Tuesday, 11 February 2014

The Spine Race - 'A View From Behind the Dots' - Part I

Some people have emailed me asking for my views on The Spine.

Some expected me to be running in it, whilst others appreciate that I was out there for eight, or nine days in a support role.   I haven't been wanting to write anything until now. I some ways it's not mine to write about as I was only working in a support role providing Mountain Safety for the event.  

There are many blogs already out there, and I'm full of admiration for many competitors who got so far in the event, and I haven't really got an exciting story to tell. Having said that my perspective is a pretty unique unique one and there are many different perspectives on The Spine generally.

Overall it was fun. In parts it was very tough, tedious, stressfull, and frustrating, but ultimately invigorating and rewarding in that I was helping runners achieve the what they could do.  What I've tried to write is what I did for a week, just to give you some idea what goes on behind the scenes.  Next year, I'm looking forward to taking part, maybe. I hope the NAV4 Adventure team will be there once again to provide Mountain Safety Cover once again. There are several people who need to be thanked for their enormous and tireless contribution - you know who you are, I don't need to name you.  I know the runners, and certainly myself, are very grateful.

Well, after helping out last year, NAV4 Adventure had been asked to provide Mountain Safety Cover. Last year, I'd gone to help mid-week for a day or so, but ended up spending five days supporting the race Northwards along the Pennine Way to the end. This was partially due to need, part due to concern and but also because I couldn't really drive home due to snow!  Last year the event was blighted with frequent weather fronts dumping snow along up the route and dumping a huge amount on the final high level Cheviot section. This made driving and logistics generally a very testing task, not to mention being in the hills on foot.  The event hit the headlines due to the epic snow conditions and the very really need for excellent hillskills and survival of some who could quite easily have died. This year the weather was generally 'just wet and windy' ... so a normal British winter!

So, Where to Start?
Well four weeks ago today, I was driving on sketchy roads from Teesdale to Swaledale to Wensleydale and back again to collect a retired runner and missing laptop.

Prepare for the worst ... and things will be better! 
'Forewarned is Forearmed' ... 'Fail to prepare, prepare to fail' and all that, so this year I was there for the duration with a car load of gear, food and had my colleague Stu Smith with me for the week. However, Stu was going to set off on The Challenger route (just the first 106 miles of the Spine) before helping out with the Safety Cover later in the week.  No worries, the first two days (36 hours) are straight forward!

Safety Cover is not glamorous; in fact it involves long periods of sitting in car parks, or perched on verges near road crossings or standing on isolated lumps of hills trying to maximise very limited phone signal so that you can send and recieve intermittent text messages.  Communication with colleagues is far from straight forward as phone signal wafts around on the breeze and your team mates may be dozens of miles away in a straight line, and may be a couple of hours drive by road.  But, I've worked outdoors for decades and so I can look after myself and others and know what I'm doing, and enjoy it.

This year The Spine had involved James Thurlow's excellent Open Adventure's tracking devices, which, if you are sitting looking at a good internet connection does may life a lot more interesting and appear a little safer.   They certainly add a huge new dimension on social media .... but ultimately do not make a runner totally safe.  Regular readers of this blog will know that I strongly believe self-reliance and Sound Mountain Judgement (SMJ) is a core base skill for all mountain runners, and I remain concerned that they promote a culture of runners pushing themselves too far and give a false sense of safety and security.

There is nothing more frustrating than watching a tracker dot move in the wrong direction.  Perhaps, not watching it move at all is worse, or .... well, let's just agree ... there are a few small disadvantages but managed well these are not insurmountable.  Therefore, whilst monitoring road crossings and hill tops 'on the ground' we note down times and numbers of runners manually as well as performing 'welfare checks' on everyone.

