What’s the furthest you’ve run? When does a run become a long run? When does a long run become a bit silly? I think the furthest I’ve travelled by foot under my own steam is around 40miles in a day. I’ve raced this kind of distance once before as well. Finishing, I’ve felt exhausted, overwhelmingly happy to see the finish line, pleased that I don’t have to keep on putting one foot in front of the other. Could I have kept going though? Just carried on running? And for how far?
How do I find the answer to some of those questions?
Well, I could just go out and run, and keep running, Forrest Gump style. Or, I could enter an event that will test me, push me and place the finishing line a few more miles down the trail. There are hundreds of ultramarathons in the UK now. It’s amazing how a tiny sport, for crazies and the obsessed has become normalised. I could probably find a race to compete in any weekend of the year, from marathon distance, all the way up to 100miles plus.
There is one race that has captured my imagination since I first found out about it however. Something that looked and sounded so stupid, so unpleasant, so inspiringly brilliant, it planted a seed that slowly but surely has been germinating over the last couple of years.
The Spine is a foot race along the length of The Pennine Way. All 267 miles of it. It is held in January, when the weather is almost guaranteed to be appalling. Previous editions have been beset by blizzards, gales and bitterly cold temperatures. There is also a half-distance race – The Challenger, which finishes in the village of Hawes – just over 100 miles from the start in Edale. It represents a big test, but one which I’ve got a reasonable chance of training for and finishing, with the right level of preparation beforehand and perseverance during. So, I entered it. On 9 January 2016, I’ll be on the start line in Edale. With a very. long. way stretching out in front of me.
My preparation breaks down nicely into three areas. Training, kit and familiarising myself with the route.
Training will more than likely take my usual approach of doing a bit more than when I’m not training, while trying to add some specificity where possible. I’ve got plenty of trails that I can access from my door, and many have the same feel to the sections of The Spine that I now know. What they do lack is sizeable climbs and descents, which will require me to travel a little out of my way to access. Fortunately pretty much anywhere along the route is no more than a couple of hours drive away, and several spots are reachable by train.
Which brings me on to recce-ing the route. I want to feel confident that I know the entire route by the time I get to January. Despite being a national walking route, the route is not signposted, and the race to not mark the course. It will be the first running race I’ve done where GPSs are allowed (in fact, they’re mandatory), but I still feel more comfortable with a map – and even better, my memory. The route is all on well used trails – many of them are flagged and well maintained, but come January, there is more than a small chance they’ll be under a layer of snow. I’ll also be travelling in darkness for a large chunk of the distance, and I know from experience how easy it is to miss a turn, even on familiar ground in the dark. Hopefully a combination of knowledge, and modern and traditional navigation aids will see me right. Given how easily accessible this section of the Pennine Way is, it makes sense to get the specificity I need from my training, while gaining familiarity with the ground.
I’ve already hinted at some of the gear that will be required. The compulsory kit list is extensive, but not overkill. There is nothing that I would choose to leave out if I had the option. Given the remoteness of some the terrain, the potential prevailing weather, and the duration I’ll be out, it makes sense to be prepared for the worst. Years of mountain marathons, long days in the mountains (both on foot and bike) and a penchant for shiny things mean that I have virtually all the required kit already. There are a few gaps in there though – largely to replace worn out gear:
-Rucksack. My trusty KIMMlite bag has been going strong for a decade or so, but is beginning to show signs of tiredness. Worst is the left shoulder strap now places pressure directly on a screw head for a plate on a previously broken collarbone. It gets sore after an hour or so. I don’t want to test what it’ll be like after 24.
-Shoes. I’ve been doing most of my off-road running Salomon S-Lab Sense Ultra 4 SG trail shoes this year. They are a great compromise between light weight, low heel drop and good grip across all but the muddiest fell terrain. Where they are less comfortable is on the packhorse slabs of the Pennine Way. Hmm… top of the list is probably the Inov-8 Race Ultra 270. A shoe designed for this kind of race.
-Headtorch. Lots of lumens. Long battery life. Light(weight). The benefits of a good light cannot be underestimated when you are tired and on rough ground.
I’m sure there will be other bits and pieces that I decide I “need” as my training runs get longer, and my time on the trail grows. I’ll update as I begin to settle on my final kit choices.