Kit list

Winter Spine 2022 – Kit list and training thoughts

If you’re reading this, you are thinking about or are doing the Spine or one of the shorter versions of it.  If that’s the case, well done!  It’s scary isn’t it!  Well done for putting yourself out of your comfort zone, and giving yourself a challenge that (at the moment) you really are not sure about.

I’m writing this as a person on the other side of race, who felt pretty bloody terrified in the weeks and months before doing the full Spine in January 2022…but pretty pleased to finish it in 143 hours.  I normally write a long and detailed about my races, to replace my poor memory in a few years rather than to gain popular appeal, and this can be found HERE.  (If you’ve already read it, then double congratulations…clearly endurance is a strength of yours).

So, I am writing this to put onto paper the training and kit that worked for me.  I am absolutely no expert in this (or anything) but I reckon I’ve read every blog, Facebook post, and website about Spine-related stuff, so I’ve got a bit of insight.  But I’m no expert, and everything you read here is my own opinion – feel free to disagree with it and tell me I’m wrong, you may well be correct.  It doesn’t matter because this is the internet and pretty much anything can be quoted as gospel if you want.

Very very quickly.  What do you need to know about my running experience…?

Although I loved running, most of the above ultras were hiked after perhaps mile 50, due to my entirely crap running prowess.  A torn hamstring in late 2019 stopped me running completely.

There, that was quick wasn’t it!

Before I write anything about training, I need to write about luck. Luck is important.  In something like the Spine, luck is really important. I was really lucky in January 2022. The weather, after the first couple of days, was cold but with little rain or snow.  The ground was saturated with water, but I didn’t slip and pull a muscle or twist my ankle.  My electronic kit (GPS etc) all behaved itself. My feet, although poorly, just about held together to the end.  Overall, I was blessed with problems that I could deal with rather than any show stoppers that would prevent me from completing.  I call this luck.  Now don’t get me wrong – I was well prepared, well trained, and I had backups or contingency for things going wrong – but nothing can prevent a twisted ankle from becoming a show-stopping issue once it’s happened.

It’s because of this that a lot of racers in the Spine are well-trained, have great kit, but still don’t finish.  That’s the lottery of attempting a race with so many factors outside your control.  I would politely suggest that running a spring marathon, if you get to the start line uninjured, is a fairly safe bet to finish.  Unfortunately the Spine works by a different set of rules.  Some people will finish first time (like me) and some, equally deserving, will not.

Once you get to the start line, the lottery starts.  And keeps running until either you finish, or your luck runs out.  The point of what you are about to read is to give yourself the maximum possible chance of not needing to rely on luck because (for example) you are so practised at travelling on muddy hilly terrain with a heavy pack that you are practically like a hairy mountain goat and will stay on your feet no matter what (or if you do slip, your sinewy legs will accommodate a bit of awkward stretching in an odd direction). 

Luck?  Yep, you get the idea.

Someone famous said “The more I practise, the luckier I get” and I suppose that is my understanding too.  Part of my (real life) job is to implement change and new things in my workplace, and so I spend a great deal of time imagining what could go wrong (when the new thing or change is in place) and how to either avoid that or deal with it when everything is crashing down. I apply a similar logic to my races…what could go wrong with my GPS device and how can I deal with it?  So I make sure I’m really comfortable with the device (a little Garmin Etrex 30) and can handle the multiple menus and maps, but if all else fails I carry a spare device, setup in exactly the same way, so if my GPS fails in the middle of nowhere, I can carry on.  If my spare fails, I have got enough skill at map reading to get out of trouble, although I’ve never needed to.  In this way I’m allowing myself to get out of trouble if necessary.  You got to give yourself the opportunity to be lucky sometimes.

Anyway, you get the idea…enough about luck.

Let’s talk about training.  I’m guessing you are a runner at the moment, and have somehow ended up doing ultras, and then have somehow ended up at the Spine.  Have you been dot-watching for a few years, thinking “I couldn’t do that”…?  Yup, me too.  

If you’ve come from a different background, that’s OK too.  You don’t need any special talents to suffer. Just a stubborn mindset.

Running is great.  Running gets your heart rate high and keeps it there.  It’s a brilliant cardio workout, and if you are running a marathon, then you naturally need to run a lot.  Unfortunately, if you are going be doing the Spine, or the Challenger or Sprint, it’s less likely you will be running too much.  If you plan to run a lot, then you are too good to be reading this – you should go and email your coach instead (haha). 

So if you are not going to be running much in the race, then your training shouldn’t consist of mostly running.  It has to be hiking I’m afraid, which is not exciting or hard, but actually time consuming and slow.  You cannot hike a cheeky 20 miler on a Sunday morning and be home for 9am when the family wakes up…instead you will leave the house at midnight, hike through the night, ideally in some shitty muddy hilly surroundings, getting rained on periodically, and then get home covered in mud and dog-tired at 9am…ready for a family day.  You will stay awake all day (good sleep-deprivation training) and then attack a late roast dinner and some red wine (in my case) before falling into a coma about 7pm.  Enjoyable?  Yes, sort-of…..provided your family are understanding and you make damn sure you remain in a good mood throughout the day (you are choosing to put yourself through this, remember?).

Does that make sense?  My best training was very like the paragraph above, as it replicate the worst parts of the race perfectly…overnight, mud, poor weather, lack of sleep…with no real chance at the end to go to comfy bed and recover properly.

You will need to find the perfect place to go and do this.  It needs some serious elevation (unless you are willing to go up and down the same hill a few times) and it needs some rough terrain.  Ideally it will be exposed so that on a stormy night you will get the full weather experience, and hopefully it will be in the middle of nowhere so there’s no danger of you bailing out early and getting a bus home.   You will know if you’ve nailed it when you seriously do not want to go there for another absolutely crap training hike.  But when you do go, the sense of achievement is significant…as is the relief that you do not have to go back for at least a week.

My own personal pit of doom is near Folkestone, about 45 minute drive from my house.  I would leave the house at 10pm on Saturday, hike about 30 miles through the night, getting home about 8 or 9am.  I think I probably did the 30 mile route most weekends through October and November, leaving December alone as I work in retail and I’m at work too much to train seriously.  One of the most satisfying things about finishing the race is that I will never have to go back to Folkestone and go up and down the cliffs there again… I disliked it that much.

Needless to say, you won’t only do overnight hiking, that would be far too depressing (and too far from home!)  I used to do another mid-week hike, across some local fields, for between 3 hours and 5 hours, with the focus on going as fast as possible on the better terrain.  As fast as possible?  Perhaps 16-17 minutes per mile or quicker if possible.  I’d normally start quicker, than slow after the first hour, but it was rough version of a tempo run, pushing a bit. Generally I’d be aiming for 11 miles in 3 hours to 16 miles for the longer times.

Use these hikes to learn what you like to eat.  Eat a lot of it.

OK, so that’s hiking covered…build up to 30 miles (once per week) and a shorter faster effort mid-week by October/November.  I’d do this will full pack (maybe 8-9kgs) and wearing something close to the kit I’d wear on the race.

Other training?  Yes, absolutely.  If you are as bad at hills as I am, then get some practice in!  I spent more time on the stepper machine at my local gym than was probably necessary, but it was an easy way to replace the running that I enjoyed.  This was the equivalent of the cardio that meant I could keep my heart rate high for an hour, sweat pouring off me, while everyone else in the gym looking at me worryingly, hoping I wasn’t about to have a heart attack.

Weight-training?  Probably a good idea, but I’m going to confess that I did not really bother.  I found the effort of lifting a heavy weight (and then putting it down) was profoundly pointless.  I suspect weight-lifters would tell me that running for an hour in a big loop to end up where I started was equally pointless (but I love it!)

And that’s the extent of my not-very-complicated training regime. 

Or is it?

I gave up alcohol for about 3 months before the race.  At least, I reduced my considerable consumption to just one day per week (Sunday red wine anyone?) which is supposed to be very good for you.

I started taking multivitamins and vitamin C for 4 months before the race, which made absolutely no noticeable difference at all.  But I got no colds, flu or Covid during these months. (Remember what I said about giving yourself the opportunity to be lucky?)

Practice sleeping out in your bivvy & sleeping bag.  Unpacking it, packing it away, dropping it in a muddle puddle, whatever you fancy.  Practice.  I really like and enjoy wild camping with a lightweight tent, but I will still bivvy as a training exercise to get an hours sleep and then pack up and carry on up the trail.

