Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Spine Race Preparation

I had an interesting time at The Spine Race training weekend, where I presented a short session on 'The Skillset'.  In a mixed programmme including a general intro from Scott as organiser,  and Stu Westfield talking about navigation skills, my session was the general stuff which makes for a successful ultra or expedition race. Two time Spine Race finisher, Gary Morrison, spoke about his gear choices, and there hs been much discussion on t'web about equipment and other race stuff.

Rather than get into specifics my presentation  was about skills rather than gear, although certain techniques cross-over into this.   As the weekend progressed,  and a thread developed on facebook, it has become apparent to many that the skills of an 'expeditioner' are essential for the 'The Race'.

Is this a trail race or an expedition?

Core Skill 1)  - Manage your Physical / Mental / Emotional state

Surely, your objective is to move steadily northwards along the Pennine Way, so that you reach the end? How fast you do this is somewhat irrelevant.  'To Finish First ...First you have to Finish'

We are not machines.  If you just aim to run as fast as you can then good luck to you!  Equally, I'm not going to tell you how to train, or give you any magic stuff about schedules, etc. But, you must pace it right; not just physically, but mentally and emotionally as well.

If you don't believe in yourself, if you can't picture getting to The End, then you aren't going to do it.  Others may be more qualified than me in talking psychology, but in my long career as an ultra runner and expedition adventure racer, I've learnt that the most important part of my body, and the most powerful, is my head.

Spine Race Day Three - A66 - Note the icy and frozen bottle. Cold, minus -6, with windchill, much much more. What will the weather be like in 2014/ If it's a normal British winter of wet and windy, it will be just as hard.


The first session was presented by Stu Westfield, who talked about Navigation skills.  Naturally navigation is a core skill for anyone entering The Spine, and I can not stress too highly how important it is. In terms of skillset, then good, confident (and relatively) basic skills should see you through most of it.  Navigation isn't rocket science ... but contours are crucial and an understanding of these is paramount to navigation.

I'm not anti-GPS, but I don't know any good trail runners who use one as their primary tool.  They are not as quick, or as accurate as you think. Certainly, in terms of mountain running they are slow and alienate you from your surroundings. Who wants to 'run' 270 miles watching an arrow on a little screen? 

But, they do have their uses; they are a useful back-up tool and a six figure grid reference will put you within a 100m square, subject to an accuracy of around 85%.  Thus, the other features that you deduce from the map and the terrain remain important.

Compasses should not be feared.  I have never fathomed out why so many of us are fearful of them. I guess it's long boring lessons with crumbly geography teachers*, scout leaders or 'DofE' that turned many off and hence they decided 'they just can't do it'.  Magnetic variation seems to be the real culprit, the mystical art of navigation that only the scientist can master. And we seem to be building a generation who can't equate to a map due to Sat-Nav and google mapping systems ...the every day need isn't there anymore.

(* of course, not all geography teachers are crumbly; mine were great.  And my brother is all three of the above and is an excellent tutor)

For much of the time, the trail runner / mountain runner can forget about magnetic variation (which is now only two degrees, rather than the eight it was when I was a kid!) so what's a potential error of 2-4 degree when you've got a map and so much other info to use instead?  So for general route finding, trail following, mile munching (macro) navigation a quick/rough bearing is all you need.  Yes, at times - thick foggy conditions on open fell tops - greater accuracy can be needed. But don't fear the compass....!

If you want to improve your navigation skills, www.nav4.co.uk providea range of course, including a specific Spine Race Recce / Training day, on Sunday 15th December.  The day will 'run' from Dufton to Alston, and over the high, wild and remote Crossfell.  Check out the link and get booked asap.  Other days / sessions can be arranged.

Core Skill 3) - 'Run?'  - Pace it, to finish it.

My great team mate, John Allen, alledgedly coined the phrase 'Start Steady ... and Taper-off!!'. The NAV4 Adventure team had developed a reputation for finishing strongly in Exped Adventure Races with this mantraWhat it means in realitity was that if John felt he was going too slowly in the first day of a race (as other people left us behind) then it was the correct pace and we'd overtake many teams during Day Two, Day Three, Day Four ...etc.  This will be so true in January at The Spine Race.

