The Spine Winter Race, As Brutal As It Gets

Some weeks ago, I finished The Spine Winter race. Here are some afterthoughts, flashbacks, reminders to self, … And possibly, some snippets of information useful to others, who knows…

Emotional tempest

After passing the highest point on the Cheviot track, I throw down my backpack behind a fence. The sun is shining brightly, and at 11km from the finish, I want to get rid of my Goretex pants. Finally, after 150 hours! Keep the Yaktrax on my feet because I intend to move fast in the snow. And there will be music! For the first time in the race, I put my headphones on. Random training playlist, there we go… Stargirl Interlude. When the first bone conducted beats hit my ears, a sudden wave of tears explodes from my face. Wow. All feelings at once. Awe, awe for this simple landscape, consisting only of blue sky, white rolling hills and some footsteps in the snow for as far as I can see. Relief, relief that I will make it. Compassion, compassion for the silly boy that I am, pulling car tyres through the woods last December, knowing the time to train was too short… Almost 55 now, and still a boy really. Worry, worry for my buddy Raf who has another cold, dark, and windy night ahead. More worry, and some distant anger for all the wars and injustice going on in the world. Some kind of regret too, regret that this simple life of eating, drinking, relentlessly progressing and nothing else will be over soon. As I negotiate the steep descent towards hut 2, I cry because somebody planted little red flags in the snow to keep us away from the gully to the right. It must have been 40 years since I cried like this. In the meantime, Tears for Fears, Mad World… how appropriate. Spooky Spotify. Time and space melt together in an instant of eternal now. By the time I arrive at the hut, my mind and my eyes are clear and empty. A safety team member snaps a picture and posts “Sander Boom, arrives and leaves hut 2, in 20 seconds, apparently there is a pub at the finish.” Indeed, I plan to finish in daylight.

In the end, daylight has just gone when I enter Kirk Yetholm. Refusing to get my headtorch out for as long as I can see some colour in the sky, I sneak into the village. Almost undetected. And then… spectacular reception, all teams outside clapping. I touch the wall, calmly. Had my emotional tempest up there, imagining me touching that wall soon. Get the medal and decide to clap back for the volunteers. Fun. When asked my opinion about the race I have nothing more to say than”It never stops”. In my infinite wisdom. The race media say “The indomitable owner of the greatest surname in the race, Sander Boom has completed the Montane Winter Spine Race, among a flurry of finishers here in Kirk Yetholm.”

Friendly volunteer Louise takes off my shoes, carries my bags, brings food and drinks… sweet feeling… and I realize it is done, in 153,5 hours of relentlessly pushing forward. Days later I will still will act as if there is a cut-off looming somewhere. Merijn and Fanny, and later on also Robin, arrive. They will get me to our B&B in Town Yetholm for a wonderful night of sleep. Next morning I’ll jog to that finish line again, from the other side… To greet Raf, who seems to be on his way to make it.

The Pennine Way, The Spine Winter Race, The Checkpoints, The volunteers!

Almost everybody knows that the 430 km Spine Winter Race follows the Pennine Way from Edale to Kirk Yetholm, is labeled Britain’s Most Brutal, is self-supported, requires some navigation skills, should be completed within 168 hours and has a finisher rate of about 50%. The terrain varies: rocks, moors, hills,… not dry and certainly not flat. But very windy at all times. Weather may vary, but each type of weather has its own challenges. We started off in rain that gradually became a snowstorm as we moved up while the ground froze over in the next days. After two days we could walk all over most of the marshes and creeks, but rocks became slippery, and snow piled up in places. At higher altitude the feel temperature dropped to minus 15 degrees, with serious risk of hypothermia and nasty winds blowing straight in our face for days.

So many eloquent descriptions have been made by so many participants; stretch by stretch, leg by leg, experience by experience… I will refrain from any attempt to create my own version of the roadbook, and rather share some thoughts and memories as they pop up. It is brutal stuff, without a doubt. The sheer distance, the weather, the condition of the track, the heavy backpack; these factors require most of us to strike a fine balance between speed and time on our feet, exhaustion and power naps, cuddling the cut-offs or staying ahead of them… Above all, one certainly needs some muscle to carry the mandatory kit around, and feet and ankles get pounded all along to a point, well… it can hurt.

