Friday, 13 January 2017

Not the Spine Challenger

Well, this morning I should have been on my way over to Edale for the Spine Challenger registration, but I wasn't. The race starts Saturday morning, I won't be there.

The Challenger covers the same ground as the Spine Race but only as far as Hawes, about 110 miles. After my inconclusive brush with the Spine Race last year I ended my blog post with " I put in an application for next year's Challenger  -  all I need to do now is to learn to love those muddy brown moors. If I get a place, I will get to the finish."

After the last longish event of last year, the "Lakes in a Day" in early October, I concentrated on preparing to deliver on the promise I had made to myself. I was looking at the Challenger not only as an event in itself but a sort of "entry test" to see if I could make a reasonable attempt at the whole Spine Race again at some time in the future. Looking at the results over the years, it seemed to me that runners who complete the Spine in good order are capable of getting to Hawes in good shape in around 48 hours or less. It has been done by runners travelling slower but it seemed to me from their splits and reports that the stress of making the intermediate cut-offs and the subsequent sleep deprivation often took them very close to their limits; this is not really my style (for reasons, see my post last November "It was brutal!"), so I made 48 hours my working target. I think I prepared reasonably diligently.

1. Fitness

After the Lakes in a Day I put in a solid seven week block of training, all off road and mostly in the hills, averaging 42 miles and just short of 7000ft of ascent per week. I then throttled back a bit as I wanted to spend more time on leg muscle strengthening exercises in preparation for the following summer, but over the next four weeks I still turned in 25 miles and 4000ft a week. I was fit enough.

2. Course familiarity

I had reccied the whole Spine except for about 30 miles last year but I decided to do the Challenger section again. I find that knowing landmarks (turning points, what key gates/stiles look like, etc) can save a lot of navigational time whatever the weather conditions. Using the excellent train service covering the southern 100 miles of the Pennine Way I was able to cover the ground in 5 day trips. In my original reccies in 2015 almost every step of the PW had been in rain, so a real bonus in the late autumn/early winter of 2016 was the stunning weather we had almost continuously, making every day out a real joy. A day of near frozen fields from Gargrave to Malham followed by crossings of snow-covered Fountains Fell and Pen-y-Gent was particularly memorable.(Although just as reminder of more normal conditions in these parts my final day over the Cam road from Horton to Hawes was done in a howling wind and continuous horizontal rain.) But I was confident I wouldn't get lost.

3. Shoes

In my (albeit brief) participation in last year's race I felt I lost a lot of time and used too much energy sliding around in the mud. I had been a Hoka convert since almost as soon as they arrived in the UK and then moved on to the equally comfortable but lighter and more manoueverable Skechers GoRun Ultras. I'm currently on my 8th pair (with pairs 9 and 10 already bought and in the cupboard awaiting their turn). I've found them brilliant for almost all conditions, but the one surface they can't cope with is sloping muddy fields; and there are a lot of those on the PW so I needed an alternative. I've kept up with Hoka developments and bought a pair of Speedgoats a while ago; others may disagree but I've found them an unhappy compromise, giving away a lot of the original Hoka comfort without really much increase in grip over, say, the Stinson Evos. 

Before my original Hoka conversion my go-to shoe was the Salomon Speedcross, but my problem now was that after 5 years of running in much lower drop shoes, I couldn't (nor did I want to) re-adjust my running style to make the Speedcross feel right again. After a fair bit of research and playing in shops, in October I bought a pair of Scott Kinabalu Supertracks. I've now clocked up about 200 miles in them including a couple of 35 mile outings and they seem to do the job for me. I was happy that I could cope with the mud this year.

4. The Rucksack

It was clear to me last year that one of the major aspects that makes the Spine different is the weight of your rucksack. We can all debate about what should or should not be included in the mandatory kit but that's not really the point. Most of us would take things out but put what we considered more useful back in anyway, so the result is that in a winter race with 40-60 miles between checkpoints you're going to have a fairly heavy sack. I didn't think carefully enough about this last year, and found that even on the horizontal slab sections any sort of running at all was so much effort compared with a steady walk as to be not worthwhile. Most people around me seemed to have come to the same conclusion. But we must be missing a trick because the guys up front are running, cutting down their times between checkpoints and so running a much safer race. I felt the key was that I hadn't practised in advance, it was a new skill to be learned.

