crisps (American translation = chips) and jelly babies (American translation = I’m sorry, USA might dominate the snack cake genre but we have nothing quite like these magical gummy… thingies). Someone was also kind enough to show me the tracker page so I could see that, yup, Eugeni was still right behind me.

The next section had a good mix of climbs, canal tow path, muddy fields (there was no other kind of field), and a bit of road passing through Malham. After that came the first really rocky, technical section of the course. After a climb, the path traverses rocky, bouldery terrain with deep crevices that would be easy to slip into. With the wet conditions I worked my way gingerly across the rock, until I found I had only a small scramble left before getting back to some runnable path.

As I lunged forward and up the rocks I felt a sudden pop in my vest. I had been warned that I was at or above the load limit for the vest and that it only had prototype materials, but I was so determined to make it with an actual running vest (i.e. not a hiking pack) that I had taken the risk. I had an extra Adventure Vest and a FastPack in my drop bag, but with this being the longest stretch between checkpoints I still had 8-9 hours before I would see my drop bag in Hawes.

I slipped off my vest to inspect. The actual fabric, zippers, and all the pockets were fine. I noticed that I had somehow neglected to properly adjust the comfort cinch that holds the bottom of the shoulder straps to the back of the pack, and one of the cords had snapped. I slipped the pack back on and the strap just dangled there. With some experimentation I found that if I grabbed the bottom of the strap with my hand and locked my elbow down at a right angle as if it were in a sling, then my forearm did a pretty good job restoring the structural integrity previously provided by the comfort cinch. I figured if Killian could win Hardrock with his arm in an actual sling due to a dislocated shoulder, then I could still give this a go with my arm in a fake sling due to a dislocated strap on my vest. Since I wasn’t using poles at that point, my hands needed to do some more work anyway.

Yeah, I can hold it together like this for another 200 miles or so. No problem… Photo: Spine FB

I continued on, not wanting to lose any more time. It wasn’t too far to CP1.5 at Malham Tarn, and I could take a bit of a closer look at it there. I found it a bit easier going than I expected, and at the checkpoint I managed to take the remnants of the cord and tie the strap to the ice axe loop on the back of the pack. As I looked at my work, content but a bit skeptical, someone brought a zip tie over to me and reinforced my connection. I actually had a couple zip ties in my emergency kit in my pack, but for some reason hadn’t thought to pull them out. It was solid as a rock. And with all the layers I was wearing I doubted I would even notice the hard plastic rubbing against me.

Yup, I broke it. Photo: Spine FB
Let’s see what we have here. Photo: Spine FB
Awesome, that’ll do. Time for some hot chocolate! Photo: Spine FB

I headed back out. By this time we had started to overlap a bit with the field from the Spine Challenger, which consists of the first 2 sections of the Spine. It was again good to share some periodic mutual encouragement. I began to sink into a low spot in terms of sleep, though. It wasn’t a surprise – everyone’s circadian rhythm has natural low points and I’ve learned that one of mine is from around 3 AM (a time when I all too often find myself going to bed in everyday life) until dawn.

Fortunately we had the somewhat technical climb up Pen-y-Ghent with its brutal wind and generally wretched conditions to keep me awake and on my toes. I kept a solid, consistent pace on the climb, not knowing whether the lights behind me were Challenger runners or my pursuers. Once at the top I wanted nothing more than to escape the wind, and it looked like I had a nice runnable descent on the other side. I let out a Bo Duke yee-haw and flew down the hill towards Horton.

Near the bottom there was a small checkpoint, where they were able to kindly provide some hot food and water. Still fighting a bit of a sleepy daze, I decided to lie down for a quick power nap and see if I could actually capitalize on that feeling before dawn. I may have nabbed a few minutes, but unfortunately sleep did not come as quickly and deeply as I had hoped. The worst thing in these situations is to waste time trying to sleep without sleeping. I sprang back up, thanked them for their hospitality, and set back out for Hawes.

No, I wasn’t intentionally avoiding the sleeping mat. 😄 That belonged to one of the Spine Challenger runners. Photo: Spine FB

It became a recurring theme for me in the race that as I neared the checkpoint I would think it was closer than it was. It was a fairly runnable section into Hawes, with the Cam High Road making up a large portion of it, but it seemed to drag on endlessly. I could feel myself slowing down as my mind drifted and my eyes looked around every corner hoping to see the village.

By the time it finally did come into sight I was in damage control mode, trying to make it there for a quick recharge without losing too much of my lead. My body was fine, but my mind was slipping. Unfortunately my mental fog continued into the checkpoint, to the point where I found myself wasting time with my drop bag, nearly falling asleep on the toilet, and having the medics probe me with questions and other things to make sure it was safe for me to go right back out.

It had not been in the plan, but I briefly considered a short sleep. It would break one of my cardinal rules in this type of race, though: wasting daylight. I also was able to fully recognize that I was in a low point, similar to so many that I’ve been in before. If I could just get moving again, especially with the daylight and the hearty checkpoint food in my stomach, then I could pull out of it and at this point in the race still feel fresh as a daisy again. I also wanted to maintain a gap on my competition.

I think this picture is at Hawes. To be honest I can’t remember much of what Hawes looked like.

After turning what should have been a 15 minute stop into close to an hour, with no discernible benefit, I headed back out the door.

Section 3 – Hawes to Middleton

After losing my lead heading into checkpoint 1 due to a navigational error, I squandered it coming out of checkpoint 2 due to not 1, or 2, but 3 navigational errors. First I turned to head back the way we had come, my foggy brain thinking that the first checkpoint had been a little out and back from the trail so the second one was too. My trip back through Hawes cost me 20 minutes, but fortunately I recognized the error on my own before the medics caught back up with me and decided my mental status needed a bit more of a check.

Then, I veered off the road onto a well-worn path with a symbol quite similar to the Pennine Way’s acorn (speaking of which, I went the whole route expecting to find some oak trees somewhere…). I made it partway up a hill before realizing my error. Another 10 minutes wasted. My frustration was at least starting to battle my sleepiness.

Finally, I made a turn up a lane right next to where the route truly started back into the hills. It only cost me a minute or two, but it was the final straw that turned my frustration into a bit of despair, the lowest my morale would hit for the entire race. At that point I felt that Eoin, with his flawless navigation and incredible course knowledge, had probably slipped by me while I was off-route. I felt like it was the tortoise and the hare, and I was the foolish, doomed hare. We were only through 2 sections and already I had cost myself over an hour through rushed, completely careless navigational mistakes.

The situation was steeped in irony. The last time I had seen Eoin was when he was a participant in the 2018 Barkley Marathons and I was hidden out on the course as a random marshall / checkpoint. I observed as he unfortunately lost his compass and the group he was running with, left standing off trail on the side of a mountain with no way of navigating. I was not allowed to offer assistance of any kind and when he spotted me I responded only with, “I am just a tree.”

I believe part of my navigation problem was a complacency and a false sense of security from having a GPS on my wrist with the route. Another problem is that I had my watch set in Ultratrac mode in an ill-advised attempt to conserve battery. In that mode the GPS only updates once per minute, so even if I was closely monitoring my position I could go a minute off route before the GPS would be of any help at all.

Photo: Jimmy Hyland

Starting the climb up Great Shunner Fell I was surprised and relieved to find that I somehow still had the lead. But mentally, it just stopped the bleeding. I kept turning to check behind me, feeling Eoin’s constant, methodical pursuit as if he were The Terminator and I was only prolonging the inevitable.

I made it to the top without catching a glimpse of him, where I stopped behind a windshield to add a layer. The winds were blasting up there, as if to announce Storm Brendan’s imminent arrival. As I fumbled with my gear, Eoin dashed by on the other side of the windscreen. I don’t know if he actually saw me, but every single part of me saw him: my eyes, my legs, my ankle, my heart rate, my sleep-deprived brain. There were few things that could light a fire under me like getting passed.