Hang on a minute. Let’s quickly touch on the idea of bivvying out during the Spine race for a minute, and please take some advice from me.   You should be ready to do it if necessary but only the absolute last resort.  That’s it.  The likelihood of unpacking your gear, getting your muddy clothes off, managing to get into your sleeping bag and bivvy, and finally getting some decent sleep, and getting back on the trail in a reasonable amount of time is low to zero.  Don’t get me wrong, you may need to do it, but personally I happily recommend a 10 minute nap on the trail (or ideally under cover) which will refresh you without eating up hours of time.  Practice both a ‘proper’ sleep in your bivvy for a few hours, and also a nap that refreshes without needing to unpack everything.

So what do you use for a quick nap?  I bought a very lightweight tarp, Pike Trail Pocket Blanket, and I would wrap myself up in this to keep the wet ground off me, and the wind/rain off.  It may well be cold, so I would wrap up in a foil blanket before wrapping the tarp around me, it was surprisingly warm.  The only time this didn’t work was when I was wet through to my clothes under my hard-shell, and predictably just lay there getting colder and colder.  A rough way to learn that movement is the best way to keep warm if you are wet.

Foot care, or more specifically, foot taping.  I bought the very excellent book, Fix Your Feet, and read it.  I practised the likely taping I would need (balls of feet, heels, toes) to get ideas about what worked and what came unstuck.  It’s quite an art!  At the race itself, there are some brilliant medics that will put tape all over your feet if you ask, but it helps to be able to guide them with your experience.  More importantly, if you need to stop on the trail and fix a hot-spot, there’s not a medic to help!  I can tell you that the strip of KT tape I need to cover my little toes is exactly as long as my thumb, and exactly half the width of the tape…that’s how much I practised.

If you’ve never needed tape on your feet before, then it cannot hurt to practise anyway!  I used to think my feet were bomb-proof, but the waterlogged conditions you will experience on the Spine will put most feet at risk of maceration and blisters. 

OK, so you’ve spent a good few hours hiking, you’ve got all the kit you’ll ever need. You know what you like to eat on the trail and you can refresh yourself with an hours sleep under a hedge. What else do you need to do? 

Train your brain.

Yes, seriously.  Your brain needs to learn to suffer, and take it in good spirits.  It needs to be able to be blown to buggery by the wind, and remind itself that at least it’s not as bad as storm Angus was on Folkestone cliffs.  Your mind needs to reach exhaustion, and tell itself that your body has got hours of hiking left in it.  It needs to reach maximum boredom and be sick to death of the slippery mud, and know exactly which song or playlist will lift it out of the gloom. 

Unfortunately, the only way to reach these depths is to put your shoes on and get outside.  You cannot do it from the sofa.  The more you commit to training, the more you’ve got to lose by DNF’ing during the race itself….and you will want to quit at one point or another.

I think it was Sarah Fuller that made a very perceptive Facebook post a few years ago, that said (and I paraphrase) you needed to go into the race “knowing your ‘why’” so that when you wanted to drop out you could tell yourself why you were there in the first place.  Have a think about that.  And then train your brain.

Lastly, recce what sections of the route you can.  I was able to do most of the route, solely because Covid delayed my race by a few years. Recce 1, 2, 3.  That gave me time to juggle work, family life, and other commitments to zoom up north, hike a section between two aid stations, and then get back home as quickly as possible.  I was helped in this by my son going to university up north, so I would drive him back for the start of term, and then recce more of the Pennine way for a few days before getting home again.  Would I recommend any particular sections?  Personally, the section from Middleton to Alston encompasses Cauldron Snout, High Cup Nick, Cross Fell, and Greg’s Hut.  It’s just got everything, in my opinion.  I found it the toughest section, the climb up to Cross Fell is genuinely the toughest climb I’ve done in any race.  It’s a section that you want to try first in my opinion.  Second, is the final section over the Cheviots, simply because it’s so remote.  Recce with all your kit, make some mistakes, sleep badly in Hut 1, run out of water, take some pictures and fall in love with the Pennine Way.

Right, I think that’s enough about training.  Let’s get to the meaty juicy bit you’ve been eagerly waiting for.  Let’s talk about kit and see how easily we can blow a couple of grand…

Some of what you are about to read is just a duplicate of my kit list for 2018 Challenger, but this is what I used, discarded, retried and tested for Winter Spine 2022.

Shoes – I ended up using 2 pairs of Hokas boots in the end.  A pair of Hoka Challengers for the first half, and Speedgoats for the second half.  I’ve used Hokas for a while, but originally discarded the idea of using them for the spine as they would be too narrow with the multiple pairs of socks I intended to wear with them.  I had a nightmare choosing other brands though, working through Innov8 Rocklites (really comfy, but simply not padded enough for long 24 hour sections) to La Sportiva Ultra Raptor II (nice, but not enough grip), to trying all the above with special expensive insoles.  In the end I came back to Hokas and I figured I’d just have to cope with the slight narrow fit.  I had the first pair one size larger than my usual shoes, and the second pair were two sizes larger.  Even with some foot swelling, those Speedgoats were a pleasure to put on at Middleton.

I did have a spare pair of very big shoes in my drop bag in case of foot-swelling disasters.  They were a whopping size 14 Innov8 Rocfly 390, that resembled boats rather than shoes.  I’m thankful to say I didn’t need them, but having spent the last few days of the Monarchs Way in tight shoes, it’s just agony to walk for days in shoes that are too small and I won’t make that mistake again.

All the above shoes are boots, to give the ankle added stability and prevent anything getting into the shoe.

I experimented with gore-tex shoes & non-gore-tex, because there is a huge swell of opinion (I found) that said you wanted non-gore-tex shoes so the water could run out.  Well, I walked through ankle high grass, soaking wet with dew, in non-gore-tex shoes, and my socks were soaking in minutes.  Gore-tex shoes, in the same field, kept my feet dry.  It was a simple choice for me…I hate having wet feet.  So my shoes would be gore-tex, and I would find some quality waterproof socks to keep the inevitable water off. 

Socks – I’ve been wearing this combination for a few years, and have found they work really well for me.  I have a pair of Injinji toe liner socks next to my feet, and some quality merino wool hiking socks next to them.   On top of them, waterproof socks.  Now you can see why my shoes felt a bit tight!

Injinji are really expensive, but I find they last for years (I’ve been using some years-old pairs, from when I did GUCR in 2014), and they prevent any skin rubbing on skin, preventing blisters.  The merino wool socks are simply there to absorb sweat that comes out of the Injinji, and also do the usual merino job of keeping my feet warm or cold as required. 

There are two main brands of waterproof socks…Sealskinz and DexShell.  I read that the first half of the route is the wettest, and that knee-length socks are essential to prevent water going over the top…so I wore knee length Sealskinz for the first half (at an eye-watering price of £50) and then calf length DexShell for the second half.  I’ve worn a lot of waterproof socks over the years, and usually find them very reliable, but their performance deteriorates over time, so the ones I wore for the spine were packet-fresh and untouched…and predictably they did a great job.  I even had to traverse a couple of deep streams in the Sealskinz and didn’t feel my feet get wet.

I only used the two pairs of waterproof socks, but I had spare Injinji/merino socks with me in my pack and enough pairs in my drop bag to ensure I could change them multiple times if the need arose.

A quick note here:  no waterproof sock will keep your feet dry if you go through every puddle and stream available.  I will do everything I can to keep my shoes dry, skipping around puddles and mud until it is absolutely unavoidable to get them wet.  I don’t like running with wet feet, and the cold would have been serious if my feet had been wet for hours.  If there is no danger of feet getting wet, then don’t use waterproof socks, as they are bleeding expensive and hold the sweat inside, basically poaching your feet over a long period of time.

Gaiters:  when I’m out running I have a simple pair of dirty-girl gaiters that cover my ankle and prevent sticks and stones going into my shoes.  For Challenger in 2018, I invested in a pair of Berghaus GTX gaiters.  These are expensive, but are probably one of the most important bits of kit after jacket and shoes.  The gaiters have a strong thick strap under the shoes that can be easily replaced when worn out as they are attached by Velcro (I’ve replaced mine 3 times).  The gaiters go from the tops of your shoe (another good reason for using a boot) right up to your knee, and fasten with Velcro all the way down.  They close nice and tightly around your lower leg, and provide superb protection against water and mud.  I don’t think you can run in them, but I didn’t try to be fair.  They were comfortable and secure; I didn’t have to adjust them at all once I fitted them correctly.  I’ve used them for multiple hikes, recces and finally the Winter Spine in 2022.  They are magic.

