Thursday, 29 January 2015

Spine Race - Part Two - Gear, Skills and Strategy

Skills, Gear and Strategy

PartOne gave an overview of how The Spine Race. Following on from that, and in response to several questions this blog focuses on the Skills, Gear and strategies I employed during my very memorable week with my friend Mark Rawlinson.

Firstly, even my decision to stay with Mark was a conscious one, as whilst we may have been labelled 'The Odd Couple' we had a partnership that worked, so stuck with it. Mark had better local knowledge of the Southern parts of The Pennine Way than I did, so I was happy to cruise along in his wake, especially as I was recovering from a cold and heavy chest and there was no rush, was there?


So, what 'skills' did we have?

1) The ability to navigate simply, and quickly using map and compass. I don't use a GPS although Mark does and it used a huge amount of batteries but did check where I was once or thrice!!!

2) The ability to keep moving at a steady pace without any faff and wasted time. 'Time stood stationary means you are going backwards in real terms'
Good simple Navigation pays dividends.   And keep the Country Code...please.

3) The skill of looking after yourself, clothing and gear. ie, not losing a map, glove or sanity due to wind rain and poor viz.

4) The skill of looking after feet, head and stomach in equal measure. (which is most important I wonder?) and each other.

5) And, after all, the ability to keep walking and jogging, where, appropriate at a steady 3 mph...

6) The ability to layer up and keep warm and keep moving, venting when necessary.

7) The acknowledgement that this event is not about running ability for the majority of us.

Why do I have these Skills – My Background 

  • 40! years of multi-day hiking, back-packing, 'long distance walking, 'Ultra running, mountain marathons and adventure races. Yes, I started when I was a teenager and I'm still only Mid-fifties. Honest
  • Winter hill-walking experience – gives you the ability to navigate in poor viz, with gloves on, in the dark, and without loosing the ability to eat, and look after yourself.
  • Finally, the ability to look after self and gear in checkpoints. I'm often quite amazed at how inefficient people are at the checkpoints. It's as if they arrive through the door and their brains become mush! To be fair some of this is due to the body shutting down and the gaggle of volunteers taking over and at times, simply 'being in your face' ….
  • I'm sorry if that sounds rude or selfish, but what I really need from a Checkpoint is just a bit of space, a tap, my drop bag, a toilet and a bit of personal space...


This is a simple gear list.
I itemise this and name items by brand /model so as to illustrate the type and robustness of the gear I was using. 'Other brands are available ….but I have chosen based upon some considerable experience.

Footwear – La Sportiva Raptor trail shoes.
An excellent and very much under valued shoe. It has good mid-sole protection, stability and reasonable grip on all surfaces ) apart from the bottomless mud when nothing grips ...even Mircrospikes!)

It might be worthy noting that I have probably used about seven or eight pairs of these over the past few years, (Lakeland 100's, Dragon's Back Race, Terrex Sting and ITERA) and that in it's self means the shoe works for me, in other words my feet are used to them and vice a versa.

I also used a pair of 'Salomon Ultra GTX Mid' for the last two days – a low cut Gore-tex boot, so as to have happy cosy hot feet. My feet were constantly wet for the first four days, but without being cold and no blisters suffered. By Day Five it was nice to have a change of footwear.

Socks – Inov-8 Mudsoc High – Mid-weight Merino wool / lyrca sock. Brilliant feet. Four pairs used. One pair of Smartwool PHD used on Cheviot's last stage.

Gaiters – an old pair of Lowe alpine full length gaiter used along with the Salomon boots for complete protection. Used for the last two days.

Leg wear – Lowe Alpine Power Stretch tights, with a pair of Smart wool ¾ tights underneath was my preferred option. This gives a very cosy and warm, and wind resistant combination.
I do not like wearing over trousers unless it really is raining. However, given the conditions I had to start off in overtrousers so just had the Powerstretch tights without the Smartwool for the first few days. Plus HH windproof briefs, of course.

I was OK on both Crossfell and The Cheviots without overtroursers. Being old school, over-trousers to me are to be avoided, they cause drag and condensation which probably leads to the increased risk of chaff-age!

Upper Base Layer – Helly Hansen Lifa. The tried and tested and very reliable thermal wicking base layer. For much of the year I prefer a zip neck for ventilation, but the crew neck under a mid layer works OK for winter. I used two Lifa tops all week, Yes, I just changed once.

Mid- layer – very important – this gives you the foundation of warmth. Early on it was a Haglofs stem top; latterly, a Haglogs micro fleece gilet (close fitting, long, with high neck and a very crucial zipped chest pocket for spare batteries)

Outer layer – the excellent Montane Krypton jacket. This is a shell micro-fleece jacket. It is highly wind-proof has two good pockets and a tiny sleeve pocket – for your toothbrush and yet more spare batteries. I've  used one of these for all my work and adventures for the past few years.