I shot back out from behind the wind screen like my dog after a frisbee. He may not have noticed passing me, but I made sure he noticed me passing back. By the time I reached Thwaite at the bottom I had pulled back out of sight from him. My adrenaline still flowing, I pushed up the next climb and along a traverse of the next ridge. I shot by a sign saying a cafe was open just a bit off the path, trying to make the best of my high and of every last second left of the waning daylight.

Then I started the climb up Tan Hill. With a steady crescendo Brendan rolled in. The winds picked up, the sky went dark, the temperature dropped, and the rain began to fall. Before I knew it I hardly knew what was happening. The rain turned to sleet and hail, blown straight inside my hood. With my head turned down to shield myself I followed a little side path downhill. I remembered I shouldn’t be going down yet, and turned to rejoin the path. Another 5 minutes lost, but at that point the only thing on my mind was getting over that hill to a less exposed area. A silver lining is that I was definitely no longer sleepy.

Then in the distance I saw the light from the Tan Hill Inn, the highest pub in England. It shone like a lighthouse, a single beacon with nothing but absolute blackness everywhere more than a couple of meters from my face. Without any reference points I wasn’t sure how far away it was. It could have been miles still. But I knew it was there. My resolve strengthened and pulled me towards it.

Finally, I reached the road and a few people beckoned me inside. It was like stepping through a portal into a different world. The constant sound of a jet engine and snare drums that the wind and hail had been treating me with stopped. A fireplace glowed as drinks were served and families enjoyed a hearty dinner.

What, just, happened. Y’all see that out there, right? Photo: Jimmy Hyland
There are many things I could caption this photo with. I don’t think any of them would maintain the PG rating of my blog. Photo: Jimmy Hyland

I was ushered into a sideroom which had a separate fireplace and somewhere I could sit. I took a minute to gather myself, and then began stripping off my outer layers and adding more inner layers. 3 pairs of leggings, 2 pairs of socks under my Gore-tex shoes, 3 base layers, 2 mid layers, a rain jacket, an insulated shell, 2 pairs of gloves with over-mittens, a neck gaiter, a buff, a thick toboggan (sorry, hat), and waterproof pants (sigh… ok trousers, but I guess waterproof pants in the British sense could have been useful too, except really that would just be a diaper I suppose, I mean nappy. 🤦‍♂️)

Everything. We’re putting on all the clothes. Photo: Jimmy Hyland
Is there anything else I can put on? No? Ok, then hot chocolate time. Photo: Jimmy Hyland

On the way out I crossed paths with Eoin. For a moment, the fact that we were racing seemed completely lost as we shared and recounted our trip through Brendan. Eoin said it was the worst stretch of weather he’s seen at the Spine, and he’s seen a lot. I wished him well and headed back out the door, expecting him to be right behind me. He had refused to go to the fireplace, worried it might tempt him to stay too long.

Alright. Give me your best shot Brendan. Photo: Jimmy Hyland

I ventured back out, feeling warm, cozy, and protected. But I definitely would not be wasting any time getting off that hill and out of the worst of Brendan’s wrath. Fortunately the worst of the weather would soon be gone, unfortunately I was heading into a section that I’m really not sure can be classified as land. There were occasional stakes where the path would have been if there were a path, sticking up out of the standing water that nearly completely covered whatever semisolid ground-like substance lay beneath. Trying to find a good line or an actual path was futile.

At this point I would have gladly traded the better weather for firm grouned beneath my feet. Photo: Jimmy Hyland

Finally, not just a path, but a gravel road! I turned onto it and resumed actually running, stealing a brief glance behind to see that there were still no lights in pursuit. I passed a farmhouse where a man and his son were waiting, in those conditions, to cheer us on and provide some treats. People are amazing. After a brief descent I was then offered frozen pizza at the A66 crossing. I ate it. I ate the whole thing like it was mana from heaven.

My eagerness to demolish an entire pizza, though, was partially based on a once again mistaken belief that I was getting close to the checkpoint (ok who am I kidding I still would’ve eaten the whole thing). As I moved through the seemingly endless moorland towards a bed in Middleton, my energy and focus once more waned.

Then after the moor I again found myself struggling with navigation. I was in farmland, with countless walled off fields. Any slight error and I would find myself facing a stone wall with barbed wire on top, deperately turning my light in both directions looking for the stile to get over.

Eventually I did what I should have done much, much earlier in the race: I turned Ultratrac off on my watch. My portable battery had been recharging the watch quite quickly, so any battery savings were far from worth it. With my GPS now actually updating every second, I followed the intricate turns and precise lines to make it through the pastoral maze until finally I came to a hilltop and saw it: Middleton. I had started to think it didn’t actually exist. I eagerly began my descent, but as my mental state had slipped so had my ability to ignore the ankle. Fortunately it hadn’t seriously worsened, but its presence had started to move from annoyance to slight hindrance.

I filled my stomach, stripped down to dry clothes, and crawled into my sleeping bag for a planned 3 hours of sleep. Around 2 hours in I woke myself up coughing. After a few minutes I realized the quality of any additional sleep wouldn’t be good, and I went back for more food and to have the medics check my feet and ankle.

At first glance they seemed a bit startled, and I worryingly checked to see what their concern was. I had forgotten to mention that a couple of weeks before the race my daughter had been kind enough to give me a nice case of hand, foot, and mouth disease that had pre-blistered my feet. Fortunately most of those blisters were in spots that never give me problems during the race, so I had to map out for the medics which spots were actual race blisters. None of those were very concerning, but they added a bit of tape for added protection. Unfortunately there wasn’t much they could do for my ankle, but as they worked I felt myself becoming drowzy again.

I decided to capitalize on that feeling and went back down for another 30 minute nap. When I awoke, Eoin had left and Eugeni was making preparations. I hurriedly packed and dressed, grabbed a few more handfuls of food, and headed out the door, more in flight from Eugeni than in pursuit of Eoin.

As I left I checked my watch. I had banked about 2.5 hours of sleep, but I had been at the checkpoint for 4 hours and 45 minutes. I had no idea where that time had gone, but it was at least 1.5 hours too long. Between time lost from checkpoints and navigational errors I figured I was at over 4 hours of lost time. There was nothing I could do about that, though, other than to focus and stop being so careless. For the time being I at least seemed to still be in a good spot.

Section 4 – Middleton to Alston

I headed out of the checkpoint, and proceeded about 100 meters directly down the wrong road. “Oh come on… seriously?!” I corrected myself and resolved that that would be the last time. For the first significant amount of time in the race I wasn’t in the lead, but I actually felt pretty good about where I was. I had sacrificed my lead to get a bit of extra sleep, and given how I felt at the moment it had been well worth it.

I decided to move methodically, to let my body loosen back up and to avoid any more costly mistakes. It was also a bit of a mental reprieve to be the hunter rather than the hunted for a time. I also didn’t want to let myself get over-eager to catch up and go too hard. There was still 120 miles left. We only had a few hours until sunrise, and once it came I would pounce.

I worked my way gradually up Low Force and High Force, a river valley with a fairly good path. I did manage to cost myself 10-15 minutes with a navigational error I made as part of a vain attempt to enjoy my fresh, dry socks and shoes for a bit longer before they got dunked in a creek or a bog, but otherwise I was relaxed and consistent. In fact I was so relaxed that I found a nice stone wall to shield me from the wind and took another 15 minute nap as dawn approached.