Underwear:  just a simply pair of running shorts, with a nice worn liner inside that I’ve done multiple miles in.  Whatever feels really comfy.

Trousers: I had a pair of cheap running tights under a brilliant pair of Montane Terra hiking trousers, which I’ve been using for years and I find they are very comfortable and dry amazingly quickly when they get wet.  Over the top of all of these I wore my waterproof trousers from the very start.

Waterproof trousers:  I used a pair of Berghaus Deluge trousers from the start (as it was raining/snowing), and wore them every single mile.  Brilliant things, although they look a bit bedraggled now!  They performed well in the heavy rain, and even better they have a long zip up each side so can be put on over shoes – the last thing I wanted out on the trail was to struggle to put trousers on over shoes.  I’m not a massive fan of waterproof trousers, but these did a great job without overheating my legs.  If you want to have a look at them, go to Go Outdoors, where they have racks of every different type of waterproof trousers in different sizes, and try loads on.  It’s like internet shopping but with stuff to try on.   I had second, cheap, pair in my drop bag in case of the inevitable hole that would appear, but didn’t need them.

Top base layers – I had 2 merino wool base layers in my drop bag, ready for the cold weather.  Interestingly, I usually overheat on long runs and I found these worked well.  They did fill with sweat if I didn’t vent them on big climbs, but did a great job of keeping me warm.  I also had a pair of merino wool tights in case I started to get cold, but I never actually needed them.   

Top layer – During Challenger in 2018 I used thick winter running tops, which worked well, but I was very conscious that when they got wet they would take hours to dry.  For the full Spine I used light long sleeve summer tops, but multiple layers of them so able to change them out easily if wet.  I learned this from doing the Monarchs Way in 2019, and the benefit of being able to keep cool by removing a layer is invaluable.

Mesh vest.  Yes, it sounds strange, but these are amazingly warm and light.  I used Plant X Carnac Mesh base layer and it was very comfy and warm.  Unfortunately you look horrendous in it, but that can’t be helped can it?

Jacket – the most important piece of kit.  For Challenger I spent hours literally deciding which to get, as I didn’t own a good enough jacket previously.  I went for a hard-shell jacket, which was going to be bulletproof in poor weather, but was heavier and less breathable.  Ifyou are going slow and steady like me, my recommendation is to go for the best you can afford, and I got a Mountain Equipment Rupal jacket.  It was great for the Challenger, and was again absolutely amazing for the full Spine, and every other serious ultra I’ve done in between.  It’s a magical jacket and easily my favourite bit of kit.  It’s saved me more times than I care to think about, and I get a feeling of real invincibility when I wear it.

However, while researching for the full Spine, I was also reading about the mythical properties of Paramo jackets.  The Altra 3 jacket specifically.  Paramo jackets work very differently from hard-shell jackets.  They don’t try to resist the rain, but rather absorb it and then use your movement to ‘squeeze’ the water out.  They are a quality piece of kit, and are rightly raved about.  I managed to get one, and decided to carry it with me as a warm jacket that could go underneath my Mountain Equipment jacket if it got too cold, or my hard-shell gave up the ghost and started letting water through.  

Most people would feel that this is a bit of overkill (and they’d be right) but the risk of getting completely soaked from a suitably torrential bit of rain, or the risk of getting some proper hyperthermia from a particularly cold night out on the Cheviots is not a great prospect either.  Please don’t underestimate the cold that you feel after days on your feet with minimal nutrition, at elevation, in January, in Scotland.  It’s not funny.

The Paramo jacket was great, but I never got used to the idea of wearing a jacket in the rain that doesn’t repel the water.  There’s a really good reason it is not allowed to be your main jacket on the Spine kit list!

Neck gaiter – We’ve all got loads of free buffs from previous races, and these are what I used for the Challenger.  But take a tip from me…splash out on a merino wool buff.  It stays dry (somehow) in the rain, it feels warm all the time.  It was my favourite bit of kit, almost.

Hat – I took one very warm waterproof hat, that I got cheaply off the internet a few years ago, and worn through every cold ultra for years.  I think it cost £2.  My jacket hood kept the rain off when the rain started so it didn’t need to be particularly waterproof, just warm.  During the day, or if it was too hot, I used a buff on my head instead.  Get something that covers your ears.

Head torch – I usually use a Petzl myo, which I find does everything I want and had great battery life.  For the Challenger I traded up to a Petzl Nao plus, which was horrifically expensive (really really expensive) but after a recce in November with the Myo, I wanted more light for the night sections (i.e. most of it). I found the Nao plus gave loads of light (750 lumens I think, for 16 hours) and I liked the reactive lighting (which meant it dimmed in well lit areas to save battery), but in truth I didn’t like the rechargeable battery which forced me to buy a spare rechargeable battery just in case required out on the trail, and was fiddly to change.  The charge time is 6 hours too, which meant it wasn’t possible to fully recharge while at an aid station.  You can control the torch through an app, which also tells you how much battery life you have left….but it’s a gimmick.

I also took the Myo with me as a spare, just in case, and spare batteries for both torches.  The Nao plus worked superbly, and although it was overkill it did a great job.

I also carried a small hand-held torch that could be focussed to provide a very narrow strong beam in the dark.  It’s a little known fact that in rain or mist, a head torch will diffuse the light throughout the moisture, and give hardly any visibility beyond about 2 metres.  That’s when you get out your torch and shine a beam of strong light that actually shows you where to go.  Much better.   

Goggles – part of the mandatory kit, you’ll find pairs by Bolle are cheap, comfortable and do the job.  Don’t spend ages searching around for an alternative, they’re all rubbish. Just get Bolle.  And then practice with them wear them for hours, work out where they rub.

Gloves – this was really interesting.  I had a few pairs, but the ones I used most were these from Amazon.  Waterproof, thermal, brilliant.

Glove Pic

These kept my hands warm, dry, and although I couldn’t feel much through the thick membrane I did have some mobility.  I really liked these, and wore them a lot. Dry and warm hands no matter how much it rained.

In addition, I got a pair of Gore-Tex Extremities Tuff Bag over-mitts which allowed me to move my fingers around more than the thermal gloves above.  These were great, and very light to carry around.  They got a bit sweaty inside after a while and gently disintegrated throughout the week, bless them.

I saw loads of other people with really expensive mitts, by Montane or others that just could not cope with days in the rain and simply became completely waterlogged.  Don’t do this!  Avoid wearing them in strong rain, unless you have something waterproof over the top!   My version of these was a pair of Mountain Equipment mittens.  They are Primaloft, so warm when wet, and would be my glove of choice in the real cold.  When I did my recces, I was able to put hand warmers into the mittens which kept my hands toasty when I was getting cold.

Overall, I have learnt that if my feet, hands and neck/head are warm then the rest of my body generally follows.  Hence socks / gloves / buff & hat are probably the things that I already knew what worked for me, and I didn’t have to look around too much.

I was really tempted to carry more layers, t-shirts or more long sleeved tops that I could put on if required, but I kept them in my drop bag and in the end didn’t require them.  Something I saw when I volunteered at the 2021 spine was racers getting in to aid stations completely soaked through, and running out of dry clothes to change into.  I made sure my drop bag contained enough clothes to change most layers at every aid station.  Luckily, I didn’t need most of them as there wasn’t too much rain after the first couple of days.

Rucksack – OMM classic 32ltr.  Was bigger than I needed, and I had to be controlled so that I didn’t fill it with even more stuff, but I’ve used it a lot and it fits well.  I especially like the various pockets it has on the waist belt and top.  I used an OMM trio front pack, which was great, very big (4 litre) and hold everything I needed for easy access.  I had a single water bottle fitted to one of the shoulder straps with an OMM pod which worked well, and on the other strap I had an OMM pod holding a flask of hot drink.

GPS unit – Garmin Etrex 30.  I’ve had this for a few years, and it is simple to use but very good.  If you don’t use one much at the moment, then get out and use it, especially if you aren’t very technological gifted.  It is a bugger to get used to, but I can strongly recommend making your mistakes when you’re not in a race.  Please don’t underestimate this, unless you are an expert map reader.  I can read a map, but not after 40 hours with no sleep, and the GPS saved me more than once.  As I mentioned earlier, I carried a spare GPS with me in case of emergencies which I’m thankful to say I did not need.  It sounds expensive (and it is) but see if you can borrow one to use as a spare rather than buy one…I’m convinced most GPS units in the country spend 90% of their time in a drawer somewhere, not being used.