'Run?' - don't be afraid to walk. It's a marathon, not a sprint.... blah, blah.

Early in my long distance racing career, a very experienced marathon runner once told me that you 'should jog the first third, run the second third and race the last third' .  A negative split would be even more impressive.

Core Skill 4) - Sleep Strategy

I've fronted many questions about 'tents v. bivis' ... and there is no straight answer!  The skill of the user is a big factor in this, as does your whereabouts, and the gear you are able to afford.

When to sleep is a big question.  In expedition racing, I'd strongly suggest getting a minimum of three hours sleep between midnight and 5am each night.    Sleep deprevation is a very dangerous issue if not managed correctly.  You will make mistakes, you will probably get lost, and to carry on in some sort of macho, 'I can go for forty hours before I need sleep' is just going to impact later on in your race.

Where to sleep, given the distance splits between CP1 and CP2 is the subject of much debate.  If you are racing The Challenger, then your strategy will be different than those in The Spine Race.  Note the use of the words 'racing' and 'Spine'. .... they are not in the same sentence.

Tent v. Bivi?  It's your choice but a flexible approach might be better.

Finally, in Exped Racing, we try not to sleep in Checkpoints, simply because they are too noisy.  Just an idea...!

Core Skill 4) - Equipment Choice

'Every gram counts!'   

Ok, so what do we mean? The weight of your rucsac is crucial and every gram counts. Weigh everything, look for lighter alternatives, cut out the unneccesary clutter ...but BE SAFE. Do not skimp on survival gear.

Your gear must work for you, it should have many different layers that you can vary dependent upon conditions. I've long been a user of Montane clothing and this Krypton jacket is my standard choice in all conditions. I simply layer it up with different thicknesses of thermal base layers underneath, and then choice which waterproof to wear over it,  if it starts raining. To wear a waterprrof shell when it is not raining is wrong; you will sweat regardless of how expense it is, and, more importantly, you won't adjust your layers once it does rain, but carry on and after lots of rain you inevitably get cold.  Trust me ... I know!

Montane Krypton - soooo adaptable!
'Less is More'

Ok, every gram counts on your back, but it also applies to your Checkpoint kit bag.   Race rules allow a 60 litre / 22kg bag that is transported between each CP.  I'd suggest 30% of this will be food.  Another 30% is probably a second sleeping bag and mat for checkpoint use, add in the essential flip flops or Crocs, and you are looking at not much space!  So your spare gear, your additional clothing choices have to be chosen carefully.  Ok, six pairs of socks are a given.  As are heavy weight thermal running leggings / tights, and a couple of good mid-layers and fullweight 'Mountain Waterproof' for the wild northern sections. I doubt you'll have space for five sets of clothing. Plastic bags for dirty socks, etc. and a sealable 'laundry bag' for items confined to washing machine. 

You really need to sort this out sooner rather than later and make sure you weigh your bag, and can do up the zip easily.  A burst zip will not help you or the event staff.

Core Skill 5) - Food and Drink
Expedition Race Food ... if your counting gels ...you're in the wrong race!
Eat plenty

'I'll eat 'owt, me!'    said team-mate Dave, when questioned about our secret race nutrition plan...!

A varied and balanced diet is key.  There are limitations to what you can carry, and very limited opportunities to buy stuff en-route, so you need to think this all through. Savoury food is very good, and obviously you will get essential proteins and carbohydrates.  You need to be a bit creative, for example frozen pizza slices keep well in CP Duffle Bags and make a great change to the huge range of chewy, flapjack and cereal bars.

Core Skill 6)   - Footwear

When you cover a long distance your feet tend to swell...
When you cover a long distance you might get blisters or sore toes...
Sore toes like roomy shoes.

Footcare is essential, and your CP Duffle Bag needs a few items to enable this

Good foot care is essential - self taping is a core skill.
Footwear choice is a matter of personal preference.  Last year, whilst helping out for five days in the latter stages of The Spine, I noticed that many people had already moved into boots rather than shoes, which they bought along ...'just in case'.  The Inov-8 boot seems to be very well worth considering.

A more substantial 'approach' style shoe or lightweight boot might be better for some people. 