Alright, up and at ’em. I was ready to chase Eoin down. Except the next section turned out to be a long series of scrambles over wet boulders along the River Tees. There would be no chasing here. At the end of these scrambles I arrived at Cauldron Snout, a waterfall below a dammed reservoir. An immense amount of water was flowing through the dam’s spillway. As I climbed next to Cauldron Snout I took a moment to admire its overwhelming power and beauty, an incredible amount of water crashing and roaring over its cliffs with unimaginable force.

Then at the top, there was a road. The chase was back on. As I crested the first hill I saw a larger one in the distance, and faintly spotted a figure working its way up it. There you are. The sight further restored my energy, exactly what I had been trying to avoid happening for others earlier by staying far enough in front to be out of sight. I glanced behind me, and saw that Eugeni was about the same margin back, probably thinking the same thing.

Each time I saw Eoin I began marking the time, checking how long it would take me to get to the same spot. The gap slowly closed, and by the time I reached High Cup Nick I knew it wouldn’t be long. I tried to take in the incredible view as best I could while continuing my steady progress.

High Cup Nick, one of the most beautiful spots on the route. Photo: Steve Ashworth
Photo: Steve Ashworth
Photo: Steve Ashworth

When I reached the top of the last climb before the long, runnable descent into Dufton, I decided to make my move. Like the descent from Great Shunner Fell, I flew past. I wanted him to know that I was still capable of running quite well at that point. Re-taking the lead in that manner gave me another giant boost, and I flew into Dufton riding a sizable high.

Re-taking the lead. Photo: Steve Ashworth
Photo: Steve Ashworth
Photo: Steve Ashworth

After a kit check and water refill at Dufton I was back out the door headed for Cross Fell. Eugeni had arrived just as I left and for a moment the top 3 were all together at over 150 miles into the race. I was in a perfect spot to try to change that – still feeling good and with an opportunity to capitalize on my climbing strength going up to the highest point on the route.

As I went up, the snow came down. But climbing felt great, with no pain on my ankle. I reached what I thought was the top and thought, “well that was easy I’m not sure what all the fuss was about.” I had reached the peak of Green Fell, with a long traverse to come where I would descend slightly before climbing Great Dun Fell and then descend slightly again before the final push up Cross Fell.

One of the documentary film crew joined me again, and for the first time I was a bit worried about the effect on race outcome rather than just experience. I was finding my own way through the snow and the cameraman was adding more footprints that could be followed, especially if they made a return trip back down to film the next person.

In the moment, I might at times find media in these otherwise solitary places a bit annoying, but I recognize the tremendous value they have and as long as they’re not affecting outcomes I’m happy for them to be there. The only other major issue this race was at night where a few times the bright lights from their cameras really messed with my vision, whether from in front or from behind to where I was running in my own shadow. But things like that aside, I’m nearly always thrilled afterwards to see the moments they were able to capture. The opening drone footage from the video below (captured by the official race coverage, separate from the documentary crew), is one of my favorite bits from any of my races.

After conquering Cross Fell I made it back down to Greg’s Hut. I quickly had my fill of warm noodles, but perhaps even more beneficial was a bit of time enjoying the company of someone’s dog, who reminded me a good bit of our Dixie. I opted to not have the chili in my noodles. I’m a fan of spicy things, but not in a race. I kind of wish I had at least tried them, though, because let’s be real… what y’all call “spicy” here in the UK wouldn’t pass for hot in the southern US any more than a Bud Light would pass for beer here.

It was a longer than expected trek to reach the top of the descent down The Corpse Road, but once I did I let loose a bit heading down into Garrigill. I wanted to try to open a large enough gap to get in and out of the checkpoint before the next person arrived. I again underestimated the distance to the checkpoint, but I arrived just after nightfall and was happy to find that this one was at least right on the Pennine Way instead of a slight out and back diversion.

I filled up on the famous checkpoint 4 lasagna, as well as a smorgasbord of typical Tesco snacks, while the medics checked to see if anything else could be done for my feet. By this point my ankle had started swelling enough to where getting the shoe off and on was a bit of a delicate process.

Photo: Nicki Lygo

Eugeni arrived with foot issues of his own, and I briefly tried to help with a bit of translation (up to that point I had, umm, “neglected” to mention to him that I minored in Spanish). He asked if I was sleeping, and I said no. My energy levels were good and at that point I didn’t want to relinquish my lead even for sleep. He seemed intent on quickly getting back out the door as well so I packed up and headed out. For the first time since Hebden Bridge (checkpoint 1) I felt I had been efficient.

Photo: Nicki Lygo

Section 5 – Alston to Bellingham

I avoided having yet another checkpoint departure navigational blunder, and started a section of trail that I was told was quite awful. What it was was field after muddy field of gently rolling hills, exactly like Somerset County where I live. I had been training for this section since the day I moved to England.

Physical fatigue was starting to get to me a bit at that point, as well as some nice blisters on the balls of my feet, but I was moving quite well thinking that Eugeni was still close behind. There were a few people who had come out to cheer us on: a man with his daughter giving out chocolate, a few people at a road crossing, and then someone who finally informed me that both Eugeni and Eoin were still at Alston. Jayson was the next one out.

My mind immediately went from determined and focused, to cautious and conservative. I thought that Jayson had been at least a few hours back, and honestly didn’t have him on my radar at the time. I thought that if I could avoid disaster it was in the bag. I kind of wish I had remained ignorant of Eugeni’s stay at Alston.

Where the mind goes, the body follows. I soon found myself trudging through Blenkinsopp Common, one of the worst bogs on the route. My eyes and legs felt heavy, and I was starting to make a number of small, careless navigational errors again. I decided to get to Greenhead and take a power nap in the bathroom. I dug deep into my bag of tricks to stay awake – singing to myself, mumbling gibberish to myself, then singing gibberish to myself.

A woman was waiting just before the A69 crossing, and she joined me for the short descent to the road. I can’t help but wonder what was going through her mind as she ran along late at night next to this guy singing complete non-sense to himself running through the middle of nowhere. If you’re reading this, I promise I’m not crazy, at least not entirely. Also, thank you for the brief company and making sure I got across the road safely.

I was nearing delirium. I found a golf ball and decided to pick it up for my son as a souvenir, I took an unintended detour to Thirlwall Castle but then decided I might as well wander around the castle. I made it to the long awaited bathroom (restroom, gents, loo, toilets… I still can’t figure out what I’m supposed to call that place here) and laid down for my nap, but the floor was like ice. I quickly started shivering and realized it was futile. In hindsight I wish I would have pulled my sleeping bag out, but instead I stood up and started sticking my wet gloves in and out of the hand dryer. I don’t know how long I stood there in a trance moving them up and down. I came to my senses when I smelled the motor starting to overheat.

I set back out, the familiar smell of burning electronics at least reminding me that I had a race to run. I was also on a section that I had been looking forward to since first researching the race: Hadrian’s Wall.

John Kelly on Twitter

This week’s random UK Thursday thought is again on walls, specifically Hadrian’s. It’s fine craftsmanship, & I know stones have been “re-purposed” over the years, but as a fortification? Were people really that short back then? No one know how to do the ole hand boost up & over?

I imagine the surrounding landscape would have been absolutely beautiful, if I could have seen any of it. And if I had been fully conscious. I decided that the wall at least made a fine windshield and backrest. I hopped over to the Scottish side and caught a 5-10 minute nap guarded from the southerly winds. I was starting to regret not attempting to sleep in Alston. I felt I would have had trouble falling asleep at the time, but these short naps were becoming quite inefficient and I was worried they might wreck my race the way they had at Tor Des Geants.

Sycamore Gap. Maybe I’m there, somewhere? Photo: Mark Haywood
Not me, but see, I was right! It is beautiful in the daylight. Photo: Spine FB
Also not me. But I’ll definitely have to take the family back to see this. Photo: Spine FB

Then at a road crossing I finally got the news: Jayson wasn’t hours back, he was one. If that. How could that be? Had he been closer than I thought all along? Had he been gaining on me that fast as I stumbled through bogs and along the Scottish border? It gave me the jolt that I needed, but unfortunately I had slipped so far that it wasn’t enough to fully bring me back for long.