Spare Layers – Montane Fireball Smock and Lifa baselayers

Waterproofs – Montane Direct Ascent Jacket. A long lengthed, basic 'walking jacket' Two simple massive pockets and an excellent hood. Long enough to cover your 'bits'.  I choose this over my existing Montane Supefly XT, or Further Faster Neo jacket due to it's cut and features, or anything lighter.

Mark and myself pondering the book sale upon arrival at Hawes
Over trousers – Montane Superfly – Mid-weight O/Ts with ¾ venting zips. Over-trousers and zips got used constantly for the first three days.  These O/Ts might have been a bit heavy but the didn't fail and fit and perform very well. My Montane Minimus over-trousers that I carry for lightweight mountain adventures don't have long zips, wouldn't have been able to vent as well, or be removed as easily and, to be honest, wouldn't have lasted a week of chaffage and abuse.

Head – A ubiquitous Buff, as well as the Montane Krypton hood of course. A second Buff as a spare and a Montane Powerstretch Beanie for if it got nasty (which went on only once on the cold trudge to Bellingham.)

Glasses  -  I had some sport cycling glasses with a 2.5 bi-focal inset which protected my eyesight well against wind. I now struggle with my eyesight and some map work., especially at night with OS 1;25k maps, but I used Harvey 1:40 maps and these are much clearer.

Gloves – Two pairs of light thermal gloves, one being fingerless, with a pair of Terra Nova Tuff bags as over mitts when needed. I had Montane Extreme Mitts in my sac throughout for emergencies but never used them.

Poles – Black Diamond FL Distance (Alloy) pole. Has 20cm adjustment, and I bent one during a big falling slide on Hadrian's Wall, but it didn't break and performed very well. I have since bent it back OK.

Head torch – Trusty and reliable and perfectly adequate Petzl Myo RXP. With copious Lithium AA batteries. Regular readers will know that I really like the Petzl Nao and Tikka RXP reactive torches, but for a week long race, when charging facilities aren't available then a AA feed head torch makes sense. I also had a Petzl e+Lite as back up in my First Aid/Safety kit.
* I've since learnt that the AAA battery adaptor is now available for the Tikka RXP, so that will be on my list for next time. Reactive lighting really works for night navigation.

Rab – Vapour-rise Guide Jacket - Carried from Bellingham and worn for second part of The Cheviot. I had toyed with the idea of a Montane Extreme Smock, but could not find one in Large Blue and the Rab vents better, I think?
Still no over- trousers worn, and a Montane Fireball spare in the sac, along with Lifa base layer.

Rucsac – Osprey Talon 33. Perhaps a bit heavy and over specced and would have preferred to do the first day or two with my faithful Inov-8 25litre Racepac, but ditched that just before the start and went straight for the heavy weight gear, including bypassing Montane Minimus pants, and lighter kit all round etc. This was because of the weather conditions at right from the start, and the chance that we might be shipped off from Snake Pass and holed up in Glossop or somewhere.

With hindsight, my trusty KIMM-Lite 30 was probably the ideal choice.

Whatever the mountain or trail event – you should always be self-reliant and have the gear to get your self out of the poo back to base, and may be even home by public transport – think cash, cards, and being in civvy street.

Mug – a big simple GSI Lexan Mug – great for brews wherever, on the road, Checkpoints, and even cafes.   Mugs give you a bigger brew, and saves times and effort for checkpoint staff, and no washing up of course.

Regular readers will be glad to know that I have now found by faithful opaque green one, which was hiding in the shed ….so my mojo is back.

Spork – Titanium – cos it does not break, although it is heavier than the plastic ones.

Stove – Jetboil – obviously.

Sleeping Bag – Rab Top Bag

Bivvi Bag - Alpkit Hukka

Sleeping mat – 3mm foam – c.150 x 45 cm. Lives in the front of my sac, folded in four – down the inside of the outerside , and not the back. Helps keep sac stable and protects from weather a bit too. Also a Wickes HD Rubble plastic bag is an essential sac liner.

Gear in Drop Bag / Spares / Essentials

Drop Bag - Ortieb Rackpack XL - Yellow - easy to see, bombproof ..simple.

Feet Up ... Brilliant Drop Bag
  • A second light sleeping bag -Rab 300; both may have gone with me on the hill if needed.
  • Another piece of 3mm for Cps – foot mat / floor covering
  • Montane Prism Jacket and Trousers - excellent bit of exped AR kit.
  • Terra Nova Laser Tent – gives options for camping, but not considered once paired up with Mark.
  • A threequarter length Thermarest Prolite 3. Goes inside the Top Bag neatly.
  • Crocs! 'nuff said....we haven't go time to go into foot care in this blog....