However, the Spine has only five formal checkpoints over a distance of 268 miles, hence the distances between are around 45-50 miles per stage.  Assume an average of 3 miles per hour for all 'runners' and you are quickly looking at stage times of 12, 15 or 18 hours.  So, managing all this in remote areas where phone coverage and Wifi connections are sparse relies all lot on old school methods.  What this means in practise is taking regular 'manual' screen grabs' and computing ETA and speed predictions of each runner, bearing in mind that some will sleep only in a CP, whilst others are skilled and intend to sleep on the trail.
( Remember - all entrants are equipped to sleep on the trail, carrying full bivi / camping gear)  

Back to where I was this time four weeks ago;  Trying to find Annie, who (who quite wisely, as a Spine 2013 Survivor) had turned around on Great Shunner Fell and returned back to the Hawes Checkpoint having made a 'SMJ' decision.  Unfortunately for Annie, Race Control had left Hawes some hours ago, and moved upto Middle-in-Teesdale (CP3) where facilities are very good at Kingsway Centure in terms of beds, showers, and Wifi.

Remember when I said it's frustrating not watching a tracker move? Well watching a dot sit in the middle of a village and not being able to locate a very distinctive dark skinned petite highly trained athlete with a huge rucsac was incredibly frustrating.  Fortunately, the Maket Hall caretaker where CP2 had been sited, various market traders in the main street and two very helpful staff within the local Spar helped me locate Annie who had quite righty got herself into a B&B for a few hours.  It was an unfortunate set of factors, as we had staff on the ground at road crossings ahead of where Annie had turned around (Annie and her little group were back markers.) and so if she continued we'd have swept her up sooner.  Hindsight is a wonderful thing but not having a 'back marker' was a mistake.

So, What About The First Few Days?
Well, Day One being Friday involved packing, shopping and further packing, before dropping Stuarts car in Hawes, ready for his Spine Challenger finish, before driving to Edale. A very busy evening of race briefings,  a quick bite to eat and an excellent cheeky beer, before further staff intros and the inevitable 'faff' filled a very long day.

Stuart waiting for chips and sussing out Hawes CP2.

A very short Friday night preceeded an early 5.30am start on Saturday with the majority of kit-checks still to be done prior to the 8am start.  Kit-checks, or more accurately, the small and very light sacs that a handful of runners presented did give some cause for concern and have caused much discussion about  runners skimping on gear, or even cheating.  In my role as Mountain Safety  I personally checked the kit of three runners who were referred to me and had what I call 'Elite Racing Kit' and I can assure you they all had the required kit; their kit was 'legal' in terms of the kit list.  Whether each runner has the fitness and skills to operate and survial with such 'ERK' is always a concern. One Spine Challenger racer, Marcus Scotney, is well known to me, having worked with me on our NAV4 Aventure Mountain Running courses, and together we have presented workshops entitled 'Every Gram Counts'.  The second runner presenting 'ERK' seemed very well sorted too,  although the third did worry me appearing a little naive in terms of the 'skinniness' of his gear. I think he was unaware of the nature of the terrain and hence speed he may well be moving at, (and how cold he would get) especially in the latter stages of the his Spine Challenger Race.  He did have a support person who would be meeting him at road-crossings, so ...(Just 106 miles for The Challenger, remember)

The view from the kitchen during race briefing ...

All The Gear No Idea?

There is definitely a hard core of Spiners who have learnt that to skimp on gear and food is false economy and even dangerous.  Equally so, there were some huge rucsacs on the start line, which isn't a great idea either....
This is not a trail race. Indeed, after last year's Spine I was tasked to write some notes in preparation for a magazine article along the lines of  'How to Train for The Spine'  ... but the editor quickly concluded that, 'This isn't really trail running is it!'  Hence the article never got to print.

What is apparent to me is that those who do well, and certainly those who get to the end of The Spine or Challenger, have some solid hill walking experience, probably have lightweight backpacking experience, and experience of mountain marathons, and probably some winter walking experience as well.   The ability to navigate simply using a map and compass is also a given for these type of  mountain runners. And a competitors ability as a 'runner' counts for relatively little on The Spine.