I made it to Horneystead Farm, where an incredibly kind lady was waiting in the middle of the night to invite me into her barn where she had food and snacks. We briefly chatted about some of her time in America, including hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. The PCT includes the John Muir Trail, which my wife and I did in 2013 and is what really got me back into hiking and then trail running. It was a nice “small world” moment, and a futon she had in there looked incredibly inviting for a nap, but I wasn’t sure if sleeping there was within the rules and at that point I thought Jayson might appear around the corner at any moment. I thanked her and set back off.

The remainder of the section felt like a series of determined runs, broken up by quick power naps and frantically looking over my shoulder for Jayson. I felt that if I could make it to Bellingham still in the lead then I would be in good shape. The Cheviots were the one part of the course that I actually knew and I still felt really confident in my climbing.

It wasn’t pretty, but I got there.

Pre-nap meal. Photo: Nicki Lygo

After some more delicious food and intel on Jayson and the weather, I went down for some much needed sleep. Originally I had planned 1.5 hours in Bellingham, but I estimated that about 45 minutes was the most I could get while still getting back out ahead of Jayson.

It was a good estimate, as he arrived just after I woke up and got my gear packed back up. I wasn’t able to figure out if he was going to sleep or not, but I didn’t stick around long to find out. We exchanged best wishes and I was back out the door.

According to the original caption for this photo, this is me looking “refreshed.” 🤷‍♂️ Photo: Nicki Lygo
Just sittin’ here, drinkin’ my squash. Definitely not eaves-dropping for info on Jayson’s plans. Photo: Nicki Lygo

Section 6 – Bellingham to Kirk Yetholm

If Eoin passing me at Great Shunner Fell had lit a fire under me, then Jayson catching up to me in Bellingham had lit an inferno. I had raced from the front nearly the entire time for over 3 days straight. I had put tremendous effort and work into maintaining my advantage and fending off challenges. In doing so I knew that I had set myself up as a target, and now Jayson had laid down the strongest challenge yet.

It was exciting, and the thrill of still racing after over 220 miles was an unreal experience that I’ll undoubtedly always look back on as one of my best memories. I also sincerely meant the best wishes I gave him while heading out the door, but my goal was to end the excitement as quickly and as assuredly as possible. If he wanted the lead he was going to have to come pry it from my cold dead hands (ok my cold but very much alive hands because the Spine Safety Teams and Mountain Rescue Teams are incredible… and not that I would ever knowingly put myself in a position where I was likely to need them).

The other factor was that I didn’t know much about Jayson, and we hadn’t run together for much of the race at all. If it had come down to this stretch with Eoin, or Eugeni, I felt confident in my ability to outrun them through the Cheviots. But Jayson, I wasn’t sure what he could do. I also recognized that I was now racing the local guy. From my experience at Barkley I knew what powerful motivation that could provide and how many people were cheering him on. I at least felt pretty great about the fact that I had gotten some good sleep and was leaving with the lead, but those guaranteed nothing.

But first, I needed to make it out of Bellingham without any wrong turns. I weaved through town with a vigilant eye on my GPS. After getting chased by two dogs going across a farm I was finally back out in moorland.

Photo: Mick Kenyon

I pushed what had felt like an impossible pace only hours earlier. I walked a fine line between convincing myself that I was moving well and reminding myself that Jayson could be right on my heels. At that point in a race a slow pace can easily feel fast. Pavel joined again to film for a bit, and remained quite coy about my progress (as he should have).

Eventually I made it through the moor and came onto a gravel forest road. Knowing the Cheviots were around the corner I recognized this was probably the most runnable portion left, and I let loose with every bit of speed I had in me. The miles ticked by – 14 minutes, 11.5, 10:08. It felt like I had just broken the 4 minute barrier. In my mind it seemed nearly impossible that Jayson could be maintaining that pace after his push on the previous section and then no sleep. But still, there was a chance.

Arriving at Byrness. Photo: Nicki Lygo

I only stayed in Byrness long enough to refill water and gather what intel I could. I had been opening the gap back up on Jayson, but now was not the time to get complacent. I turned down the offer of hot food and continued on. I only accepted an enormous flapjack that I stuffed in my pack, which really ended up coming in handy later. It seemed to almost be the UK equivalent to the US ultrarunning caloric atomic bomb: the frosted honey bun.

The ascent into the Cheviots was muddy (surprise!), windy, and steep. I loved every minute of it. I was still feeling strong and it was a perfect opportunity to capitalize on that.

Photo: Mark Haywood
Photo: Mark Haywood
Photo: Mark Haywood

Between Franklins 200 and my Grand Round attempt I’ve experienced some pretty strong winds. When I reached the top it was unlike anything I’ve ever seen. I didn’t know wind like that could exist outside of something like an actual hurricane. It was aptly named windy crag. The wind was blowing over the ridge as I ran along it, leaning to the side at nearly a 30 degree angle to the ground with my poles bracing me in the opposite direction, trying not to get blown towards the signs that said military testing range don’t touch any unexploded explosives. Because they might, you know, explode.

This is actually before the worst of the wind. Video: Mark Haywood

I made it nearly to the first mountain rescue hut before night fell. I was still moving well, and I had even managed to avoid the giant boggy hole that Galen Reynolds and I had taken a swim in during the Cheviot Goat Race. Then not 100 meters later, still feeling proud of myself, I stepped on what appeared to be a slab that turned out to be a thin sheet of ice covering a bog. Well, I guess what trip to the Cheviots is complete without pulling myself out of waist deep muck? From that point on my poles mostly served to test the ground before I stepped on it.

I had almost been looking forward to the darkness, as it would more easily allow me to check to see if Jayson was closing the gap. I was glad that the next light I would see was in front of me, as someone was waiting for me at the top of a climb. It was someone who had kindly come out to offer encouragement and food.

But as I made it to the top I checked behind me and suddenly saw a light closing in. What?! How could that be? I hadn’t seen a light just moments earlier when I had had a much further view. There’s no way he could’ve closed that fast! The person waiting at the top told me the tracker showed no one even close to me. Phew. But wait, that can’t be either! Jayson couldn’t be that far behind. His tracker must have stopped working!

My apologies to the person who came all that way to offer me support on that hill in the middle of the Cheviots. I panicked, and I’m not sure if I even got another word out before bolting down the other side of the hill. Suddenly I was all out racing again, and felt like I was flying. Apparently whenever I do one of these non-competitive personal challenges like the Grand Round I just need people to hop out from behind bushes and run off in front of me wearing shirts that say “the other guy.”

I kept checking over my shoulder. They were gaining! And quickly! No, no this can’t be. I don’t care if it’s Yiannis Kouros in his prime, no one can move like that nearly 260 miles into a race. Eventually I realized it was inevitable. I couldn’t out run that for another 10 miles. I stopped and anxiously waited. The light approached, and then stopped. I collapsed on the ground in part relief and part exhaustion.

It wasn’t Jayson. It was someone else who had run up to offer support. This is again something that I’ll always look back on as an amazing memory, possibly my favorite story from the race. But at the time, it had absolutely scared me half to death.

I got back to my feet and continued, my new friend joining me for a bit and providing me some much appreciated hot water. But whether from that burst of speed, or from the mental relaxation from no longer feeling challenged, I was finally starting to feel fatigue for the first time since Bellingham. And it was coming fast.