Sleeping bag & bivvy bag.  Dead simple…Alpkit Pipedream 400 and Hunka XL bivvy.  The sleeping bag is good down to -6 degrees, and I’ve slept outside in frosty weather in November with no problems.  It weighs 800g, which is heavy, and is quite bulky, but it is such a reasonable price it seemed daft not to get one.  The XL bivvy seems to be decent, but quite small (even though XL) for me – I’m 6ft.

Sleeping mat –Alpkit Numo.  Just get the lightest.  You’ll be so knackered it won’t matter if it’s comfortable.  The only checkpoint that doesn’t have beds available is Bellingham, and by that stage sleeping on the floor (on an inflatable matt) is the least of your problems.  I already had an Alpkit Airo 120, but chose the Numo as it was a whopping 100g lighter and much less bulky.

Stove – I used an MSR pocket rocket, and a titanium pot from Alpkit with windproof matches.  I didn’t take a heavy wind blocker, but a couple of pieces of stiff silver foil (cut down bits of silver tray) that would work if I couldn’t find any shelter.  I didn’t use them in the end, but practised until I could set them all up, boil 2 cups of water to make cup-a-soup, drink and pack up in just under 10 mins.  Even in that short time I was getting really cold (practice when out hiking, not in your kitchen!), so it is vital to practise to be quick.  I was tempted to go for a jet-boil or something similar, but I love the compactness of the kit I had.

Yaktrax pro – mandatory kit, didn’t use them.  You need to practice putting them on!  Get them cheap from the internet (mine cost £7.50, they are £20 in the shops)

Maps: I used the OS A-Z for the Pennine way, which has a highlighted line over the Pennine way.  Simple, easy.  I used it a lot on my recces, but very little on the race itself. Make sure you have it in a waterproof cover or it will fall apart.

Rear red light:  Loads of different versions available, I ended up using a Silva Simi Red Safety light.  Light, bright, great.  I had 3 with me in case they all died after one night, but in fact the first one I used was still going strong at the end.

And what else did I take?

Hand-warmers, from Tesco, one use only but stayed warm for 10 hours on my recces which was way beyond my expectations.  Nice to have if you get proper cold!

Plastic poncho, to protect in case of poor weather.  These take up no space, are very light, and made me feel confident about encountering some proper weather if my hard-shell started to leak.

Rubber gloves – plain old Tesco washing-up gloves, very light, which I kept on the outside of my pack and used when I took my disgustingly muddy boots and gaiters off.  Purely psychological, but I hate to get my hands covered in bog when taking my shoes off.

Water bottles.  If using one with a bite valve and straw from the bottle, do put a bit of insulation on them.  I found that while my straw didn’t freeze up (it was wrapped in felt and duct tape), my bite valve would crack when I used it as the water inside would freeze.  I learnt to blow the water out, back into the bottle, after every drink.  Flask for hot drink on the other strap, mine had a screw lid, but I was envious of the people that had a flask with a flip-top so they only needed one hand to open it and take a drink.

Food – tough one this, as everyone is different.  I took 2 freeze-dried meals in my rucksack, 1000kcal each, in case of emergency.  In my front pack I had a small bag of ‘nibbles’, but after the first leg I found I wasn’t eating loads outside the checkpoints.  My other recommendation (as with any long ultra) is never pass a pub or shop without buying something to eat, whether it is a massive lasagne or just a pack of sweets, the monotony of identical food is easy for 12 hours, but after a few days is an easy way to stop eating.

Spare shoelace.  Just in case.

Spare batteries for GPS, headtorch etc.

First aid kit, as required, and the smallest sharpest penknife I could find that had a pair of scissors on it.  Look on Amazon.  Make sure you have foot tape included in here.

Phone, headphones…I often listen to music to keep my mood positive, and on the Monarchs Way I listened to the same artist for about 9 days straight, charging my phone as I went.  I’d suggest carrying a charging block too, just in case.  Charging phone or watch or head torch while on the go is a big part of these long ultras, and I always carry too much electronics ‘just in case’. Just imagine not being ableto leave a checkpoint because some bugger has unplugged your kit while you were sleeping.  Put the electronics in a plastic bag, as they will undoubtedly get wet at some point.

Poles – can’t forget these!  I’m quite a fan of poles up the ascents, and used them for multiple ultras like the Arc of Attrition, Monarchs Way and on the Spine Challenger.  I know there are loads of sexy thin pair around, but I also read that a lot of the thin ones get broken on the spine as there are a lot of nooks and crannies for the tip to slip into and get snapped off when you keep moving forward.  On one of my recces that was exactly what happened to me.  So my pole of choice is…Amazon best seller “Pair of Trekrite Antishock Hiking Sticks / Walking Poles – Black”.  These are chunky and strong, and even when I did snap the tip off one on my recce I still used it for days.  They are telescopic, which means they are bulkier than folding poles, but they work fine.  Best of all they are £20.  They weigh 285g each, which is loads, but I think worth it (Black Diamond are £80 and only a little lighter).  Personally, I’d rather spend my money on a better jacket or solid gaiter than poles, but that’s just me.  I had a spare pair in my drop bag also, in case of disaster.  And I think it’s common knowledge, but make sure you mark them with something unique to prevent another racer accidentally picking yours up at a checkpoint (I found bright pink duct tape scared away everyone else, or perhaps they just didn’t like the look of the cheapest poles out on the trail).

I should point out that if I was in an event that only used poles for a small amount of time, these would be a nightmare to carry with you until they were required, so I’d probably get something smaller….but for the Spine, perfect.  Oh yes, almost forgot, put duck tape around the top third of the pole, as it’s much warmer on bare fingers than the metal pole when holding them horizontal.  Also, the duct tape comes in handy when you tear your waterproofs on barbed wire as you can unpeel it from the pole and cover the rip.

I didn’t need to carry a poo kit, so can’t advise too much on that thankfully.  In my day we just dug a hole with a stick and covered it up afterwards.

What else did I do?  I had a couple of loops of elastic added to the waist belt of my pack so I could hang things on them that I didn’t want to carry.  For example, all my gloves had a loop sewn into the wrist so I could take my gloves off to eat and not drop them.  Overkill?  Yes, possibly, but losing a glove on the trail in poor weather is not a great idea.

I marked the water level I needed on my aluminium pot for the dried meals I was carrying, so it was simple and easy to boil the correct amount of water.

I counted how many socks I would need in the absolute worst case weather, and had enough to change my socks at every checkpoint, and once between checkpoints. 

I practised putting those damn Yaktrax things on until it wasn’t an absolute bloody nightmare.  This is possibly only necessary if you are wearing Hokas.

I sewed everything on my kit to ensure it didn’t come loose on the trail.  I also had a tiny sewing kit in my drop bag.  Thankfully not needed.  I also carried 4 big safety pins on my pack, ready for re-attaching something in an emergency.  I swear by safety pins as the ultimate ‘just in case’ accessory for an ultra.

I also had a tiny laminated spreadsheet of distances between checkpoints, cut-off times and other useful stuff.

I used a Suunto 9 watch to track my progress, lovely thing.

And my drop bag….

Two compartments at either end.  One was filled with the immediate stuff I’d need to swap my muddy shoes out at every checkpoint – plastic gloves (for keeping hands clean when getting boots off), wet wipes to clean feet, comfy slide-on shoes…I wanted my soggy feet to dry out as much as possible, so they needed to spend some time in the air, without socks on. 

In the other compartment was all the ‘important’ stuff for the checkpoint that wasn’t clothing…about 3 charging blocks & leads (for charging head torch rechargeable battery, watch, phone),  spare batteries (for GPS), replacement hand warmers etc.

In the mid section of the drop bag was everything else! 

Everything was in clear plastic food bags with press-seal tops.  Easy to know what was in every bag and could be compacted down, air squeezed out and then sealed to take up minimal space.

Two pairs of shoes, both bigger sizes than the pair I’d be starting in.  I.e. I started in a size 12 (I normally take an 11) and my Hoka Speedgoats were a 13, and my ‘last-resort’ shoes in case of foot-swelling disasters were Innov8 Rocfly 390 size 14’s.  Both pairs in plastic bags to keep everything clean.

