Dubbed the toughest race in Britain, Damian Hall gives an insight into how tough the Montane Spine race really is and how best you can prepare…
No race has been as physically and mentally demanding as my first Spine Race, where I hallucinated wildly, cried and afterwards my T-shirt size went from medium to small.
As soon as I could, I signed up again.
I’ve completed the Montane Spine Race twice, once in 2014 and again in 2015. Here is what I learned:
Tip one: Believe the hype
My first piece of advice is know what you’re letting yourself in for.
The race takes place in winter, so most of the race is spent in the dark, with floods, ice, snow and absurdly strong winds. It is common for water bottles and hydration bladder hoses to freeze up. Potentially, fatal hypothermia is a regular DNF cause. Grown men cry. Bones get broken. Some ‘Spiners’ have discovered trench foot isn’t just something that happened in France during World War I.
All Spiners become chronically sleep deprived, making hallucinations and falling asleep on your feet comically likely. A few years ago one Spiner ran straight into the back of a cow.
Tip two: Don’t panic
It’s guaranteed that not everything about your Montane Spine Race will go to plan. When you are feeling midwife tired and your mission feels like it’s the most important thing in the world, tiny things that don’t go as expected, can feel huge. You keep questioning whether you are healthy enough to keep moving forward. You need to be adaptable, you need to try and relax. To paraphrase Hunter S Thompson, you’ve bought the ticket, now enjoy the ride.
Tip three: grams count
On the race start line you can pretty-much tell everyone will finish according to the size of their packs. A pack of 7kg+ becomes a serious P in the A, and will affect your gait, making injury more likely and this will affect your mood – and it’s your mind more than anything else that will get you to the finish. I cut my pack weight down by around 2kg between the two races – the first I was a completer, the second I was a competitor.
Do you really need to lug 350g of Jetboil along 268 miles? Beg, borrow, steal or nuke your credit card to get your big three items – bivvy, sleeping mat and sleeping bag – to under 1kg collectively and you’re most of the way to a good pack weight. That said, there’s a danger in going too light and some ultra lightweight kit simply won’t be up to the task – do take a proper winter waterproof for example. You MUST keep warm. You MUST NOT run out of food.
Tip four: Look after your feet
Surviving the Montane Spine comes down to three key things: your feet, your sleep and the weather. Put even simpler: look after yourself and you’ll get to Kirk Yetholm.
An ultra runner knows the need to treat feet like royalty and on the Montane Spine, it’s about 268 times more crucial. I prioritise a comfortable shoe above things like grip. Your feet are fairly likely to swell, so either buy a larger shoe and add inner soles at the start, or have a pair perhaps one size larger in your drop bag.
Change socks at every check point. Air your pinkies. Elevate feet when you sleep. See a medic with any doubts or question and don’t be afraid to improvise. When things weren’t going so well for one wise Spiner in 2016, they ordered a new pair of shoes from Amazon mid-race to be delivered to a check point ahead.
Tip five: Forecast some zzzs
You’ll get far better rest at check points, where you can quickly get warm and dry and where they serve hot food and drink, with additional slappings of morale-boosting friendly faces – rather than bivying out on the soggy boggy moors. Dealing with the weather (and sleep deprivation) are bigger challenges than the distance or terrain. Stay warm. And one of the best ways of doing that is to stay dry.
Mountain marathons, rather than ultramarathons, are great Spine training. As is going out all night, navigating somewhere unfamiliar, in foul weather. That’ll serve you better than putting in 80-mile weeks.
Tip six: Be efficient
It’s easy to undo your good work by haemorrhaging time at check points. You’ve been out in the dark on your own for hours and suddenly it’s warm, well-lit and friendly people are asking you questions… You check your phone… Suddenly an hour’s gone.
Decide on your check point strategy. Get in, eat, drink, change, do your personal admin (change batteries, maps, food, et al – have a check list ready), then get your head down. It’s commonly thought we sleep in 90 minutes cycles. All that said, sometimes you might need a bit of a pick-me-up, so don’t be too harsh on yourself.
Pack spare gloves. And another pair (they often go walkabout when you’re tired). Eat loads. Keep eating. You won’t be able to eat enough. Use Lithium batteries (they cost more but last longer, are much lighter and more reliable in the cold). Bring some compression socks (if you don’t need them during the race, you’ll likely be grateful of them straight after). Know how to use your GPS (ignore the purists, these are amazingly helpful gadgets).
Two final things: watch the Montane Spine Race Film
and (shameless self-promotion alert) buy my official guide to the Pennine Way, to help familiarise yourself with the route and especially tricky terrain, navigational blackspots and helpful facilities en route. And remember, it’s gonna be awful out there. And amazing.
Damian Hall (@damo_hall
) is an outdoor journalist, author of the official Pennine Way guide and two-time Montane Spine finisher. Damian is also the 2017 Spine Race social media manager.