Fortunately I wasn’t far from hut 2. I staggered in and sat down, finally sheltered from the wind. I learned from the safety team there that Jayson had dropped out. It was incredibly disheartening to hear. It seemed he had run such a smart race, been moving so well, and been so kind and gracious every time I saw him. I don’t know that any competitor has ever immediately earned my respect more. If he decides to come back I have no doubt that he can win it in impressive fashion.

He had also tried to get word to me earlier so that I didn’t risk anything over the final stretch, but I was in and out of Byrness before anyone knew. I’m kind of glad I didn’t find out earlier, because once I knew I had a 10+ hour lead every bit of motivation and mental willpower I had left evaporated in an instant. Had he been right behind me I probably would have added a layer, refilled my water, and not wasted any time at hut 2.

Instead I sat, drank 2, 3… I don’t know how many cups of hot chocolate, tried unsuccessfully once or twice to take a nap, and even momentarily considered that I could just go to sleep and finish it in the morning. But I knew that I couldn’t. I had (seven) miles to go before I slept.

With Eugeni’s DNF the year before just a few miles from the finish in mind, I took my time making absolutely sure that my core temperature was good. I hung around there for an hour and a half, my longest stop anywhere other than Middleton. I had just come over 260 miles and now the last 7 (mostly downhill) seemed so daunting.

Finally I got up the courage to head back out, but immediately found that my body had again closely followed my mind’s lead. Every little pain that I had managed to suppress for so long was suddenly screaming at me. I had bargained with my body for 200 miles and it was calling in its debt. My feet’s throbbing was interrupted only by the sharp pain of blisters and freshly blackened toenails on every step. My ankle nearly refused to bear weight on even the slightest downhill. My poles, no longer needed for bog-checking, essentially became crutches.

Last gate? Please? Photo: Spine Race FB
There wasn’t enough runnable ground to stay completely on the grass, but I remember trying to keep my ankle (right foot) off the road. Photo: Spine Race FB

In other races, no matter how bad it’s gotten, I’ve been able to pull myself together and really savor the homestretch. Honestly, there was no joy for me in that portion of the race at all. It was the longest 7 miles of my life and I just wanted it to be over and to get off my feet. With about 2 miles to go I even tried to pull out my phone and call Jessi, desperately trying to distract myself and at the same time wanting to take the opportunity to talk to her before finishing and immediately turning my attention towards sleep. But the call wouldn’t go through. I was on my own, for 2 more agonizing miles.

When I finished Barkley, it was an enormous mental relief when I touched the gate and could finally let my mind relax. When I kissed the wall of The Border Hotel it was much more a physical relief. I didn’t have to force another step upon my feet, and I found the nearest seat I could: a big plant pot (it was actually quite nice and cushy, and without it there I probably would have just ended up on the ground).

Suddenly, the joy was back and incredibly magnified. I have my own memories of that moment, but I don’t think I could describe them as well as the race photographers did with the photos and video below.

Photo: Spine Race FB
Photo: Spine Race FB
Photo: Mick Kenyon

Post-race

This time my mind followed my body’s lead, and as I sat in the plant pot I was finally able to let my focus escape and put myself at ease. For nearly 88 hours I had had tunnel vision, my mind confined to a cage of my own creation. I was happy to be able to have a chat with the wonderful people who had come to wait around, probably for hours, to see me touch a wall. The Spine is truly a special race, and clearly there are a lot of people who agree with that sentiment. Thank you to everyone who came out and made that moment mean even more.

Photo: Mark Haywood

Eventually we moved the conversation from the plant pot to inside the warm pub on an actual couch. I stripped off my numerous layers and was left only with my base layer, the same one that I had left Edale in. From there, an actual shower and actual bed, delayed only by a generous midnight ice cream delivery. My tongue had itself become quite blistered, I suspect from the constant cold, wind, and mouth breathing, and ice cream was one of the few things I could comfortably eat and enjoy.

Putting my feet in the painful but then soothing foot bath. Photo: Mark Haywood

The next morning I had the good fortune of seeing Eoin finish and sharing some conversation. He’s a fantastic person and athlete, and his consistency at this race is remarkable. I particularly enjoyed hearing his thoughts on the conditions this year. He said it was the muddiest / wettest he had ever seen it, which was a bit of a relief to me to hear I hadn’t naively mistaken a “dry” year for a wet one. He’s shared his full race report over on his blog.

Photo: Nicki Lygo

I enjoyed the time in the good company of Eoin, Eugeni, and the race staff and volunteers. I was able to stick around just long enough to see Simon and Wouter finish, but I wanted desperately to get back to Jessi and my kids. There were still many more people to finish, though, all with incredible stories. I’d definitely encourage everyone to head over to the Spine Facebook page and check out the rest of their daily recap videos to see some of those stories.

Looking forward

Recovery from this one was a bit unique. My muscles honestly weren’t all that sore, but my feet were barely usable. With the activity stopped and the adrenaline gone my ankle (which turned out to be posterior tibial tendonitis) became quite swollen and angry with me. I regularly woke up at night over the following week with it throbbing, or completely soaking in sweat (the post-race night sweats are something I’ve never had before). It was 12 days before I ventured back out for an easy run, and even now over 2 weeks later I still have some niggles here and there (like a sore calf, which no doubt did overtime compensating for my messed up ankle for 200 miles). It only took a few days before I mentally felt “competent” again, but again the random moments of feeling like I’ve been hit by a train lasted for weeks.

But the recovery will come, as it always does. I’ll be stronger from it, at least in terms of mental strength and experience. Perhaps the most important aspect of recovery is the motivation and energy, listening to myself in terms of when I’m really eager to get back out there and get at it. I have some goals this year that I’m pretty excited about and that definitely helps with that aspect. Looking towards those next goals doesn’t mean not stopping to enjoy where I’m at, though, and I definitely won’t stop enjoying this one and will always cherish it.

As for whether my future goals might include a return to the Spine, it’s far too early to know. The Spine requires a huge emotional investment, apart from the obvious time investment, and there are a lot of other things I’d like to do as well. I also don’t know if I could return and have an outcome as satisfying as this one. I gave it my all, achieved exactly what I set out to do, I did it in tough conditions with constant challenges, and there’s nothing I wish I had done differently. That’s a rarity in anything, much less an ultra where so many things can happen to wreck a race. I probably haven’t had an outcome this gratifying since finishing Barkley, and last year in particular seemed to be a constant string of coming up just short. All those races where things didn’t come together or that were “close, but not quite” – those just make it all the more gratifying. So for now, I’m just going to enjoy this one.

Barkley vs. Spine

Eoin’s question to me regarding Barkley has been quite frequent, and the best way I’ve thought of summarizing it is that Barkley holds you much closer to the fire, while the Spine holds you there for longer. Also a huge part of the challenge of Barkley is its unpredictability, from the unmarked evolving course to the start time to the conditions (sunny and hot, then well below freezing, sleeting, and foggy just 12 hours later). Part of the challenge of the Spine is the predictability of the conditions, in that they’re predictably horrible (some years just more than others).

In terms of pure difficulty of finishing, of course Barkley is harder. Just look at its 1% finishing rate. But finishing rate is of course largely a function of cutoff time. If the Spine had a cutoff time of say, 80ish hours, then it would be right up there. Sure, no one has gone sub 80 at Spine, but I believe that someday someone definitely will (plus if the bar were set that high I think that performances like Jasmin’s last year could have cleared it with that as the goal and motivation from the outset). I went just under 88, but I know that in Barkley I definitely couldn’t have finished if I had lost the time I did in Spine this year due to navigational errors and poor checkpoint execution.

All in all, Barkley and Spine are very different challenges and even with different objectives. The goal of Barkley is to find your true limits, the goal of Spine is to overcome what you thought they were.