Spare trousers, leggings, merino wool leggings, & spare waterproof trousers (cheap ones). Spare warm hat.  Spare waterproof gloves (as well as the multiple pairs I was carrying). 

4 standard running long sleeve tops, 2 heavy running tops.  2 merino wool base layers.  1 spare string vest.  4 spare buffs, and one spare merino wool one that I didn’t need.

Spare torch batteries, spare charging block, spare windproof matches, spare red rear light, spare headphones.

Water filter, just in case the last section over the Cheviots looked like not having any water available, which is what I found on my recce.  In reality the mountain rescue super-stars were manning Hut 1 & 2 so that was not a problem.

Batteries.  Lots of batteries.  Mainly for my GPS, but my spare head torch also used AA so they were for that also.  To simplify things I planned to replace the GPS batteries at every checkpoint, so that meant having that many, plus a few extras for emergencies.  Lithium seems to be the battery of choice for cold weather.  Naturally, they are the most expensive too.

Food:

  • 5 dried meals, to replace the 2 I was carrying if necessary.  All had between 600-1000 kcal.
  • 10 cup-a-soups (I use these when my stomach refuses to eat, which is pretty much every time)
  • 2 bags of boiled sweets…sherbet lemons & butter mintoes if you are interested.  I tried to only carry 5 sweets with me at a time though.  A boiled sweet can give your blood sugar just the kick it needs it you are feeling low.
  • A bar of Cadburys chocolate, yum.
  • A few tins of mackerel in sauce.  I carried one with me too, useful it you want protein rather than savoury.  Mackerel has saved me a few times on ultras (especially Thames Ring 250 on the final night) but it does make me smell a bit fishy.

I had everything in a huge 100 litre bag, that had wheels and a handle built in for easy movement.  It was water-resistant, very important!  And yes, I did manage to get down to the 20kg weight limit.

Is that everything?   Yes, I think so.  I spent a great deal of time (and money) getting my kit together (over a number of years & ultras), and I have no hesitation in recommending it all, and the spares I took but didn’t use.  Frankly, the Spine is difficult enough without making it harder by trying to do it in a pair of wellies and a flimsy cagoule.   I know myself well enough that if I DNF a race I have to go back and finish it another time, so it was simply self-preservation for me to prepare well for my one and only attempt at the full Spine.

Was it worth it?  After a few months of reflection and with the distance that only time gives, I think I’ll remember the Spine for the rest of my life, but not just the race itself.  Rather, the journey I took to get to the finish line: numerous difficult ultras that built my experience, a selection of kit that I built over the years that I knew would not let me down, and building a mindset that knew how to suffer and keep suffering.  The final 6 months of training were really tough, but exactly what I needed to feel I had invested too much time and energy to DNF this particular race.

Having finished and ‘retired’ from ultras, I now find I have quite a nostalgic view on my past efforts.  It’s like I’m an old man that views his younger days with a rose-tinted view, forgetting the pain and the effort it took. 

I remember it as being easy and fun, when I know it wasn’t. Funny that.  Maybe I need to go back and remind myself.

….and that’s the end. Good luck if you’re doing the spine (whether the full, challenger or sprint) and have a great time. Please leave a comment if you’ve found this useful!

Advice for running the Monarchs Way

Before I start this, I suggest you read my race report from Monarchs Way 2019 first, as it will give you a bit of background and insight into how I found it and what I went through.  Obviously, any tactic I suggest is tailored to my slow, back-of-the-pack style of running – if you’re quick then a lot of this probably won’t be for you.

I’ve split my advice into 3 areas…physical, mental, and kit.

Physical:

Good news!  This race isn’t about being able to run a sub-3 hour marathon, a sub-20 hour 100 miler, or a 15 minute park run.  In fact, while I think a good pace for the first 50 miles is critical to create a buffer against the cut-offs, after that you can probably get by with a strong fast-hike (and not much sleep).

As always, the starting point of the pace requirements starts with the numbers.   I created a spreadsheet for the 2018 runners to show their paces across the various leg, versus the cut-offs.  This showed fairly clearly that the three finishers were not the fastest, but the most consistent.  Everyone lost time on the two long legs (8 & 9) because they were out there for so long, but the buffer that had been built up was adequate to allow a finish.  This is the link to my spreadsheet: HERE and although it may take a little time to understand the various tabs along the bottom, it should hopefully be fairly self-explanatory.  You will also see my planned timings for the 2019 race, and the actual timings for all the finishers.  (Its a pretty sizeable file, so may take a while to load).

So, physically, you don’t have to be a beast to finish the Monarchs Way (unless you want to win), however, that does not mean it is easy.  In fact, I would say that more important than huge levels of running fitness is experience.  If you have completed one or two 100 milers, and think you are ready for a crack at Monarchs Way…you’re not.  That is not to say you definitely won’t finish, but the odds are against you.  I would politely suggest that the next step up from a 100 mile run is to a 200-250 mile race (such as Thames Ring 250), which will give you 3-4 days on your feet on a safe (easier) route, and will give you a taste of the sleep-deprivation you can expect.  Foot problems will likely rear their head on a 250 mile race, as well as some dodgy weather, which will all be good practice.  A few races in January will give you confidence in poor conditions, as well as spending a lot of time in the dark!  Obviously, moving at night is an integral part of the Monarchs Way, so familiarity and confidence no matter how lost you feel is really critical (as well as being able to bivvy out (sleep out) if required).

On the surface, travelling 45ish miles each day and sleeping at the checkpoint every night sounds easy…you need to trust me that its not that simple.  The ability to fast-hike (i.e. walk) at 3 or 4 mph for 18 hours is an acquired one, a bit like running I suppose, so takes time and training.  The training will toughen your legs and feet to resist the stiffness and damage that will inevitably settle into them.  Being able to run well does not automatically mean you can fast-hike (and vice-versa).

Foot care, as you will have seen form my race report, is an acquired knowledge…buy a book and read it!  I’m not convinced you can always avoid foot deterioration, but you can definitely treat it.

I’m quite dismissive about the physical side of the race to be honest, I think that if you have bashed out a few long races in tough conditions, then you have a rough idea of what to expect.  But you need to trust me when I say that one Centurian 100 miler does not (physically) qualify you to finish this race.

Mental:

How much do you want to finish?  What is your motivation for being there?  What is your ‘why’?

I can guarantee that at some point in the Monarchs Way, over the 12 to 14 days it will take you, something will go wrong that will give you real motivation for wanting to stop.  You will experience a low that is unlike anything you have experienced before.  What will take you past that?

I can tell you about the time I learned that I can put up with serious discomfort, during a race I did in January 2017, called the Arc of Attrition.  It is a fairly simple 100 miler, but follows the South West Coastal Path, and has enormous amounts of descending down into coves and bays, and then climbing back up on the other side.  I had covered 70 miles, reached the last checkpoint in 20 hours,  with about 30 minutes to spare.  I was absolutely shattered, stomach issues preventing me from eating anything for fuel, and I was totally understanding how much the next 30 miles were going to drain me.  I had a brilliant crew and was running with my running wife John (who had waited an hour for me to arrive at the checkpoint) which made the whole experience easier, but as I left the checkpoint, I had to tell myself that I could put up with any amount of discomfort for the next 10 hours / 30 miles.  And I did.

So it was a simple extension of this to reach the point in the Monarchs Way where I told myself I could put up with any amount of discomfort for the next 5 days.  But I do not know whether I would have reached that conclusion without putting myself through some rough experiences in the past.

The reason most ultra runners enjoy putting themselves up against a challenge is because modern life is (relatively) easy much of the time.  There are complications and ‘boring’ stuff like morgages to deal with, but provided that everyone around you is healthy, a lot of modern-day living does not put you in a place where you have to decide between going forward and retreating.  An ultra, done well, allows this to happen.

If you have mastered the above mental challenge, the rest is easy!

Can you be self-sufficient for long stretches on your own?  The checkpoints are 45 miles apart, so you will be on your own for over 12 hours (at the start), up to 24 hours by the end.  The are some shops and villages along each leg, but not as many as you will need.  Personally, I love the solitude, both in the day and at night, which is something of a help.  The more you carry, the slower you will go, so a light pack is essential…but running out of water and food is not really an option, so you need to know yourself well enough to judge what you require.