Absolutely worth mentioning, is the whole spirit of the event. Checkpoints are staffed with incredibly well-briefed volunteers, most of them as crazy and as passionate as the runners themselves. Albeit somewhat crowded at times, typically in YHA infrastructure, these checkpoints are very well organized. Dirty gear gets removed and labeled at the entrance, a couple of square meters with the drop bag is guaranteed for every runner, food and drinks are brought to you, any desired assistance is provided with a smile, bunk occupancy for sleep is scheduled on whiteboards… Makes the impossible somewhat more possible.

At many places along the route there are local initiatives: mountain rescue teams with snacks and drinks, some local businesses stay open 24 hours, farms serve tea or soup or put up unstaffed pop-up shops with an honesty box, … incredible. Those delicious stops at Horton (cake and cheddar) and Dufton (full breakfast immediately after a hamburger at 3 AM) will stay in my memory forever. Seeing the Tan Hill pub finally emerging in the snow, and then the sofa near the wood fire… 30 minutes of heaven. 

I absolutely recommend watching the daily race updates, all eight of them. Made by the Spine media team and published on Youtube. Really beautiful in all meanings of the word, with attention to all participants, fastest and slowest, impressive and pretty emotional at times, especially near the end:

An unlikely contender

On an early morning February 2022 -we were both training for the Legends 250 taking place a couple of weeks later- Raf let me know he was going to register for the Spine race in a couple of hours. I knew what the Spine was, merely by the founders of the Legends Trails who imported the similar concept of unmarked, self-supported long-distance races with few and far in between checkpoints to the Benelux in 2016, but also by following the heroic battles of a couple of other Legends finishers in that epic snowy Spine 2018 edition and others during the recent 2022 edition. That noon I decided to register too, only to realize that one needed to apply for an account before being able to do so. By the time I my account was approved, the race was sold out and I wound up about halfway a very long wait list. Very limited chance to get there, so it went off my radar.

I went on with my business, finished the Legends Slam, caught Covid, ran a slow Restonica in Corsica in anticipation of yet another DNF at the Terre des Dieux (a really demanding race along the mythical GR20 track). Just to find myself stepping out of the UTMB TDS a month later… about halfway in good shape, with hours left before the cut-off. I simply had enough. Had not been able to resist the priority registration offered as compensation for the last year’s early termination (due to a deadly accident in the race). Half motivated, my mind was elsewhere. Stopped, ordered a handful of beers and was only interested in transport to my room in Chamonix, while planning for a long ultra-break.

Later that fall, I kept an eye on that Spine wait list, it did not move. “If no confirmation by November, it does not make any sense at all”, I told Raf and I carried on with my (mental) recovery program that focused on strength, mobility, and flexibility with some jogging in between. November passed uneventfully.

Then suddenly, November 24 “Hi Sander I’m very pleased to be able to contact you and let you know that a space has become available on the Montane Spine Race in January 2023. As you are next on the Waiting List, we’d like to offer you the chance to join us. We would like to finalise the numbers very soon so can only hold this place until 17:00 GMT on Monday the 28th of November.”

“No way, that’s 6 weeks from here, my weekly average is about 25 km and I haven’t touched a backpack for ages.” But the nature of the beast kicked in and I called Hans Coolen for advice. As 2018 Spine finisher, occasional race/training partner and frequent provider of life-saving support as volunteer in ultra-races, he would be able to gauge my chances for success. Hans, pointed out some things, said I stood a chance and within 48 hours my decision stood firm: 6 weeks of tyre pulling, weight vest running and 50 km back-to back Ardennes weekends with full-kit backpack might just be enough. A daredevil sawtooth pattern with slowly increasing CTL (Chronic Training Load) and weekly peaking ever higher ATL (Acute Training Load) values was the result. A planning and ordering frenzy started, and with one eye on the immense mandatory kit list, another eye on a vague embryonal race plan with 5 full clothes changes and heaps of spares, my backpack and drop bag grew until Raf and I could go for some gear testing weekends. Weather played along nicely, and we were able to progressively check our cooking and bivvy capabilities at -10 degrees during a bunch of nightly 60 km sorties. Did some solo trips, some with Raf and Hans and one with Merijn too. Merijn being a last year’s finisher and a Spine contender of a different category. By the first full weekend of January, I stopped training… heaps of progress but still relatively unconvinced I was up to it. Packing and logistics became the next priority at hand, and I got familiar and a bit more confident with my kit and the embryonal race strategy…

Of faffing, dillydallying, and making up lost time

Looking back at my most impressive DNF’s, wasting time at checkpoints was not the only but always a major contributor. Next to undertraining, overweight and sometimes the sudden delusion that beer now is better than beer at the finish.