About that record

The other question everyone seems to want to ask is whether I want to go back and take a shot at Jasmin’s record. To be honest, the record was the furthest thing from my mind while I was out there. I was running a race, my goal was to win, and I was constantly being pressured from behind. Racing and running a time trial have very different strategies, and I was in no way willing to lower my chances of winning by going for a record, especially one that’s so highly dependent on race conditions. If I had gotten to a point where the race was completely in hand and I still had a shot at the record, then sure I would have given it a go. But that point never came.

I’m in no way trying to say I could have broken it had I gone for it instead of purely racing. Yes, conditions were tough and I lost a lot of time due to mental errors, but you take the conditions given and good navigation and checkpoint efficiency are as much a part of the race as being able to run fast is. Strength in one doesn’t excuse a weakness in another; all are needed. Jasmin demonstrated that perfectly and executed an incredible race from all angles. Breaking a record at a race like this requires the right person with the right strategy with the right conditions. All that can be said with certainty is that right now that equation equals Jasmin in 2019. It would be difficult for me to invest the time into going back just to go for the record with such a high probability that I could be doomed from the start by poor conditions.

As for the men’s record, I didn’t even know what it was until I finished. On my post race interview you can see me laugh a bit when they told me that my 87:53:57 broke it, partly because I think it’s a bit funny that the record exists. It’s similar to my issues with tiny age groups in triathlons – I never really cared for getting credit for a win in my 30 – 34 year old age group while getting beat by a 29 or a 35 year old. There is no significant natural physiological difference in those ages and no reason I shouldn’t be racing those people directly. Likewise, Jasmin has no natural physiological advantage over me and so I don’t really care to be getting credit for a record that disqualifies her performance. Jasmin has *the* record. Period. Plus I had the distinct advantage of a full, magnificent beard to protect me from the elements. 🧔😄 (I asked a Scottish work colleague with an actually impressive beard if I should shave my sorry excuse for facial hair before the race or leave it… he said he reckoned every little bit would help.)

With all that said, what maybe appeals to me a bit more is the FKT on the route, where conditions can be better controlled and racing isn’t a consideration. Mike Hartley, a fell running legend, did the Pennine Way (supported, in the summer) in 65 hours and 20 minutes, a record that has stood untouched since 1989. It’s, to me, one of those FKTs that has a bit of a magical aura to it. But like the Spine itself, pursuing it requires a big investment of time and emotion, and unfortunately there’s never enough time to do it all.

Gear

And so now the 3rd most frequent thing people have asked: what kit did I have and how did I fit it in that tiny pack? I’ve been quite fortunate to work with a number of great companies over the past few years, and while much of my gear came from them this race also required a bit of shopping to complete the required kit list.

On me

As far as what I was actually wearing, for shoes I had La Sportiva Uragano for the first half and La Sportiva Blizzard for the second half. They’re both basically the same shoe, except the Blizzard has built in spikes (more like studs, not track spikes). They’re both essentially a modified version of the Mutant, with Gore-Tex and a built in gaiter added.

My base layer for the entire race was a pair of XOSKIN tights and a long sleeve form fit top, sometimes these were doubled up when the temperatures dropped. I also had XOSKIN socks – toe socks with normal ones over top. I did change these a few times into dry pairs. I had zero chafage at the end and only the blisters mentioned on my feet that I think were from the constant pressure rather than from friction.

The other key pieces of kit were the Ultimate Direction Ultra Pant, La Sportiva Run Jacket and Mars Jacket, and then an assortment of rotating La Sportiva mid layers. I felt my temperature was quite well regulated throughout the race, and while of course slightly uncomfortable at times (I don’t think it’s possible to have gear that is both fully impervious to those conditions and comfortable to run in) I was never legitimately cold.

For navigation I used my Garmin Forerunner 945 with maps and the course GPX file. It worked great once I took it out of Ultratrac mode. I also had a Garmin Edge 530 with me since the watch alone didn’t meet the kit requirements. For light (pretty important in a race that’s 16 hours of darkness per day) I used a Petzl NAO+. It provided great visibility and I don’t recall ever having to swap batteries outside of a checkpoint or aid station of some sort.

Not pictured: my destroyed waterproof pants / trousers, various midlayers that came and went, and my Garmin Forerunner 945 (it was on my wrist and I forgot to add it to the picture).

In the pack

The timing of this race worked out perfectly to put some of Ultimate Direction’s new gear through the wringer. Originally I tried out a prototype FastPack 20, which fit everything comfortably and with ease. But I wasn’t planning on “fast packing” and I just didn’t feel as fast as I do with a running vest.

So after a good deal of organization and work, I managed to fit everything into the upcoming Adventure Vest 5.0. It still has a 17L volume, but it’s very much a running vest. I was absolutely thrilled to get everything in there, and the built-in rain fly would obviously be quite handy for the Spine. I fit my nutrition and other essentials in the front pockets where they were easily accessible on the move, and the larger back pockets were reserved mainly for the bulky emergency kit that I knew I wouldn’t be using unless my race was over, if even then.

The first time that I figured out how to fit everything in the pack. The rain fly isn’t out here, and in the race I actually never stowed my poles because I only used them on the last section and had them in my drop bag the rest of the time.

The pack was absolutely perfect other than the small mishap with the snapped cord. But that all worked out fine and that’s why they have people like me test the prototypes… they know I’ll properly abuse them and push them to their limits. Next time I’ll just try to do a bit more pre-race testing.

The pack didn’t really leave any extra room in case I needed to add anything during the race, though, so I added a Race Belt 4.0 for some buffer storage. The other trick I often use is to tie my outer jackets around my waist instead of stuffing them in my pack. Sometimes spectators think I’m a woman as I approach because it looks a bit like a skirt, but, you know, worth it.

The two biggest items on the Spine kit list are the sleeping bag and mat. I splurged a bit for these and got a Therm-a-rest Hyperion 32 bag and a Therm-a-rest NeoAir XLite mat. Both are extremely light and pack up amazingly small. Fortunately I’m also just short enough to be able to go with the small / short models.

The other purchases I had to make were a Sol bivvy, a BRS ultralight stove, and a TOAKS titanium pot / pan. Everything else was fairly standard hiking or ultrarunning gear.

Not pictured: my Garmin Edge 530 because it’s back on my bike and I forgot to grab it, and also the first aid kit with all the random medicines we had to take because I had already separated things back out and couldn’t be arsed to put it back together. (properly use British slang in my British race report… Boom! Done)

I was actually kind of happy that I was randomly selected for a full kit check at registration so that I was sure everything met the requirements, but I have pretty mixed feelings about this type of kit list. It seems to be a bit of a European thing. The required kit list for Barkley? Not a thing. If you get out there and don’t have what you need then it’s your own dang fault. And Barkley can have some pretty terrible conditions.

I understand that there are definitely some remote areas where conditions can get bad quickly, and a simple sprained ankle or something can leave someone stranded there. Before a race like the Spine, or any trip into the wilderness, always always be prepared to survive in the worst possible conditions for however long it would take a rescue team to get there (at least one night). But I would sincerely hope that anyone entering a race like the Spine would already know that.

As much as I would hope that, I definitely see the value in ensuring that people don’t try to skimp on necessities. The problem is when the list goes beyond necessities. A spork? A stove, matches, and fuel? Diarrhea medicine? Things that someone might find useful for comfort or for performance, I go back to if they don’t have those it’s their own dang fault. Not a one of those things are going to be necessary or probably even useful in surviving an emergency situation for a night.

The other issue with a kit list like that is people won’t do the proper research and preparation themselves and will think, “oh, if I have everything on the kit list then I must be fine.” When the conditions got bad I took a number of things with me that weren’t on the required kit list because I would or might need them.

No matter what the required kit list is, always pack what you might need. Before you pack what you might need, always have the knowledge and experience to know what you might need.