Day One - Rat Race
After the frantic pre-start checks, runners were blighted by an unexpected sleet shower whilst standing on the start line, just as if  The Spine was just giving them all a little prod to say, 'Don't mess with me!'

Departing from Edale, laden with some runners 'drop bags' due to kit explosion that had developed and the sheer volume of bags involved, I drove to the first road crossing on top of Snake Pass. I was being followed by Dr Fiona equally laden with drop-bags, but as we drove up The Snake the snow was lying and starting to stick.
Marcus and Stuart just before the start - great NAV4 tutors

There was no real need for us to be on Snake Pass and our intention was just to observe and conduct some random kit-checks and welfare checks but with the snow covering the road, and cars struggling for grip, this simply wasn't the place to stop.  A local Mountain Rescue Team were due to sweep the first stages of the route and a handful of private supporters had taken the available parking spaces.  Therefore, we moved quickly onto road-crossing No.2 near Crowden.  What struck me very vividly here was just how fast some runners were going, supported by some very enthusiastic personal support teams.  Having performed our ad-hoc duties we decided to move onto a later road-crossing, via a coffee shop, diesel and Wifi stop. 

And so that was the pattern of the day and Stage One. At Hebden Bridge, having driven 85 miles in six hours, we arrived at the front end of the race to help set up and await the front runners.  Naomi and Jamie had come to boost numbers in our Mountain Safety team (Naomi was a medic last year and both her and Jamie are very competent mountaineers) and so they went back out on to the course to observe and perform more random kit and welfare checks on runners.

Marcus arrived leading The Spine Challenger in the early evening, already geared up with his head torch on and layered for the cold evening to come. Marcus was certainly on a mission (this guy has run 100km for Team GB in around seven hours, and is an excellent orienteer and has planned the KIMM, so he has all the bases covered. ) His kit-check was brief and perfunctionary and he was out into the dark dank evening. 

During the Saturday night, Naomi and Jamie and myself played leap frog in two cars as we monitored road crossings on the challenging broken terrain towards Gargrave, which is the start of the Yorkshire Dales proper and Limestone country.   Amazingly, I actually managed to be horizontal my car, in a cosy sleeping bag for nine hours that night, perched high on the Lancashire moors with a grand view of Pendle Hill and Lancashire towns.  Unfortunately for me I had runners coming passed every 30mins to an hour so sleep was not entirely deep or slumberful.

Day Two - Malham, Pen-y-Ghent (and The Hill No-One Has Heard Of.

Naomi, Jamie and myself were grateful to get to Malham (CP1.5) where the stoic John Bamber, Paul Shorrocks and team were running an intermediate checkpoint were many entrants choose to stop and sleep or rest for a while.  Despite John's roomy mess tent and multiple petrol stoves going non-stop is was a cold, damp, muddy, and miserable place, but offered some welcome relief to all. And he makes good tea!

We were now towards the front of the bulk of runners, although the leaders were well gone.  Pen-y-Gent is well known as being one of  The Yorkshire Three Peaks; it is steep with two very minor rocky steps.  Late in theafternoon we went up to take a look at conditions and assess whether it was safe given the weather forecast including increasing wind and possible icying of the path. It was good to get moving and we had a blast up the path to the summit. Conditions were dry and a bit breezy without any snow or ice.  But in the dark it would appear very different to a cold and wet and tired runner, who had been out for 36-48 hours, maybe without any proper sleep.

Pen-y-Ghent route options - quick over the top or long way around

It was great having help from Naomi and Jamie but both had to be home for work on Monday so I was left to another night in the car, monitoing the road between Pen-y-Ghent and Fountains Fell.  In terms of height Fountains Fell (the hill no-one has heard of) is nearly as high as PyGhent. In terms of bulk, bogginess and intermittent paths it is a lot bigger than PyGhent and several entrants arrived through the night, grouped together for commaderie and safety, having been battered and bruised by weather and bogs. Two competitors actually thought they had been over Pen-y-Ghent when they arrive at my control.