For the Spine, it was immediately clear that sticking to a plan was going to be key to success: at all times maintain that minimum progression speed to stay well ahead on schedule while building some time buffer to sleep, set departures times at minimum 4 hours ahead of the cutoff etc. etc.

Watching myself and others losing time at the first CP, I quickly concluded that time should be spent only and exclusively on one of the following activities at the time: progressing on the track, eating, sleeping or material and (foot)care routines. In my case this meant the following: visualize my initial checkpoint routines before entering the checkpoint, proceed swiftly and orderly when taking off shoes, gaiters, waterproof trousers, jacket, poles while making it easy for volunteers to label and store without mistakes, get to the drop bag, replenish all consumables, start charging watch and phone, order food and drinks, select clothes to wear, take off wet clothes and store them immediately, put on dry ones, eat, eat more, shower, sleep exactly as planned, wake up timely, eat again, wrap up drop bag as orderly as possible with attention to next checkpoint routine, do kit check and leave with everything I took off at the entrance. Worked 90 % of the time. What never works is doing everything and nothing at the same time. Resting and eating with the content of drop bag and vest spread around me. Neither does a chaotic bag (see Modular is mine).

Modular is mine

I think 10% of the weight in my pack and drop bag is made up by liners and multi-coloured bags. Why? For a perfectionist, I can be chaotic at times. But for this type of race, it pays off to organize everything in modular kits. With items logically arranged and functionally grouped in very recognizable quality bags. Spend less time searching, have your to-do list built-in, rarely forget or mix up gear. A bit more weight to carry, but less hassle and less mistakes. In the end, I loved the mandatory kit checks: could dream the contents of my bags. And still… slightly panicked at times. But then, taking out these nicely marked thematic bags one by one brought peace of mind immediately.

The science of sleep

We didn’t have the intention to sleep at the first CP in Hebden Bridge, nevertheless we went for one of the bunk rooms to lie down for an hour to recover somewhat of the first stretch. That bit of muscle relaxation was much needed and while lying there I realized I might as well sleep. Immediately got myself a crash reminder about what-not-to-do-while-resting-during-a-long-race: once my mind got locked to the snoring, throat clearing and coughing in the room, lying in a wet base layer without cover, I was just counting the seconds until the next sound. What a waste. By next CP in Hawes, I revived my sleep routine: dry base layer, sleeping bag, earplugs with neck gaiter over ears and eyes, head sinking the inflatable Thermarest Air Head down pillow from my dropbag, ignoring any muffled sounds while executing the military sleep method routine… 15 seconds and a deep 90’ sleep cycle or even two was the reward. The ability to plan and execute sleep in a race can make an enormous difference and can keep you away from haphazard bouts of unfulfilling roadside dozing, consuming more time in the end. It makes sense to practice that military technique, basically de-contracting muscle groups one by one, while deliberately focusing on nothing but your own breath and relaxing.

My spine is the base line

The Helly Hansen Lifa midweight line, to be more precise. Base layers are a science in itself, and depending on the season, circumstances and person, needs may differ. But more than once the discomfort caused by the wrong base layer contributed to my legendary DNF’s. Some too heavy and staying wet forever, some causing chafing, some wicking, evaporating and cooling so fast they got me shaking…. I tested some of the more advanced ones in Spiney circumstances in the Ardennes, on-the-move, on-the-pause… and Helly Hansen Lifa Midweight really stood out: marvelous piece of textile engineering: a silky fast wicking matrix on the inside, bonded to a fine merino layer on the outside. Always feeling dry, comfortable, and warm. And odour free. The associated boxers with front wind protection delivered -and that’s a first- a chafe free finish. Decent investment though: one to start, five CP’s and a mandatory spare to carry. Performed so well that I only used 3 uppers and 2 lowers, but I was happily prepared for worse, being colder and wetter, scenarios. 