Nutrition

Ah, nutrition. Probably my favorite topic last. For years now I’ve relied on Hammer Nutrition to provide the foundation for my fueling. Leaving each checkpoint I take a flask of gel with me (usually a raspberry / peanut butter chocolate mix), a few Hammer bars (coconut chocolate chip), and a bottle of Perpeteum (chocolate). I’ll also use Fully Charged, Endurolytes, Endurance BCAA+ (amino acids), and Tissue Rejuvenator as needed. A Fizz tablet (lemon lime) can also do wonders, especially when I’m drinking out of a peat bog.

For races about 10 hours or less, that’s all I use. Quality is much more important than quantity. For races that are ~88 hours long, a lot of quantity has to get piled on top of that. I’m glad that I have that quality foundation because honestly most of that stuff on top is junk. Good calories are the best, but bad calories are better than no calories.

I’ve learned quite well what my body craves, hates, or can tolerate deep into that kind of race, and basically it comes down to pizza, snack cakes, and cookies. Other than the miraculous frozen pizza just before Middleton none of the former was available to me, so snack cakes it was. I did also have some trail mix and beef jerky to fill the protein / savory void left by my lack of pizza.

I found out the hard way at Tor Des Geants that relying on aid station food is a bad idea, even if it saves a bit of pack weight. The Spine checkpoints were great, but I made sure to have enough of my own options with me to get by if I needed to. After visiting family in the US for Christmas and New Year’s I actually had a whole suitcase dedicated to bringing race food back. Not that there aren’t good options in the UK, I just personally haven’t yet tested them as extensively. 😋

54 thoughts on “2020 The Spine Race

  • February 4, 2020 at 1:28 pm
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    Great report! I think we were all very much racing rather than time trialling, and it made for a lot of fun out there for all of us. It was truely a pleasure meeting my favourite tree again, and watching how you handled the adversity of the Spine with aplomb.

    Reply
    • February 4, 2020 at 1:36 pm
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      Thank you very much Eoin! It was great meeting you in a different context where we could actually chat a bit; hopefully the next time will be soon.

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  • February 4, 2020 at 1:57 pm
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    What a race report! I was really excited to read this one after hearing about the random person you thought was Jayson catching you… but what a journey! I laughed a bit too much at the golfball souvenir bit 🙂 hope your son appreciated it 😉

    And my sincerest wishes that you get that 7 figure sponsorship, hopefully from Little Debbie!

    In all seriousness though, congratulations on an incredible race! And thanks for one thoroughly captivating read!

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    • February 4, 2020 at 2:00 pm
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      Haha the golf ball did make it home to my son. It’s currently sitting up on his little shelf of “treasures.” Thank you, and all the best!

      Reply
  • February 4, 2020 at 2:16 pm
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    Hi John, congrats on the race and a fab write up. It strikes me there’re few few ways to see and experience a country than better than your approach while you’re with us. Run its trails and meet its generally lovely running community.
    Also it’s refreshing to read your honesty about wanting to win. The vast majority of us participate out of joy and challenge and community. But we secretly imagine what it would be like to spend a day (or 4 in this case) in your running shoes. All power to you, mate. Best wishes.

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    • February 4, 2020 at 2:26 pm
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      That is definitely one of the things that drew me to trail running: being able to see the things I loved to see backpacking, but seeing more of them given a limited time budget. Maybe one day I’ll be able to properly take them in and enjoy them more casually. Thanks very much, and best wishes for your own adventures.

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      • February 4, 2020 at 4:21 pm
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        Thank you for an amazing report and many congratulations for achieving what you hoped to.
        I have learnt so much about the preparations required for such a challenge, and the wide range of decisions that you had to make! Wishing you every success for your future races. Thank you for being such an inspiration!

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        • February 4, 2020 at 4:23 pm
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          It’s really wonderful to hear when these help with someone’s own preparations or challenges… makes the time put in to writing them well worth it. Thank you, and all the best

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  • February 4, 2020 at 2:36 pm
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    What an adventure. I had never heard of the Spine Race before, until I saw a social media post about you doing it- enjoyed learning about fell running and tracking the race. Glad you were able to pull off a race you are satisfied with – that is always such an elusive feeling and so very rewarding when it does happen. I really appreciate your detailed post race write-ups, lots to learn from.

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    • February 4, 2020 at 4:21 pm
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      Thank you. I’m glad you’ve enjoyed learning about it and hope some of it helps with your own adventures and challenges

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  • February 4, 2020 at 4:07 pm
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    Written like you ran the race – like a data analyst. Precise. Loved the competitive nature that always (mostly!) took precedence. Made for an honest race report. Fair play.

    Ps: Try a vindaloo curry. Might change your mind about the British spice threshold.

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    • February 4, 2020 at 4:22 pm
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      Thank you, and I’ll keep a lookout for the curry and give it a try! (just probably not in the middle of an 88 hour race 😉)

      Reply
  • February 4, 2020 at 4:48 pm
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    Wow! From a dot-watcher’s perspective you were always in a clear lead (except maybe for 2 hours), so it’s interesting to see how much racing there was. Congratulations on the win! Seems to me that races like this, with the length, sleep-deprivation, problem-solving, are exactly your niche. Also, we Czechs have a special place in our hearts for The Spine Race, because of Pavel, so it’s nice to see it in good (metaforical) hands. Congrats again 🙂

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    • February 4, 2020 at 5:39 pm
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      Thank you, and Pavel was great! I hope to see him again, or maybe spend a bit of time in Czechia myself

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  • February 4, 2020 at 5:31 pm
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    High mileage = high word count 🙂 Glad you embrace the Jelly babies…The UK running / fell community welcome you with open arms.

    It was great fun tracking you…

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    • February 4, 2020 at 5:37 pm
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      Thank you, the welcome has been much appreciated and I’m glad you enjoyed following the race

      Reply
  • February 4, 2020 at 5:36 pm
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    Like your style of writing and enthralled dot watching, look forward to reading more adventures

    Reply
    • February 4, 2020 at 5:40 pm
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      I always end up writing these and thinking they’re way too long… but can’t put in the time to edit them down. So thank you, and glad you enjoy the full detail

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  • February 4, 2020 at 6:00 pm
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    Fantastic write up and congratulations on this epic feat. I feel like you have really encapsulated what weather is the United Kingdom is like. Be sure to include your thoughts about competing during races in future reports where necessary, I found it fascinating when you described hunting/being hunted by your competition during such challenging and sleep deprived conditions.

    Regarding the kit list, I completely agree and think that Montane should consider having a Pro kit list or something of a similar nature, where kit that will enable speed is a higher priority to comfort (but not safety). Shame about Ultratrac mode and the lost time due to navigational errors, I have found I can crank about 65 hours out of my FR945 on a single charge with the right settings, but this is without using mapping and routing. Also in terms of kit, do you find the gaiter on the Uragano to be annoying or that your feet overheat in them? I was thinking of investing in a pair.

    Congrats again, Ross 🙂

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    • February 4, 2020 at 6:24 pm
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      Thanks Ross. I did consider that it would be good to have different kit lists with different enforced cutoffs, but I imagine that would quickly get a bit complicated logistically and create an undesired division in the racers. Part of the most exciting thing is seeing people outperform their expectations!

      I thought the Uragano gaiter was great, and I think people would have to put serious effort into getting their feet to overheat in those conditions. I would definitely wear socks that come up above the top of the gaiter though.

      Reply
  • February 4, 2020 at 8:03 pm
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    You should try the summer Spine Race as a contrast. There’s probably 19 or 20 hours usable day light at that time of year although the weather can be even fouler than the winter race.

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    • February 5, 2020 at 10:23 am
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      Well, that depends a bit on your definition of foul. 😉 Everyone has their preferences.

