So, it’s July 1st 2021. I’ve had a very relaxed previous 6 months, with a few ‘events’ such as a 50 mile and 100 mile looped races, which I walked every step due to a very dodgy hamstring that has been a problem for 18 months now.
Outside these events however, I was doing a minimal amount of training compared to my previous life and I’d put on a nice rounded stomach and about 10 lbs. I’d happily got out of the habit of exercising and was not missing it at all. Long lazy lie-ins on a Sunday morning were the norm, as well as eating and drinking considerable amounts. It was great.
However, I’d told myself that on July 1st this was all going to change. I had a nice round-number of 6 months to the Spine race, and needed to get my head (and body) into a certain position before attempting my nemesis race.
Firstly, I needed to put some discomfort and effort into the next 6 months, to give myself something to push against when I wanted to quit the Spine. In essence, I needed to be able to tell myself that I’d worked too hard in the previous 6 months to just ‘give up’ whilst doing the race. Does this make sense? If I invested enough time and effort into getting to the start line, I’d have too much committed to easily tell myself it was OK to stop.
Secondly, I needed to get some good climbing into my legs. The spine has a whopping 13135 metres climbing (43090 feet) along its 268 miles, and this sort of elevation is going to be a show-stopper if the legs aren’t ready, especially as I’m going to be carrying a 9-10kg pack as well. I’d spend much of my time climbing the cliffs at Folkestone, but also my local gym had a stepper machine, that meant I could walk upstairs for hours at a time. It wasn’t exciting, but as a form of cardio and strengthening my legs it was magic.
Finally I just needed to get back to the habit of exercising and getting out of bed at unreasonable times. When I could run well this really wasn’t an issue, I loved it and considered myself lucky to get the opportunity to do something I loved and stay healthy at the same time. By losing my running, everything I did was ‘training’ rather than my hobby – it made a big difference.
My goal was simple, if perhaps rather stretching. I would set myself the target of 14 hours training per week, 60 hours per month. It didn’t really matter what the training was at first, whether cycling, stepping on that damn machine at the gym, hiking, or doing weights at the gym (possibly the most pointless & depressing part of my whole training). My first month or so was going to be about getting back in the zone of working hard towards a goal.
July 2021 – 62 hrs 2 mins.
- 33 hrs hiking (rather conveniently included a week’s walking with my wife)
- 17 hours cycling (started cycling to & from work)
- 10 hrs weights at the gym
- 2 hrs odds and sods.
It was the cycling to work that really started to change things, as I found a nice round 10 mile trip with some stonking hills that really got me working hard. I got in the habit of pushing hard to beat my previous times and with quiet roads at 6am I was able to fly! Great fun. By the end of the summer, when it was too dark to cycle safely in the morning I’d reduced my time for the 10 miles to 37 minutes from 43 at the start of July.
The other thing to note from July was my focus on the consistency, so rather than doing fewer massive 10 hour days, I was aiming for daily effort and minimal rest days. In fact, the whole of July meant only 5 rest days which worked well for me.
August 2021 – 57 hrs 8 minutes
- 24 hrs hiking
- 18 hours cycling
- 6.5 hours treadmill
- 4.5 hours stepping machine
- 3.5 hours weights
Ah, treadmill. I was feeling good and thought I’d try a bit of running, but safely on a treadmill. The reality is that the running on a treadmill is subtly different as the belt moves your legs backwards requiring less effort from my hamstring (which was still not happy). So I found I could run reasonably easily on a slow treadmill as my left hamstring could just coast along for the ride while the rest of my body compensated. It was only when I tried to run outside did I realise my legs were absolutely not gaining anything from treadmill running.
This is what pushed me onto the stepping machine. It was the only way to get my heart rate elevated in the same way that running did without actually running. It also made my legs & heart work as hard as I wanted in order to get them ready for some serous ascent.