Several entrants aborted here, two or three at my location and a few more over the hill at Horton. The weather had become wet and windy, and clearly some were way out of comfort zone and succumbing to injury, battered or blistered feet and even mild hypothermia. Entrants were also advised to miss out the summit of PyGhent if they felt it too much for them and given the lower route option around Horton.  A bus was arranged to ferry those withdrawing upto CP  at Hawes.

My night at Dalehead was very long, wet and windy, and without proper sleep. I was in and out of the car repeatedly to check on weather conditions, expecially wind and any possible icing of the gritstone paths.       I was now monitoring the back off the field and spent the next morning ticking off the remainder of entrants and tracking down the back markers.  It was evident to me that some at the back were really struggling to maintain the average required and with very poor phone coverage I drove back around to Malham to cross-reference info about the tail-enders, and exchange texts and then phone messages with James and Charlotte who were watching trackers at Race Control in Hawes.

The big unknown at this stage is that some runners stop and camp for several hours, which really messes with tracker dot watching and raises the issue of whether they are in difficulty or just asleep.  But more of this later in the week....

So - Sunday is Now Monday .... and so to Middleton (CP3)   

Hawes Market Hall (CP2) was quietly busy with battered runners, sleep depraved staff and a strange mixed sense of satisfaction for some. This is the end of Spine Challenger, but for The Spiners, is not even half way.  The checkpoint was running as best it can in such circumstances, and I managed to catch up with Dr Fiona and Stuart Smith, who had both been working hard at Hawes and out on the hills.  (Fiona's original brief was one of competitor and staff cognitive welfare but who became increasingly involved in catering and kitchen duties and did an excellent job in very difficult circumstances.)  James Thurlow and his PA, Charlotte, were driving lap tops and monitoring trackers, so it was time for the three of us to move ahead and towards the front end of the race again.

Consequently, arriving at after a very scary 90min drive, Middleton-in Teesdale the situation was relatively calm. Kingsway Centre was spacious for our needs, offering room for all to relax a little, showers, bunk beds in dorms and the general atmosphere was calmer.  After a very nice mushroom lasagne and side salad, Stu and myself managed to grab a short nights sleep, may be six hours.

It was early the next morning that we got the call to say Annie was retreating back to Hawes, which in turn needed both me a Stuart to drive in convoy back Southward as naturally there were still many entrants strung out over a very wide area.  We were luck with the weather and snow conditions, as overnight there had been snow showers.  We stayed on main roads where possible but, after a discussion about road conditions on the side of the busy A66 decided to cut up across country on tiny snow smattered roads to Tan Hill (the highest pub in England) Ben and Gary had been monitoring runners here for around 24hours and were asleep in their car, so Stu stayed parked alongside of them and I went onto Hawes to find Annie and the laptop.

With Anne and laptop located, and with Stu, Ben and Gary remaining at Tanhill, I was able to drive a longer, safer and probably quicker route back around to Middleton. Middleton was becoming increasingly busy with runners, and Race Control was now located here as it was in centre of operations, with runners strung out between Keld and Hadrian's Wall.
There are moments of relaxation ....sometimes

There is a race cut-off of 84 hours at Middleton-in-Teesdale. As this dealine approached, I watched  competitors appeared out of bunk rooms in various states of disray and distress, readying themselves for the trail ahead.   Some are were hobbling and needed an inordinate amount of medial footcare to simply getting them moving around the centre. Others were looking good; looking after yourself on The Spine is crucial. I was concern for the safety of all of them as the next stage of the route would take them over the Pennine watershed and onto the highest part of the route - Crossfell.

Steve Hayes multi-tasking at Middleton..

