Tuesday, 3 February 2015

Spinewatching and Thinking

I'm sure there were dozens if not hundreds like myself who have spent a week of the last two Januarys following the hardy runners battling it out on the Spine Race  -  a continuous journey of some 268 winter miles along the whole of the Pennine Way trail. The "live trackers" carried by all of the runners makes this event a superb and somewhat addictive spectator sport; I felt compelled to check on where everyone was every few hours.

Congratulations to all who finished; in a world where almost all 100 mile ultras claim what a huge challenge they are, the Spine is clearly in a different league. To reach the finish is a real achievement, even by our normal ultra standards. I'm still thinking about whether it's something I could, or would even want to, take on. But while I wrestle with that little problem, the performance of all the runners in this year's race presents an interesting question; in long races where the clock is always ticking, how much time should you spend resting and/or sleeping? 

This question only kicks in for continuous races that are going to take you say 48 hours or more. Experiences in the UTMB, the Lakeland 100 and so on suggest that if they have to, then  most runners can get through two nights without any lengthy breaks, maybe just a half hour or so to get a good meal occasionally. You might get the odd hallucination and feel pretty whacked at the finish but in general you'll be OK. But this strategy won't get most people any further, after 48 hours on our feet non-stop we're generally fit for nothing next except a long sleep. No good if the race carries on for another four or five days.

My own single experience of a longer continuous race was in the Tor des Geants in Italy, at 200 miles a lot shorter than the Spine but with more climbing, but in early September potentially better weather and shorter nights (about 10 hours). Still I think it presents the same problem of what strategy to adopt to keep going for a long period, as it took me five and a half days (ie five nights out).  I had assumed before I started that I would need to sleep for 5 or 6 hours at each of the major checkpoints which should turn up every 24 hours or so. In the event, I found that these were noisy, crowded places in which it was impossible to get any useful sleep. The other options were sleeping on the trail during the daytime (not really possible at night as the trail is high and night-time temperatures were often cold - water bottles carried outside a rucksack normally froze), or using mountain refuges, in which there was a two hour maximum stop time so that all runners got a fair crack at the available beds. Not wanting to miss out on daylight, I went for the refuge option. Apart from one night where we were held in a hut for five hours while some bad weather moved through, I never had more than the two hours sleep allowed, and my total was about 13 hours for the five nights. The big learning for me was that this was enough, I felt I was still going fairly strongly at the end of the event. Many people around me in the race seemed to have the same approach.

Reading the blogs, this seems also to have been the strategy of most runners in the Spine race over the years  -  move until you're tired, get two or three hours sleep then carry on. Until this year that is, when things were rather different. On the Pennine Way in winter you can normally expect weather, but this year exceptionally high winds combined with periods of snow and sleet made conditions even more problematic than usual. Runners were held at indoor locations on several occasions to allow the worst of the weather to pass through. The majority of finishers ran up a total "dead time" of around 20 hours of enforced rest. As with all major challenge events, a high proportion of the finishers in the Spine normally come in very close to the final cut-off time, so one might have expected the enforced stops to have pushed them well over the basic 168 hours allowed (with their enforced stop times to be subtracted at the end). In fact, almost the opposite happened. A brief summary of the results for the past three years shows that:

In 2013, there were 6 finishers in under 168 hours, the fastest in 124:52 and the slowest in 153:47

In 2014, there were 30 finishers under 168 hours, the fastest in 110:45 and the slowest in 167:25, with 20 of the finishers taking more than 150 hours.

In 2015, There were 45 finishers under 168 hours, the fastest in 81:34 and the slowest in 147:16. So even adding back their stoppage allowances, all these runners made it to the end within 168 hours real time.

Now we could speculate that the improved performance this year in spite of the weather is because there is a growing "lore" about the event, how to prepare, what intermediate stops to aim for, how to manage food, etc, but there is no getting away from the fact that this year when the runners spent more time resting, they actually covered the ground faster including their resting time.

I'm not suggesting that this is grounds for a new strategy in longer ultras, just an observation that might warrant a bit more understanding. It would be interesting to hear the thoughts of anyone who has competed in the race for two years including this year. And I'll just add the paraphrased comment of the Race Director of the 145 mile Grand Union Canal race, who places a limit of 40 minutes stop at any one time on all runners on the grounds that "this is a continuous race, not a series of sprints", suggesting that he feels that longer stops might give runners some sort of advantage.

In a game where the mantra is normally to keep going, just put one foot in front of the other and avoid all "wasted" time spent sitting still................food for thought?

1 comment:

Flip said...

I asked John V what the enforced stops made and his conclusion was it made a huge difference being able to get complete rest and he felt fairly fresh when they were released to go again, My experience of the first cp at least is that i wouldn't bother to stop there (as you're unlikely to get sleep of any kind) but pick up a tent and sleep on the trail between 1-2 at least.