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  • February 5, 2020 at 3:15 am
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    Congratulations john on a fantastic race and win. I love the write ups and am looking forward to your grand round adventure 💪

    Dougie

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    • February 5, 2020 at 10:24 am
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      Thank you, I’m glad you enjoy them! And yes, I have some planning to do…

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      • February 5, 2020 at 1:11 pm
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        Are you planning 2 different starting dates for a weather window?

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  • February 5, 2020 at 6:34 am
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    John, this is a great read to go with a great performance. What an incredible adventure full of twists and turns. How you guys deal with the sleep deprivation is incredible. I remember feeling utterly awful and barely able to function when suffering from new baby induced sleep deprivation and I wasn’t running at all!

    I’ll be sure to be thinking back to this when running my first 50 miler at the Chester 50 in 3 weeks, the low spots come and go and the ultimate reward is there for the taking. Just keep going! And take some Jelly Babies…

    Congratulations.

    Reply
  • February 5, 2020 at 8:02 am
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    A great read, and fascinating to hear your perspective, in terms of prep, strategy and execution! You (and all the Spine racers) are truly inspiring. I loved dot watching….I don’t know how you all do it! Many, many congratulations!

    Reply
    • February 5, 2020 at 10:38 am
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      Thank you very much, and glad we could provide some nearly week long dot watching excitement. 🙂

      Reply
  • February 5, 2020 at 9:20 am
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    Amazing write up. Inspirational attitude, challenge, and accomplishment

    Question: do you have a secret supplier of XOSkin socks in the UK or are you bringing them over yourself? I’ve been looking but cant find any uk suppliers!

    Thanks

    Reply
    • February 5, 2020 at 10:39 am
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      Thanks Jake. Right now I’m bringing them back over myself, but I think they’re looking into getting a UK distributor. I’ll check on if there’s any update on that, but they’re still a fairly small company at the moment.

      Reply
  • February 5, 2020 at 9:41 am
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    Fabulous writeup. I am amazed at how clearly you remember the details of a grueling 88 hour race. I was a dot-watcher from Day 3 and hit F5 on every opportunity to make sure I wasn’t missing your latest position :D. Many many congratulations on the win :-).

    Co-incidentally, we worked at offices next door and I was looking forward to congratulate you personally when you came back, but I see you folks have moved before I got the chance 🙁

    Well, I’ll be following your “marathon” exploits online, more closely here on 🙂

    Reply
    • February 5, 2020 at 10:42 am
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      That’s one big reason I write the details… so I can go back and remember them after I’ve forgotten. 🙂 We didn’t move far, just down to the 2nd floor. So hopefully I’ll still see you sometime, or maybe we can all go grab lunch at some point (I know there are a number of ultrarunners in the building, and I’m on the DL Slack). In any case, thanks very much!

      Reply
      • February 5, 2020 at 3:04 pm
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        Thanks for an excellent and very detailed write up John. Congrats on the win, and I’m very impressed by your use of English slang, and your fondness for UK snacks. Tunnocks are a true wonder. Great to see you talk at the NEC running show the other week. I look forward to reading about many more adventures to come.

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        • February 5, 2020 at 4:08 pm
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          Haha thank you, glad I used it correctly! I also found out this week that dark chocolate Tunnock’s are a thing… I’m on a mission to find some now.

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  • February 5, 2020 at 1:17 pm
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    What a fantastic report. I love not only how thorough and detailed it is, but also (other than not remembering anything of Hawes) how fantastically accurate you paint every part of the journey, the aid stations, route and towns, etc. It’s like you’re a local doing this route for the 1000th time not (largely) the first time. I suspect it’s an indication of the dedication you put into the preparation, and every other part, of any race and training.

    Well done John.

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    • February 5, 2020 at 4:06 pm
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      Thank you very much. We’re already planning a family trip back along the route to enjoy a few of the highlights in a much more relaxed way, maybe after that I can count as local. 😛

      Reply
  • February 5, 2020 at 5:42 pm
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    Great report John and it was fantastic to follow the race via the tracker. I wrote this on a friend’s Facebook just as Jayson and yourself were at Bellingham – “It’s all about who can keep moving without resting too much now. Jayson looks in good shape from the videos. It will be incredible if he wins.” – unfortunately Jayson dropped soon after but it would have been intriguing to see how the race would have unfolded as he proved a canny competitor. Top work.

    Reply
    • February 5, 2020 at 7:37 pm
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      Thanks. It was an exciting race, and there are many factors that played into how it unfolded, getting enough rest being one of them.

      Reply
  • February 6, 2020 at 12:08 am
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    Congratulations and thanks for a great write-up. I must say I backtracked a few times at the part where you said you recently had HFM – hopefully it was mild. HFM is no joke, I hope your daughter is feeling better!

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    • February 6, 2020 at 5:12 am
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      Thank you, and yeah mine was fairly mild. My daughter’s was a bit worse. Seems the same strain can affect different people everywhere from severely to not at all.

      Reply
  • February 6, 2020 at 6:02 pm
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    Thank you John for a great insight to your race and tactics. I assume that despite the Uragano or Blizzard being Gore Tex, you would have run most of the race with wet feet or were your socks also waterproof.

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    • February 6, 2020 at 6:59 pm
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      Nope, feet were wet. Wet but comfortable, which is preferable to the opposite. Nothing Gore-tex can do in knee+ deep bogs, or even from constant inundation water will seep through eventually.

      Reply
  • February 7, 2020 at 10:55 am
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    Thank you for such an interesting and insightful report. I enjoyed reading it as much as I did watching the dots and am inspired to run/walk The Pennine Way over a lot longer a period in the summer. Disappointing to note that we Brits aren’t up to speed with spiciness. I always thought we were pretty hard core :).

    Reply
  • February 8, 2020 at 4:56 am
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    Great read. Thank you.

    Reply
  • February 9, 2020 at 7:20 am
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    John. Thank you so much. Such an amazing report. I followed the dots. I listened to your interview on TalkUltra. And reading this was very enjoyable. And I agree very much on your choice of British goodies. Jaffa cakes. Tunnocks. Malt Loaf. 👍😀

    Reply
    • February 11, 2020 at 5:24 pm
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      Thanks for following and glad you enjoyed! Haha yeah malt loaf is another good one I don’t think I mentioned. It’s on the spreadsheet though. 😉

      Reply
  • February 10, 2020 at 9:45 am
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    Thanks for this one too, your reports are never too long! I don’t remember having read you in such a competitive mode before, was an interesting take 🙂 best wishes in your future endeavours, I’m stepping up to 50k end of April 😀

    Reply
    • February 12, 2020 at 12:01 pm
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      Glad you enjoy the full detail! I’m always in a competitive mode (unless it’s a “just for fun” race), but competing for the win definitely does take things to another level. All the best with your 50K!

      Reply
  • February 19, 2020 at 11:03 pm
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    Fascinating and moving report! Thanks so much for taking the time to include the pictures and videos with it. Can you give any further detail on how you kept your hands and head warm- the gloves/overmitts and hats you used and how effective they were?

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    • February 20, 2020 at 12:40 pm
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      Thanks Keith. I mostly used La Sportiva Stretch Gloves and as needed Race Overgloves. Headwear rotated quite a bit, largely just to whatever was driest. Something people often overlook is that keeping your core warm is actually quite important for keeping your extremities comfortable.

      Reply
  • February 23, 2020 at 6:47 pm
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    Super achievement John. Really well done. And fascinating insight into it in your report. Can I ask what make/model of portable charger you use for long races like this and TDG?

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    • February 26, 2020 at 10:47 am
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      Thank you. I just grab whichever charger; I have a few. I think at least one is an Anker. They’re just batteries, so wouldn’t expect a huge difference. Just go with the capacity / weight tradeoff that’s best for the event.

      Reply

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