Weather you try the dry feet regime, by using Seal Skin Socks, or someother water-resistant sock is worth experimenting with.  Sweat will remain an issue no matter what water proof status your footwear.

Core Skill 7) - Time Never Stops

Monitor the time at Checkpoints .. have a plan ... and an alarm clock!

Moving steadily and efficiently one trail is a key skill.  Moving swiftly through checkpoints is also something tend to forget, as they end of chatting away and deciding whether change a layer or move some gear around.  Cut the faff: anything you can do on the move, eat, navigate, etc, you should do so.

Triathletes call 'transitions' the fourth discipline, and experienced racers are very effective in checkpoints.  You should have a plan, and stick to it. If footcare is to be done, get your shoes off and your Crocs, on asap, in orde rto dry and air your feet.  Change clothes, witha dry base layer going next to the skin, even if you put the sweaty layers back on top! Eat, pack your gear for the next stage ... then sleep ready to go as soon as you wake up.  Re-packing your sac when you've just woken up and you are dis-orinentated is tough!

Get some sleep - staring into space in a checkpoint acheives nothing. Learn to switch-off mentally (hence gear is ready to go, etc)  and set the alarm for 3-4hours of quality sleep.  Any less than this and it's false ecomomy.

Core Skill 8) - Remain in The Bubble

Buy yourself a simple 'Numpty' Race Phone, and leave your smart phone at home, or sealed in your CP Duffle Bag just for use at The End.   There are various reasons for this, but primarily weight saving prolonging battery life, and ultimately your own life.

Smart phone versus 'Race Phone'

The battery on a simple £10 'Race Phone' will probably last the week if used just for basic texts.  It is also less than half the weight of the typical Smart phone and a lot less vulnerable to damage or loss.

In a worst case scenario, one of quite possibly life-or-death, you will need yourRace phone to have a full charged battery.  If you, or one of your race mates, need Mountain Rescue then having a flat or weak battery will be a major disadvantage to the search procedure.

Your 'Race Phone' should be loaded with credit and the key phone numbers of the race organisation as well as some of your family and friends. However, I suggest you do not import all your contacts and you do not use it for anything but a daily text check, or two contact the race organisers as requested.

The other aspect of not carrying and using your everyday 'Smart' phone is that it enables you stay 'in the bubble'.  Phoning home when your are suffering badly and simply having a 'downer' usually results in a strong emotional draw back home, and probably result in initiating your DNF.  You need to remain focused on 'your' race ... and not that of your nearest and dearest.  It might sound harsh, but your focus will be broken by daily chat and trivia.  Save the Smart phone for the end, or maybe a Checkpoint.

Core Skill 9) - Waste Management
Dispose of litter in the proper place ... and not on the trail.

I shouldn't need to be said but dropping litter anywhere in the outdoors must never happen.  More importantly, if you see any litter, especially if it has come from a competitor in the race, you should pick it up.

Human Waste 

The disposal of human waste is an even more important issue and a growing problem in the outdoor environment.   There are simply more people active outdoors,  and a greater percentage of those do not seem to have been educated, or learnt 'How to Shit in the Woods'  There was an excellent book of this title published many years ago I suggest we all read it.  With 150 + people travelling 270 miles over seven days we must take a responsible approach to this problem.

Breifly, if you need to 'go' on the trail, it is essential to find a location that is well away from a water source, and well away from the trail.  Ask yourself; 'what if someone uncovers this rock?'  'Where does this gateway lead to?'   'Whose land is this?'  And it applies to liquids as well as solids.

All human faeces should be buried, and buried as deep as possible, and you should practise this finding a spot where you can at least kick a hole in the turf with your heel, and recover the matter so that it will not be discovered or cause offence.

'Nuff said ....!
Finally, just apply a little common sense ... have fun out there, and be safe. And close the gates, please.

If you have any questions or comments arising form this blog I'd be pleased to hear them, either by email - nav4adventure@gmail.com or via facebook - NAV4 Adventure.  If you'd like to book a place on the Dufton - Crossfell - Alston Training / Recce Day on Sun 15th Dec, please email me to secure your place.  If I can help in any other way please let me know.