There is a long valley section up the Teesdale valley from Middleton before the route crosses above the notorious Cauldron Snout (an impressive waterfall below Cow Green dam outlet)   Phone coverage is non-existent here and there is a long black spot on the tracking system just in the worse possible place where competitors are most vulnerable.  Therefore, I had planned to drive upto near Cauldron Snout and walked in to spend a long night monitoring competitors as they passed over the bridge between the dam and very impressive waterfall.  The competitors at this stage are generally very good at looking after themselves and each other.  Although the terrain is remote, it is not too rough and the navigation relatively straight forward.  However, it is a very testing time for the Mountain Safety team, especially as it's a very long drive around to Dufton, the next road crossing, which was to become an informal CP3.5. We had Darren Hunt position at Dufton and I was keen to avoid any unneccessary driving as it is by far the most dangerous activity we undertake during the week.

Cauldron Snout - Crossfell - Big Wild Terrain

In some strange way I really enjoyed my six hours at Cauldron. The weather was kind to me with medium to high cloud, no rain and fairly good visibility back down the trail. I had some shelter, a Jetboil and some interesting food, so what could be wrong. From my monitoring point I could see a couple of miles back down the trail and by timing the head torches travelling in small groups coming towards me I had a good a very good handle on all but one competitor, who never appeared along the riverside path.   The sense of doom and concern was ever present. I walked back along the river checking out as to whether he may have camped because I was aware that he was probably short on sleep having been tight against the cut-off at MiT CP3.

Cauldron Snout - (testing new camera)

Sadly, I could not locate the missing competitor so I had no alternative to drive onward Alston and confer with Race Control.  The missing tracker had not moved or registered for some hours and so it was difficult to know what to do. 'RNI' - Radical Non-Intervention'. Most trackers had burst into life a few hours after passing through the blackspot, so this was a chance to grab a few hours sleep ....once again in the back of my car away from all the bustle of the CP and Race Control.

Early next morning, the tracker still hadn't moved and so we need to go and search the area where it last operated. Stuart Smith, Stu Westerfield, Ben Taylor and myself drove back out to Cauldron in two cars and the three of them performed a good search of the area, from both road heads, where the competitor could have been.  I monitored the road and tried my best to get phone coverage. Suffice to say, eventually the tracker did start to move but on the western side of the watershed.  With Darren having left Dufton and CP3.5 no longer in place, Stu W, Ben and myself drove the long way around whilst Stu went straight back to base to help co-ordinate further cover.  Eventually, we found the missing competitor, some way off track and bought him back to race control at Alston, CP4. It had been a very long night and day for all of us.

Whilst all this was going on, John Bamber and Paul Shorrocks had spent 48 hours high in a mountain hut on Crossfell, offering support to all. Weather conditions had been bad enough for them to 'close' the moutain for a few hours whilst a snow storm had dropped several inches on the hills. During this time, competitors had camped at Dufton CP3.5.

Wednesday. Or is it Thursday?

The trail north of Crossfell is lower lying and more of a trail than the high fells, but these low lying sections tend to be very muddy in places and the navigation requires constant monitoring through farmland looking for gates and stiles in field corners.  The section on Hadrians Wall, is rocky and paved, but also hilly with steep steps both up and down, and from last year's experience I know that this sesction and onto Bellingham is what 'beasts' the unprepared.  There is some very rough and featureless ground between The Wall and Bellingham, and with it being the final CP before the mighty Cheviot ridge it's psychologically a very tough section.

Time for Me

One of the mantras of Mountain Rescue teams, 'is look after yourself, look after your team ....so you can look after your casualty.'  Please take some time to re-read this and think about it. 'TFM' is not about being selflish, but it's about being safe and professional.