Eat, drink, man, woman

Although I have been experimenting with fasting and keto over the last years, even for longer races, for this race I followed Hans’ advice: eat whatever you can whenever you can. So did I. Loads of everything. Had plenty of excellent meals at the checkpoints, but also enjoyed the Drytech freeze dried meals in between. Only takes a cup of boiling water, either from the stove or sometimes from the mountain rescue teams. Best strategy. So almost finished two thirds of my three 3500 Kcal packs (had one for Start, CP3 and CP5). That being said… kept on munching like crazy for weeks after the race. Arriving home one week later my Withings scale told me I was still missing 3 kg of body fat. Found them back in the meantime.

Maceration, not only for cherries

Nearing Malham Tarn, intermediate stop in the second leg of the race, if sensed something like a pebble in my shoe. Wearing long waterproof socks and gaiters, this could only mean one thing: upcoming trench feet. Maceration, a painful swelling and weakening of the skin due to prolonged moisture exposure, can mean the end of a race if not adequately taken care of. At early stage it can be terribly painful but disappears as soon as the skin dries. In advanced stage, your skin can simply come off entirely. A quick check at Malham Tarn made clear the process was already well advanced: white, wrinkly and weakened but still manageable feet. The medic allowed us to dry our feet for 30’ and some Gehwol balm and fresh Injinji liners helped me avoid disaster. Raf was less lucky, despite the similar measures, his heels remained painful and swollen for the rest of the race.

Made me realize again that proactive footcare is key. From eliminating calluses many weeks upfront, to selecting the right sock system, foot balm -never use softeners last days before the race but switch to something oily- and if needed tape protection for the feet. And the process of rigorously monitoring it all. Waterproof socks like Seal Skinz are a blessing but can be a curse in dry weather. After 40 km they tend to get pretty damp from sweating, so wearing shorter and lighter ones and carrying some spare liners will keep your feet from boiling.

The mental model is everything 

Everybody has their favourite mental model for a race. It is better to select one suitable for the purpose and stick to it. Before your mind selects one for you, one that may or may not drive you crazy… For these longer races I prefer to think in days and nights moving, rather than in kilometers. I spent some time reflecting on how I would chew this ludicrous 430 km distance into something more manageable and I came up with 10 marathons. Only ten marathons. I can always run or hike a marathon. So… CP1, almost two out of ten marathons already, CP2, we’re already at four… So in Byrness I was very happy: only a last marathon to go. Cheviot being the detail. 

Now that I come to think of it, there was another part of the mental model, something Raf and I told each other multiple times: “Either we touch that wall, either they tell us to stop, but we don’t quit”. Prophetic. One of us touched the wall, Raf was told to stop in hut 2, 10 km from the finish, a couple of hours before the cut-off…

Teaming up is great and has its limits

Raf and I ran about 330 km together, supporting and motivating each other all along. And obviously we intended to finish together. But also had an agreement that in case of serious decline in pace by one of us, or jointly coming closer than 2 hours from a cut-off, we each would pursue our own strategy. Along the race we regularly teamed up with others, but nothing permanent. At CP5 it was time to finally split up, a pretty emotional moment, and during that last night I joined a German-Swiss duo with an incredible pace. I left CP5 with 3 hours to spare, finished 14,5 hours before the cut-off. So… teaming up yes, controlling your own fate yes. Of course, always keep an eye on others, breaking up teams should be done in safe circumstances, when regrouping or at checkpoints.

Happy with the outcome?

Yes, absolutely. A joint finish would have made me happier of course.

Would I do it again?

No regrets, it went relatively fine, but feeling no immediate need to repeat it. With 16 hours of darkness per day and the fact that we spent some of those scarce daylight hours in checkpoints, we missed a lot of the beauty. Would love to do a Summer Spine. Really tempting…

And now?

Winter Wally, attempt of combining Winter Spine and Legends Trail with less than 4 weeks in between. So far, only an English Ultra Runner named Alan Rumbles did it, in 2017. This year it will be attempted by Merijn (7th overall in Spine), Claire (5th overall and female winner) and undersigned, unlikely contender.

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