6 rest days this month, but still some really good numbers here. A second month of really committed training was doing wonders for my mindset and I was feeling good.
September 2021 – 59 hrs 24 mins.
- 32.5 hrs hiking
- 8.5 hrs stepping machine
- 7.5 hrs cycling
- 4 hrs treadmill
- 3.5 hrs weights
This month included a cheeky 2 day recce of the end of the Pennine Way, from Bryness to KY, which was a great way to see the Cheviots. I drove my son up to his northern university, and then just kept going to Byrness. Parked about 5pm and walked to the first mountain refuge hut for the night, before setting out for Kirk Yetholm and the famous Border Hotel in the morning. I had lunch at the hotel and then speeding back to hut 1 again for the night (a 32 mile day, with 6000 feet of ascent!). I had a great time and my pack & legs felt good, clearly I was getting my fitness back.
7 rest days this months, but also some longer training days that took it out of me. For example, it took me a couple of days to recover from my Cheviot recce, where my energy levels did not seem to be as healthy as they were when I was running a lot. In fact this seemed to be a consistent issue, in that much of the training I was doing was short 1-2 hour efforts, whereas when running I’d have at least one long run per week of 3-4 hours, and I seemed to be missing the energy levels that would get me through these 4 hour runs. I resolved to push my hiking from 4-5 hours up to 9-10 to simulate the energy expenditure from a long run, and this would also drive me to do more night hiking which would get me ready for the constant darkness of the Spine.
October 2021 – 69 hrs 36 mins
48 hrs hiking (included a 100 mile race)
8.5 hrs cross trainer
6.5 hours running
3 hrs stepping machine
2 hrs weights
Lots going on this month! 2 weeks holiday in Lanzarote, organised by my clever wife despite the various challenges and tests you had to complete to go abroad was a lovely break, and even better our apartment had use of a gym so I was able to beast myself on a cross trainer for an hour when I was bored of lying round the pool. When that got to be too much I would go running, and tell myself that the pain on my hamstring did not exist. It was lovely to be out and about, especially when everyone would look at me like I was mad.
I also entered a 100 mile looped race (SVN Halloween 100), with the intention of carrying my full Spine pack for the distance to see what my back and shoulders would feel like after 24 hours. Answer? Shoulders and back were absolutely trashed by halfway, screaming and sore and absolutely not going any further. My feet (in some less-cushioned Innov8 shoes) were also protesting that they didn’t like walking on concrete for hours…that was the day I began trying all sorts of different insoles to give my feet some bounce.
Just to be clear, I’ve done a number of 100 mile or more races (I think this was to be number 14) and they are all challenging in their own right. The distance is mentally challenging, and there are a number of physical barriers to overcome every time. But I always overcome the barriers, don’t I? Well, not in this case. I jettisoned my pack at about mile 60 as it was just too painful on my poor shoulders; my feet needed painkillers to dull the soreness. In addition, I could not keep my eyes open, and threw myself in the back of my car not once but twice overnight for a sleep. This was a real concern as I would be looking at 6 nights awake on the Spine and here I was not coping with the first night!
By about mile 60 I was also vomiting anything solid, which is very usual for me but not great news for my energy levels, and by the following morning the looped route had been reduced to a 1.5 mile out and back due to incoming poor weather. My brain was addled with the desperately boring route and I was hating every minute of it.
So I dnf’d (did-not-finish) at mile 82. I simply stopped, said “bollocks” to it all, and got in my car to drive home. I was not injured, hurt or running out of time. I was just bored. And predictably, within 30 minutes I was thinking what an idiot I was…whoever heard of someone stopping at mile 82 of a 100 mile race? Over 4/5ths of the distance, and no serious injuries, who gives up? Well, I did, and it allowed me some real soul-searching over the next few weeks to understand why I’d bailed out so easily. I think the summary was fairly simple…the exit route was easy as I passed my car every 30 minutes, I was bored and tired, and the call of the sofa and beer was too strong. It was a painful lesson, but probably steeled my resolve to not let that happen on the Spine. No dnf’ing without good (medical) reason!