A flexible approach to your race sounds like an obvious statement, but I frequently come across people that tell me exactly when they will be eating/sleeping and they struggle to change their plans when things go south (and things always go wrong).  Mending something on the move sounds obvious, but making sure you have the necessary parts is much harder.  For example, I always used to put a few strips of duct tape onto walking poles, to distinguish them from other peoples…until I broke one and used the tape to fix it.  Every since, I’ve always had some strips of duct tape on my poles for this or any other purpose.  Being able to problem-solve is a really useful attribute.

The mental approach to the distance is also (I found) critical.  It is easy to say “don’t think of the whole distance, just a leg at a time” but rather harder to do it in practice.  However, you will be out on the trail for days, so some kind of ‘distance’ strategy is required.

Planning ahead, knowing where your next village or shop is, will be hugely useful.  I spent a few hours going over the route on google maps looking for signs of civilisation, and being able to look forward to a meal in a few hours time is hugely motivating.  Similarly, churches usually have an outside tap for water when shops are closed.

Recce any sections that you can, as it will give you an advantage on the day.  I would say the two long sections would be most useful to know beforehand, but others will probably disagree with that.  I did not get the chance to recce at all, so it is not critical.

Have a good list of what you need to do when you get to the checkpoint, as it will serve you well when your brain has turned to mush.  It does not need to be huge, but if it lists all the important stuff it will give you confidence that you have not forgotten anything.  Mine included:

MW Checkpoint checklist
Shoes & socks off. Wipe down feet. Dry.
Newspaper into shoes.
New batteries? Replen spare batteries?
Lie out bivvy to dry?
Get rid of rubbish.
New map.
New charging block.
Put stuff onto charge. Headtorch, watch, phone, blocks.
Replace food….sweets…noodles…mackerel…soup…gas.
Wipe down all over.

Eat. Sleep.

Fill water. Fill flask.
Scrape feet. Vaseline. Socks & shoes. Gaiters.
News shorts? Long trousers? New top?
Clean buff. Hat. Gloves. Warm hat & gloves?
Cook kit?

I could go on about the mental preparations for the Monarchs Way, as I think it is the most important factor (as for most ultras) but I won’t.

Kit:

Shoes – at least 4 pairs, as it will take days for them to dry out from the dew on the long grass in the mornings.  I used innov-8 roclite 325’s (boots), but learnt that they are not padded enough underneath after 6 or 7 days hence some of my foot pain.  Most other runners had hoka’s or similar.  I put newspaper into my shoes while they were drying, which was simple but seemed to work well.

Socks- whatever is your preference.  I used Injinji liner toe socks, and then a normal pair on top (usually More Miles crew socks).  For the waterproof socks I always use Sealskinz, but there is a variety of different makes that others swear by too.

Gaiters – my hardcore set are Berghaus goretex gaiters, and are made for winter races.  However, they stopped anything whatsoever getting into my shoes and were also semi-waterproof.

Long hiking trousers – Montane terra trousers did me really well.  Quick drying but great protection for the legs in long shrubbery.

Waterproofs – Berghaus deluge trousers, and Mountain Equipment Rupal jacket.  The trousers are great because due to a long zip up the side you can put them on over your shoes.  The jacket is simply bomb-proof and has got me through some serious weather.  I started off carrying a thin lightweight Gravitas jacket by Alpkit, which would keep me warm and reasonably dry, but as time went on and I got slower, I changed to the hardshell as warmth would become critical.

Something on your head for hot & wet weather.

Poles – I  have a nice pair of mountain king poles, but for Monarchs Way I wanted something with really comfortable handles…hence I used a pair of cheap (but heavy) poles by Trekrite from Amazon…a bargain at only twenty pounds.

Charging blocks – I managed to keep my gps watch, phone, and head torch all charged throughout the event, using charging blocks that would themselves be recharged periodically by Lindley.  I used ones at 20,000mAh, which would contain about 5 full charges for my phone before dying.  I would carry one with me, and have one being charged by Lindley throughout.  I believe Anker ones are the best, but I just used cheap ones  from Amazon.

Food – it really doesn’t matter, as long as you know you will enjoy it after days and days of eating it.  As I learned, there’s only so  many days you can eat the same thing.  Take more than you think you will need, as the checkpoint food is great but limited.

GPS – everyone seemed to have Garmin Etrex 30 or 64.  Get used to using it beforehand (they can be quite tricky), especially zooming in and out to make sense of the GRX track you are following.  Do not try to use your phone or a watch (or a map, unless far more talented than me) as it won’t work!

Headtorch – I used a Petzl nao+, but anything with a decent amount of lumens will work.  And carry a spare!

Bivvy – as part of the mandatory kit, a bivvy bag was one of the heavier bits of kit.  I had an Alpkit Hunka bag with me, but did not actually use it, as it was not cold enough or wet enough to need it.  It was reassuring to have it with me though.

 

 

 

 

Spine Challenger – Kit list

One of the things I spent hours upon hours doing in the months before I did the Spine Challenger, was to research kit.   I spent time reading every race report that I could find, which gave me valuable insight into what to expect and what to take with me.  I spent time on the internet, reading about all the different types of kit available, at different prices, and their advantages and disadvantages.  And the finally, and most importantly, I tried everything I bought to see if it did what I wanted.

 

So I’m going to run through the kit I ended up with, and why, and whether it worked for me.  To understand my experience of the event itself, you can read my race report HERE, which may be useful as I will refer to certain things that happened.

I should make clear that I was only looking to complete, rather than compete, which means that I worried about weight from a comfort point of view (i.e. I didn’t want my back to hurt) rather than needing to run with my pack.  I couldn’t in fact run very far with my 8kg pack, but a strong hike got me finished on 43.5 hours, which was better than expected.

Clothing first:

From the ground up:

Shoes – I ended up using 2 pairs of non-gore-tex Innovate Rocklite 305’s.  They have great grip, and are quite comfortable.  In training I have run long runs in them on pavements, as well as hiking over rough terrain, so they are fairly versatile (i.e. not just hiking boots or trail running shoes).  With 2 pairs, I was able to change for clean ones halfway, which meant my feet got a rest.  There was lots of debate about whether Gore-Tex shoes were worth it, but the overall consensus seemed to be that Gore-Tex will keep the water inside the shoes once it gets in, where as non-waterproof shoes with quality waterproof socks allows the water that gets in to get out again, and feet stay (mostly) dry in the meantime.

Socks – I’ve been wearing this combination for a few years, and have found they work really well for me.  I have a pair of Injinji toe liner socks next to my feet, and some thin running socks next to them.   Injinji are really expensive, but I find they last for years (I’ve been using some 4 year old pairs, from when I did GUCR in 2014), and they prevent any skin rubbing on skin, preventing blisters.  The thin running socks are simply there to absorb sweat that comes out of the Injinji.  Over the top of these two is a pair of good calf-high Sealskinz, which although not perfect, keep the water out for as long as possible.  Three pairs of socks may feel like overkill, but I have used this combination in numerous ultras and they keep my feet problem-free.  In the Challenger my feet certainly weren’t dry after 12 hours, but the socks absorbed most of the moisture and my feet stayed clean.  I took 2 full sets of the three pairs, and another for emergency that I carried with me.

A quick note here:  no waterproof sock will keep your feet dry if you go through every puddle and stream available.  I will do everything I can to keep my shoes dry, skipping around puddles and mud until it is absolutely avoidable to get them wet.  I don’t like running with wet feet, and the cold would have been serious if my feet had been wet for hours.  If there is no danger of feet getting wet, then don’t use waterproof socks, as they are bleeding expensive and hold the sweat inside, basically poaching your feet over a long period of time.

I should also add, that I have great feet!  I almost never get blisters or problems, and when I watch people having their feet taped up at events I shudder.  I’m just lucky.

20180115_114616

Magic pristine feet!

 

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The feet in the middle are mine after the Thames Ring 250…again, in pretty good shape.

 

Gaiters:  when I’m out running I have a simple pair of dirty-girl gaiters, that cover my ankle and prevent sticks and stones going into my shoes.  For Challenger,  I invested in a pair of Bergaus  GTX gaiters.  These are expensive, but are probably one of the most important bits of kit after jacket and shoes.  The gaiters have a strong thick strap under the shoes that can be easily replaced when worn out as they are attached by Velcro.  The gaiters go from the tops of your shoe (another good reason for using a boot) right up to your knee, and fasten with velco all the way down.  They close nice and tightly around your lower leg, and provide superb protection against water and mud.  I don’t think you can run in them, but I didn’t try to be fair.  They were comfortable and secure, I didn’t have to adjust them at all once I fitted them correctly.  I suspect they will last me for years.