I knew well in advance exactly what was going in my pack. OK, it would trade up or down a bit depending on the weather expected (plus/minus a puffy jacket or fleece or two) and the ground underfoot (Yacktracks or Katoolahs) etc but these were minor weight changes. Basically I knew my pack was going to be 7,5kg. I also knew that I would definitely be wearing a jacket (Paramo) and in all probability overtrousers, continuously. So for absolutely all my outings from late November onwards (after the Wooler Trail Marathon) that's how I went; jacket, trousers, rucksack. It felt strange and cumbersome at first, but gradually I learned to cope, how best to adjust the pack fitting and so on, and I worked up to a steady 11 minute mile pace on level ground, an easy shamble on the downhills, and I could even jog uphills if the ground was easy enough without using too much energy. I got up and down Snowdon at better than 15 minute mile pace and did laps on my local hill. Of all the Challenger preparation I did, I feel this was the most valuable; to get comfortable with the pack.

5. The Dark

I don't mind the dark. In fact I'll quite often go out for a run in the dark from choice if it's a nice night. But I couldn't navigate efficiently in the dark; not a knowledge or experience deficiency, just that I couldn't see the map.  I've needed glasses for I guess around 20 years, for the past 15 I've worn varifocals mostly all the time. But this comes from doing a job where being able to see things in detail was required. If I don't wear glasses I don't fall over things, so in normal daylight conditions I can go running without them. Running at night I slow down a bit because my judgement of the footfall isn't quite so good, but I still prefer this to wearing glasses. Glasses outdoors at night are a real pain, being affected by rain, mist, your breath if you zip your jacket over your chin, and lots more. Reading a map or a GPS involves stopping, cleaning glasses, focussing quite badly on the job in hand and so on. Goggles add even more potential misting problems.

I've had this problem for years but it hasn't stopped my activities because the events that I've done at night have been characterised by relatively short nights or easy to follow trails, so little if any compromise is required. But I found last year that I was really resenting having to stop to check navigation on the Spine because with so much darkness it can cost so much time, and that's not a good frame of mind to adopt. The easier it is to check, the more you do it, the less you get lost.

I explained the problem to the optician who suggested contact lenses, so at the age of 68 I tried my first pair. I should have done this ten years ago. I now have the sort where you use one eye for distance and the other for close-up and your brain adjusts to this. Sounds crazy but it works. They're not as precise as glasses for everyday use, but for running, especially at night, it's magic. So now I could see the map.

The final bit of preparation I did was to head off potential illness by having my free flu jab, something that I normally don't bother with.

All round, in the run-up to Christmas, I was sure that I'd done all I could. I wasn't bothered about the weather, I couldn't do anything about that, I had all the stuff to be prepared for pretty well anything.

6. And then the bad news

I had my last outing, a gentle one up our local hills Moel Fammau and Y Fenlli, on 22nd December. The family, including Jan, had colds. I wasn't bothered. I don't often catch colds (looking back over the diaries, the last one I had was December 2014), and in any case with over three weeks to the race even if I caught one it would be well over by then.

The next day, I got the cold. The normal stuff. Sore throat followed by thick head, lots of nose blowing, sinusitis, generally feeling groggy. We went up to Keswick for New Year. I seemed to be on the mend. Two days of lovely weather on the 1st and 2nd of January saw us out for gentle walks. On the 2nd, our 46th wedding anniversary, Jan and I walked up the modest Ling Fell in beautiful crisp, cold conditions. 
Ling Fell

The following day we came back to Chester. I felt worse. The cough arrived, stayed all day and night, I didn't sleep properly for several days. Then it subsided to sporadic but still there. I kept telling myself that the next morning I would feel better but I didn't. I couldn't imagine it would continue two weeks into January. I seemed to be getting there, gradually. On Tuesday 10th I went out again over Moel Famau to see how things were. I felt lethargic but otherwise all right. It looked like it was going to be OK. Then I coughed all night again and by morning felt as bad as ever.

Ever hopeful, I resolved to delay the decision until this morning when I would need to drive over to Edale. But last night it was clear I wasn't going to make it so I threw in the towel. I still have a cough, a raw throat, a chest achy from coughing, a thick head and the feeling that everything is just too much effort. After this one I don't think I want another cold.

I feel that I made all the preparations that I honestly could, just to get beaten by the one thing I couldn't control. That's life I suppose, you're never totally in charge. Best Wishes to everyone starting the Spine Challenger tomorrow and the Spine Race on Sunday - I'll be watching the trackers for another year!

Will I be back? Really not sure this time. I have other plans for next year and after that I'll be in my 70's. But never say never.

I'd stayed away from Facebook for a while, not wanting to get caught up in the manic hype that seems to be a feature of the build up to any significant event these days. When I looked back in I was made aware of another little problem I have to resolve. Every year since 2010 I've entered the UTMB draw. I've never been lucky in the ballot, only getting into the race when I got to the "guaranteed place" year which was originally after one ballot rejection but in recent years has been after two ballot rejections. This year I put in my application in December as normal, expecting to get my usual rejection followed by a double chance in the hat next time round, so I've already planned and entered my races for this year.

For the first time in five ballots I've been accepted.

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