November 2021 – 41 hrs
29 hours hiking
6.5 hrs stepping machine
5 hours running
I clearly missed my 60 hours target by a mile this month, but the 100 mile event above was at the very end of October and I was busy licking my wounds for a few days to get back to any sort of training for a few days.
I did a couple of good 10 hour hikes along the cliffs at Folkestone, overnight, which covered 30 miles and 4000 feet of ascent each time. I was carrying everything that I would be on the Spine, and the varied terrain was much more forgiving than the crappy concrete on the 100 miler. The weather was unusually warm for the time of year, usually about 10-12 degrees even despite it being the middle of the night – not very Spine weather!
Although the month has running at 5 hours, these were very cautious 6 mile runs, done extremely slowly to protect my slowly-healing hamstring. At the end of each my left thigh would be throbbing, as if to show me the effort that had been put into what should have been an easy run for me.
Rest days in November – too many! 16 in total, compared to just 5 in July, but I was struggling to maintain my earlier enthusiasm with the night’s drawing in and the fatigue of ‘oh god not this again’ starting to bite a little.
December 2021 – 32 hours
23.5 hours hiking
5 hours stepping machine
3.5 hours running
I was about 5 hours into the long drive north to take part in the Montane Cheviot Goat when I (along with everyone else) was notified that it had been cancelled due to local council issues. Not a problem, adapt and overcome! I turned the car to head back south, and invited my mate that had been travelling up with me to come to Folkestone for a cheeky hike the following morning. Steve had his first experience of the cliffs (which he dealt with very well to be fair) and he stopped at mile 15, while I carried on round the coast to get home in about 60 miles (taking 18 hours). Good news, my pack seemed to be agreeing with me and the only issues was still that my Innov8 shoes simply were not giving me the padding I needed.
The following day I decided that although I loved Innov8 shoes, and the grip the offer, I was going to have to do the Spine in Hokas (a shoe that offers absolutely loads of cushioning) which would mean less grip on the varied terrain of the spine, but happier feet.
So we’ve made it to Christmas 2021, and as you can see I’ve had a fairly productive 6 months. I do not think for a second I was as fit as I have been previously, as without doing any seriosu running I simply did not have the time to drive my fitness up with lower intensity hiking. However, my mind was in a reasonable place and I’d have some good consistent training to push against if i felt like quitting the race itself.
I’d spent months (literally) obsessing over kit choices, mainly shoes but also all those small details that make or break a race. More of this in the KIT post that will be of interest to anyone actually doing the race in the future.
I’d also made a few lifestyle changes, that I suspect made little difference to the outcome but again, meant I mentally was telling myself I was preparing for the race of my life. I started eating (slightly) healthier, I stopped drinking alcohol from about the end of October to Christmas (apart from on a Sunday, a bloke has got to have some happiness in life!) and started with vitamins and similar to give myself the smallest possible chance of getting cold at the wrong time. I think all of these things were tiny changes in the grand scheme of things, but added up to something!
An interesting thing happened to me over the last few weeks of December. As the new Omicron variant became the hot topic on the news, and it looked likely we were heading for another lockdown, I began to hope / pray that the Spine would be cancelled again. Looking back, this seems slightly irrational, but the fear was very real and I simply was not invested in the event, but rather dreading the misery it was going to involve. I simply wasn’t ready physically or mentally, and I got a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach whenever I thought about the darkness, the ascent to climb, the lack of sleep, the cold/wind/rain weather. To put it simply, I didn’t want to do the Spine, and was looking for a good reason to get out of it.
Shortly after Xmas however, it was clear there was not going to be a lockdown of the sort I wanted & needed. I was going to the start line, ready or not!
OK reader, you’re ready…let’s go to the start of the race report….click HEEERRRRRREEEEEEE!