Underwear:  I wore a pair of compression shorts under my trousers, to keep everything ‘tightly held in’ and prevent any chafing.  These minimise any movement of my nethers, and hence no sore bits.  They are quite tight to wear for hours, but worth it I find.

Trousers:  I had 2 sets of base layers, once was a simple pair of compression tights for the first day that kept my legs warm under a cheap pair of running tights.  The second was a pair of merino wool leggings from Mountain Warehouse (about £30).  I only bought the merino wool pair as the internet seems to be convinced on the magic qualities of the wool…keeping cool and warm as necessary, and wicking moisture away easily.  I have to say this was the first I’ve ever owned, but they did seem to be very comfortable and warm.  I’m not convinced they were worth the price however, but as long as they last I will feel they were worth it.  I can’t see myself wearing them for any other running events, but possible hiking in the cold.

I wore cheap running tights (from Sports Direct) over the top of both.  I started with the compression tights and cheap tights for the first half, when my pace was going to keep my legs warm.  After the first day I changed to merino wool and a second pair of running tights, when I expected my pace to drop and my legs to get cold.  One the second day of the challenger, when I was in heavy rain and wind, my legs never felt anything other than warm and cosy.

I saw some runners wearing Montane hiking trousers and the like, which I suspect worked fine, but it seemed yet another expense.

Waterproof trousers:  I used a pair of Bergaus Deluge trousers as my main pair.  They performed well in the heavy rain, and even better they have a long zip up each side so can be put on over shoes – the last thing I wanted out on the trail was to struggle to put trousers on over shoes.  I’m not a massive fan of waterproof trousers, but these did a great job without overheating my legs.  If you want to have a look a them, go to Go Outdoors, where they have racks of every different type of waterproof trousers in different sizes, and try loads on.  It’s like internet shopping but with stuff to try on.

Top base layers – I had 2 merino wool base layers, for similar reasons that the internet said they worked really well.  Interestingly, I usually overheat on long runs and I found these worked well.  They did fill with sweat if I didn’t vent them on big climbs, but did a great job of keeping me warm.

Top layer – 2 normal winter running tops that I use every year.  These are quality Gore Mythos ones that I’ve had for years, but are fleecy on the inside and warm.  They have a thumb hole that keeps the arms stretched all the way down to my wrist, which I like anyway, but this proved invaluable on the Challenger, and there was no skin exposed when wearing gloves.

Jacket – the most important piece of kit.  I spent hours literally deciding which to get, as I didn’t own a good enough jacket previously.  I went for a hard-shell jacket, which was going to be bulletproof in poor weather, but was heavier and less breathable.  My recommendation is to go for the best you can afford, and I got a Mountain Equipment Rupal jacket.  It was great, and gave me huge confidence when the weather got really bad on the final night.  I spent a few nights training in it in the preceding months, so I was very experienced in unzipping to stay cool (it did get very hot on climbs) but I found that it was superbly wind-proof and overall I was really pleased with it.  I strongly suggest you do more than internet shop for it though, research and then get into Go Outdoors or Cotswold Outdoor and try it on! (Then go home and order it for as cheap as possible).

Neck gaiter – I just used lots of buffs.  I had a really thick one that I didn’t use, and the normal thin buffs did the job, even in strong wind.  The added benefit was that they could be pulled up over the chin and nose if the wind was biting cold on exposed skin.

Hat – I took one very warm waterproof hat, that I got cheaply off the internet a few years ago, and wore at night.  My jacket hood kept the rain off when the rain started so it didn’t need to be particularly waterproof, just warm.  During the day, or if it was too hot, I used a buff on my head instead.

Quite a few people had peaked caps, to shade their eyes from the sun (I always run in one) but luckily we had not one scrap of sun the whole time.

Headtorch – I usually use a Petzl myo, which I find does everything I want and had great battery life.  For the Challenger I traded up to a Petzl Nao plus, which was horrifically expensive (really really expensive) but after a recce in November with the Myo, I wanted more light for the night sections (i.e. most of it). I found the Nao plus gave loads of light (750 lumens I think, for 16 hours) and I liked the reactive lighting (which meant it dimmed in well lit areas to save battery), but in truth I didn’t like the rechargeable battery which forced me to buy a spare rechargeable battery just in case required out on the trail, and was fiddly to change.  The charge time is 6 hours too, which meant it wasn’t possible to fully recharge while at an aid station.  You can control the torch through an app, which also tells you how much battery life you have left….but it’s a gimmick.

I also took the Myo with me as a spare, just in case, and spare batteries for both torches.  The Nao plus worked superbly on both nights I was out, and although it was overkill it did a great job.

Goggles – part of the mandatory kit, these were probably the most alien thing I’ve ever taken on an ultra.  However, I read reports of racers having to retire a few years ago due to scrapes on their cornea from strong winds, so they are not to be ignored.  I wear glasses, so I have a slight advantage in winds that others don’t, and for that reason I was perhaps a bit blasé about the goggles.  I read lots of suggestions about them, and in the end I went for a reasonable pair of safety goggles from Screwfix.  They have them on display in the shop-part of a screwfix, which meant I was able to try them on over my glasses.  I read that a clear pair is much better at night than a yellow tinted pair (which is used for skiing), and mine were quite comfortable.  I never actually used them, even in really strong wind.

Gloves – this was really interesting.  I was clear that I needed a couple of good pairs that would keep my hands warm in the rain, and also a light flexible pair if it wasn’t raining.  So this is what I ended up with – my normal thin running gloves, a pair of tough waterproof thermal gloves from Screwfix, a pair of thick Mountain Equipment mittens, and finally a pair of Sealskinz gloves that I bought at the last minute and didn’t actually use.  The thin gloves were fine, but every gate or style that was wet was going to get my gloves wet, and cool my hands.  The Screwfix waterproof gloves fitted really well over these gloves and protected them from any moisture, especially when going through the boggy section where I could easily slip and put my hand on the ground.  These were basically rubber gloves, but I wore them more than any other glove especially when it was properly raining.  My mittens are gorgeous and very warm, and I wore them every evening as the light fell and it got much colder.  They are Primaloft, so warm when wet, and would be my glove of choice in the real cold.  When I did my recce, I was able to put hand warmers into the mittens which kept my hands toasty when I was getting cold.

Overall, I have learnt that if my feet, hands and neck/head are warm then the rest of my body generally follows.  Hence socks / gloves / buff & hat are probably the things that I already knew what worked for me, and I didn’t have to look around too much.

The only other bit of clothing I took, but didn’t actually wear in the end was a decent warm Rab microlight jacket, that fitted easily under my hard-shell, and kept me fantastically warm when I got really cold.  It packed down to tiny proportions, and weighed about 250g, a worthwhile trade-off for the heat and confidence it gave me.  I didn’t actually use it, but it was my “hypothermia-preventer” if I had needed it.

I was really tempted to carry more layers, t-shirts or more long sleeved tops that I could put on if required, but I kept them in my drop bag and in the end didn’t require them.

Rucksack – OMM classic 32ltr.  Was bigger than I needed, and I had to be controlled so that I didn’t fill it with even more stuff, but I’ve used it a lot and it fits well.  I especially like the various pockets it has on the waist belt and top.  I used an OMM trio front pack, which was great, very big (4 ltr) and hold everything I needed for easy access.  I had a single water bottle fitted to one of the shoulder straps woth an OMM pod, worked very well.

GPS unit – Garmin Etrex 30.  I’ve had this for a few years, and it is simple to use but very good.  If you don’t use one much at the moment, then get out and use it, especially if you aren’t very technological gifted.  It is a bugger to get used to, but I can strongly recommend to make your mistakes when you’re not in a race.  Please don’t underestimate this, unless you are an expert map reader.  I can read a map, but not after 40 hours with no sleep, and the GPS saved me more than once.

Sleeping bag & bivvy bag.  Dead simple…Alpkit Pipedream 400 and Hunka XL bivvy.  The sleeping bag is good down to -6 degrees, and I slept outside in frosty weather in November with no problems.  It weighs 800g, which is heavy, and is quite bulky, but it is such a reasonable price it seemed daft not to get one.  The XL bivvy seems to be decent, but quite small (even though XL) for me – I’m 6ft.