After a hard shift at Cauldron Snout and a long day at Dufton, I got in my car outside the CP tried to sleep for a few hours. (Incidentally, I highly reccomend a Ford S-Max for five star sleeping comfort and it's multi-sport / outdoor capabilities) My mind was busy reviewing the actions and decisions of the past day or so, and outside there was constant noise and bright floodlights.  To make matters worse my bed was far from level so I got out of my sleeping bag, climbed into the driver's seat and drove a mile up the road. Naked driving in the wee small hours in The Northern Pennines is a strange past-time..  But I slept soundly for four hours waking to an amazing dawn as the birds began to sing.  With my Jetboil boiling a second brew, I got dressed and then drove back to Alston CP4.  The whole place was a sleep. Everyone - staff and competitors, everyone.  The lights were on, Race Control laptop was on, so I logged on and updated myself on all things Spine Race. I clocked who was where, and at what time; I even surfed on the Spine facebook page for a while. Then I did some washing up, then I gathered more updates..

During the last few days I'd driven 699 miles, and blown a headlamp blub. I needed diesel and a replacement blub, not least becasue there may be a similar distance to drive on even more remote terrain. After gathering up some of the competitors 'drop-bags' who were safely ahead on the trail, I set off to drive to Bellingham. I know these roads well as they are within an hour of home.  I like driving them, often ride them on my road bike, and the morning's weather was simply glorious.  I stopped to take some photos and made coffee, as sleep depravtion was still a problem. Hexham, the biggest town near the route, provided diesel, bulbs, some new heavy duty rubber car floor mats, and a decent Tesco shopping trip. TFM and I suitably refreshed.

Stu, Stu, Ben and others were to monitor the numerous road crossings between Alston and Bellingham and once I'd dropped by load 'drop-bags' off at Bellinghamd and supported the CP staff in anyway needed, I could work my way back down, or onward, the route if needed.

Amanda and Ally had done a sterling job working at Bellingham having been on their own with just a few leading runners for a day or so.  The weather was still OK, and with the CP running very well, I was able to fix my new headlamp bulb, dry out and organise the car a little and generally get to grips with many things. The next few days would be very testing and could easily become epic if we didn't manage things well, but I hope we'd learnt a lot from last year.  Andrew Burton was there, having pulled out of The Spine at Horton and he was informally supporting a Neil and Steve (?) who were about to leave on the last 43 mile section.  They were in fine form, joking and moving well, and it was good to get Andrew's news and perspective and he is always good company.

CP5 - First job Hi-Viz signage and banners

Overall things were going well. We had intermittent Wifi coverage, which updated reliably if you walked to the bottom of the car park.  The self-catering chalets were were using for runners and ourselves had been well organised by Amanda and Ally, and we had adequate phone (text coverage from Stu, Stu and Ben and a few others who had come to help (Tony Holland and Flip Owen, and one or two whose name escape me for now, sorry?)

As the evening progressed more runners arrive to eat, rest and gear up for the last section. More Mountain Safety and Support staff arrived (Dr Fiona, Stu W and Ben) we had a good control over the remainder of the race. A few runners had already finished at 'KT' and a few were on there way over the last section. As the evening progressed Bellingham CP became more active, then a bit of a quieter zone as most people, runners and staff got some well deserved sleep.  I got another few hours before waking early and getting back upto speed with the laptop and tracker dot watching,  and updating my manual log of competitors positions.

Debbie 'enjoys' footcare at CP5...

From Bellingham to Bryness there are a three minor and very remote road-crossings, and each were monitored but myself or volunteers. Bryness really is the last chance for support, and so we monitored and supported this very well. Flip Own had been there with a lonely vigil for many hours, and then I did a couple of hours until John Bamber and Paul Shorrocks arrive to do the final shift. With copuious amounts of hot water and TLC, these guys are the experts at living and working in hostile conditions.

Whilst Bryness to Kirk Yetholm is 27 miles along the Pennine way it's nearly double that by road, which is typical of the logistical issues the Race Organisation faces.  But Byrness is very much the 'Start of the End' and a very busy and eventful 36 hours.

Maybe I'll be writing about that soon...after Dark Mountains?



  1. Great blog-it's really interesting to read about 'the other side' of things. btw the 'footcare' picture is Debbie.

    1. Ok, sorry about that. Seem to have labeled it wrongly on my old camera. Blog caption updated.