Food – copious amounts of 9Bars, Nairns Oat Cakes, , cashew nuts, tomatoes, cheese, hard-boiled eggs, olives, carrots, and other savoury stuff. Tins of sardines in sauce, Cous-Cous, frozen pizza slices, bananas and the occasional Naked Cocoa bars..

Cheese Prep - at Tour de Helvellyn

No chocolate, gels, energy drinks or stuff like that. I did carry a few jelly babies for the emergencies.

We ate good meals at Gargrave cafe, Horton Cafe, Dufton Stag Inn, Greenhead Cafe. Max stay 1 hour each, apart from Horton which was a two and half hour time out.

I bought back well over half my food in my drop bag, along with more spare Winter wear gear, spare Rab Vapour-rise, Montane Powerstretch Shirt, 'winter soft shell gloves' Lowe Alpine Mountain Cap etc.


The Concise Oxford Dictionary defines Strategy as;
1 'The Art of War' …..or 3. 'a plan of action or policy...'

MST Planning at Alston?

Firstly, You must believe that you will probably get to the end, given your skills and ability. Such things as The Spine is 30% Physical, 30% Mental and 30% Emotional plus another 10% of grunt or something.

Having a plan is good; for example, my basic calculation was along the lines of six, 45 mile days, at an average of 3mph. Now 3mph is a very good average to maintain over such a distance, which further computes into 'just' fifteen hour 'running days' and so hence nine hour over-nights. Easy, eh?

Screen shot from the excellent website ....

So that's the plan ….but making it happen is far from straight forward. The Spine has unevenly spaced Checkpoints of varying quality and so the immediate issue of where (and when to?) to sleep arise.
There is oodles of stuff on the forum about tents versus bivis, and what is scary is the number of people who are asking which one to do, when they have never bivvied at all, which in itself is a skill.

So ...your strategy must encompass your skills.

I'll also throw in again a couple of lines regarding, 'Adventure' – 'Uncertainty of Outcome, Realistic Objective .. and Good Companionship' (this I learnt from Colin Mortlock,  way back in 1984 when he came to talk to us at as a staff group at Outward Bound Ullswater.

  • 'Uncertainty of Outcome' - it's going to happen ….weather, injury....'holds' during the race. 
  • 'Realistic Outcome' – you have a good chance of succeeding, but it's not a 'given'. But you must have the component skills to give it a go.
  • 'Good Companionship' – It does help, disagreements can happen, a few sharp words are excusable. But all good adventures need companionship, even if you are Solo  you need to be 'at one' with your own company. ...more in a different blog, perhaps.

Back to Strategy  / Planning / Adaptability ....

Considering options at Hawes ...'Listening skills' are crucial at CPs
So … a 45 mile day should take us to Hebden Hey, arriving around midnight given the 9.30am start. With the start delayed due windy weather by 2 hours this knocks us back, and when combined with the plan of not actually sleeping at CP1 Hebden due to the confines of space and noise … hmmn.

So, 'Night Two' would crop up around the 90 mile mark, somewhere north of Horton and on the way to Hawes. I had scoped out one or two camp / bivi spots along here, but the weather and delayed start made us re-visit this. In reality we ended up sleeping early at Malham due to weather and then played catch up with a long, 25 hour day to Middleton, to put us back on schedule. After that we had two short days to Dufton and the Alston, with the race being suspended and our decision making no longer totally our own, but we still with a strategy. flexible

Key Strategy '- look after feet, stomach and head...


I like food and Eat nothing else. Good simple food, is it a skill or strategy?

I was equipped to graze my way up The Pennine Way for six or seven days, without the need for cafe, pub or shop stops, and only treated these as a bonus.  I didn't eat much hot food provided at Checkpoints but prefer to stash myself away in a corner with my drop bag and fend for myself.  (Food for thought for the race format?)

Is its still open?  'YES!' Gargrave Cafe...31 hours into the Spine, apparently..

Cafe strategy or discipline needs to be slick too. The clock doesn't stop, so you need to be efficient, just like a trialthlete in transition. It's not about rushing, or demanding quick service. Leave your ego and 'race-head' outside and just make the most of your one hour (maximum) break. Be very polite to the cafe staff, thank and tip them appropriately, and do some good PR for your fellows. Not all 'runners' will be as good as you, will they.

So that's more than enough for one blog; I don't want to bore you.

My I suggest that if you want to know more, you come on one of our NAV4 Adventure courses, or book a 'One-One' day tuition day or two for yourself or small group.  Mid-week days are increasingly popular and a very worthwhile investment for any hill, mountain or running adventure.

Many thanks,


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