Rollmat – also from Alpkit.

Stove – I used an MSR pocket rocket, and a titanium pot from Alpkit with waterproof matches from the internet.  I didn’t take a heavy wind blocker, but a couple of pieces of stiff silver foil (cut down bits of silver tray) that would work if I couldn’t find any shelter.  I didn’t use them in the end, but practised until I could set them all up, boil 2 cups of water to make cup-a-soup, drink and pack up in just under 10 mins.  Even in that short time I was getting really cold (practice when out hiking, not in your kitchen!), so it is vital to practise to be quick.  I was tempted to go for a jetboil or something similar, but I love the compactness of the kit I had.

Yaktrak pro – mandatory kit, didn’t use them, but the ice on the last night was eye-opening, so I almost used them.  You need to practice putting them on!  Get them cheap from the internet (mine cost £7.50, they are £20 in the shops)

Maps – a lot of people used the OS A-Z for the Pennine way, which has a highlighted line over the Pennine way.  I went a bit more down-market, and cut up the required OS explorer map (i,e. waterproof and pretty bomb-proof) into A4 sized chunks.  These were numbered 1 to 17, and each covered about 6-12 miles of the route.  Hence, I could have a single piece of map in front of me, that was quite small and manageable, and I would change for the next map every few hours when I got to the top of the page.  Worked really well (but it felt like heresy to cut a map up).  I saw people using Harveys maps, but I really struggle with their scale.  I’m sure I don’t need to say it, but please practice map reading a lot, even if you don’t intend to use them.  Your GPS will do a lot for you, but confidence in your own abilities to get you out of trouble will be important.

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Pages 2 & 3 of my cut-down maps….I have 17 in total (but only needed 1-8 for the first leg, then 9-17 for the second half after checkpoint.

 

And what else did I take?

Hand-warmers, from Tesco, one use only but stayed warm for 10 hours on my recce which was was beyond my expectations.

Plastic poncho, to protect in case of poor weather.  These take up no space, are very light, and made me feel confident.  I used on on the last night, and seemed to help (but that may be down to my bulletproof jacket).

Rubber gloves – plain old Tesco washing-up gloves, very light, which I kept on the outside of my pack and used when I took my disgustingly muddy boots and gaiters off.  Purely psychological, but I hate to get my hands covered in bog when taking my shoes off.

Waterbottles, obviously.  If using one with a bite valve and straw from the bottle, do put a bit of insulation on them.  I found that while my straw didn’t freeze up (it was wrapped in felt and duct tape), my bite valve would crack when I used it as the water inside wiuld freeze.  I learnt to blow the water out, back into the bottle, after every drink.

Food – tough one this, as everyone is different.  I took 2 freeze-dried meals in my rucksack, 1000kcal each, in case of emergency.  In my front pack I had a small bag of ‘nibbles’, like bars of chocolate, a cheese roll, a pork pie, boiled sweets, flapjack etc.  It was about 12 hours worth of food for me, and I carried an identical bag in my rucksack.  It worked well for me but obviously there were people there hardly eating anything from their pack and relying on cafes and pubs.

Spare shoelace.  Just in case.

First aid kit, as required, and the smallest sharpest penknife I could find that had a pair of scissors on it.  Look on amazon.

Phone, iPod, headphones…not necessary, but very welcome in the night.  I also carried a charging block & lead, but didn’t use it…it just made me feel safer.

Poles – can’t forget these!  I’m quite a fan of poles up the ascents, and used them for the Arc of Attrition and on the Spine.  I know there are loads of sexy thin pair around, but I also read that alot of the thin ones get broken on the spine as there are a lot of nooks and crannies for the tip to slip into and get snapped off when you keep moving forward.  On my November recce that was exactly what happened to me.  So my pole of choice is…Amazon best seller “Pair of Trekrite Antishock Hiking Sticks / Walking Poles – Black”.  These are chuncky and strong, and even when I did snap the tip off one on my recce I still used it for days.  They are telescopic, which means they are bulkier than folding poles, but they work fine.  Best of all they are £20.  They weigh 285g each, which is loads, but I think worth it (Black Diamond are £80 and only a little lighter).  Personally, I’d rather spend my money on a better jacket or solid gaiter than poles, but that’s just me.

I should point out that if I was in an event that only used poles for a small amount of time, these would be a nightmare to carry with you until they were required, so I’d probably get something smaller….but for Challenger, perfect.  Oh yes, almost forgot, put duck tape around the top third of the pole, as it’s much warmer on bare fingers than the metal pole when holding them.

This is me at the end of the Challenge, after 6 hours of proper spine weather…you can see my front set-up.

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Nothing dry!

My GPS is the grey think hanging in front of the OMM front-pack.  I kept it there to be able to refer to it easily, rather than getting it out of a pocket.  It was fixed to the front-pack with velco.

And my drop bag….

Two compartments at either end.  One was filled with the immediate stuff I’d need to swap my muddy shoes out at the checkpoint aft erthe first day – plastic gloves (for keeping hands clean when getting boots off), bin liners (for dirty boots & gaiters), kitchen towel (to dry feet), crocs (for keeping bare feet of the ground…I wanted my soggy feet to dry out as much as possible, so they needed to spend some time in the air, without socks on, so used crocs.  Not very good, as they were a bit restrictive and tight on my tender feet, I would have been better with soft sandals).

In the other compartment was all the ‘important’ stuff for the checkpoint that wasn’t clothing…about 3 charging blocks & leads (for charging head torch rechargeable battery, watch, phone),  spare batteries (for GPS), replacement hand warmers (if I had used them in the fist leg, I would remember to replace them).

In the mid section of the drop bag was everything else!  Complete change of clothing for the second half of the race (and a bin liner for all the dirty clothes to go in), small towel (which I didn’t use, probably a bit of a luxury to be honest), more spare batteries, maps for the second half,

And obviously the most important thing….a checklist ot make sure I did everything I needed to.  With only one crack at the checkpoint & dropbag, you simply cannot forget anything, and no matter what you think your mind will not be running at 100%.  Doing yourself a checklist also means you have run through what you need to do at the checkpoint previously, and so save you thinking on the day.  It doesn’t need to be complicated, but it’s vital.  Even though I had ‘fill water’ on mine, I was so keen to be on my way that I forgot…idiot!

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Naturally, it doesn’t say “call the wife”, but I did.

 

And what else can I suggest…

Personally, I had all the big elements of my kit sorted by start of November, ready for a recce for a few days and a test of the kit.  That gave me a chance to replace if things didn’t work, and also allowed me to use the vital Xmas period to justify spending yet more money on the smaller bits. Even more important, that allowed me to shop around and get everything at internet-cheap prices.   Also, that allowed me to use November to practise will full race kit, clothes and pack, to get used to it.  I cannot stress enough how important that is…you need to know where everything is without thinking about it (for example, I always put my gloves in the same pocket, so I always knew where to find them…as lack of sleep starts to bite that becomes really important as I found on the Thames Ring 250).

Training on muddy hilly ground is crucial, just to get used to it.  I was driving for 45 mins to get to my cliffs, and then spending 7 hours going up and down, before driving home.  Best to do this at night too…good practise, and also you are home for 10am Sunday morning and a day with the family (I didn’t say this was easy!). Also, staying up most of the night and then the rest of the day is great practise with sleep deprivation.

The few weeks beforehand, spend some quiet time working out what you want to achieve…not so much a finishing time, but if the weather and conditions get really poor, what is going to give you the motivation to keep going rather than DNF’ing.  This sounds a bit cheesy, but you will be tested to the max out there, and it’s a big expense to quit halfway.

Read every race report that you can find, even if they scare you to death.  It’s critical to know what to expect & where you will hit the big ascents.  I didn’t watch videos of Pen-y-Ghent before hand (there is a link in my race report) but with hindsight I should have.  Some people had used Google streetview to look at areas they could get to, but that is (perhaps) going a little to far.  The internet has huge resources!

And finally, enjoy the experience.  It’s not about a couple of days on the pennine way, but rather about taking on a huge challenge and spending 6 months getting ready for it.  I’m sure there are some people who started preparation in December, but they are better than me!  I’ve been left with a massive sense of achievement, as well as a “job-well-done” feeling, that is worth all the hassle.