Sunday 9 July 2017

#032 Spine Flare - A Different Perspective

In the six years I have worked on the Spine Race, there has been a generous helping of inspirational stories and racers going one step beyond on their personal trail of adventure.

There was a certain inevitability that I would one day line up on the other side of the start line in Edale. The announcement of the summer Flare seemed like the ideal opportunity. My friend, Don Tennant (who, with Sarah, runs the Peak Centre where I work as a freelance instructor) was persuasive "Why not do the summer race, you get to see where you're going, enjoy the scenery and if you do the Flare you'll not be wrecked for work the week after".

In essence he was right, the vagaries of the Great British weather regularly give outdoor leaders a beasting. We don't always have to seek out the most extreme option to find worthwhile adventure and personal achievement. The weather would ultimately play a few wild cards, to spice things up.

Picture credit (purchased)


Most folks on the Spine know me in my role as the Safety Team Coordinator, Official Spine Training provider and expedition leader. But, I'm no stranger to wearing a number. Back in the day I was a regular cycling time trial racer. I never set the world on fire but did achieve none-too-shabby results (10 miles - 22m30sec / 25 miles - 59min 01sec / 50 miles - 2h10min / 100miles 4h58min).

I also ran several marathons. The one I'm most proud of is the Safaricom, held on red dust trails inside Lewa Downs wildlife conservancy in Kenya, to raise money for the Tusk Trust African wildlife charity. At the time it was the only marathon inside a big game reserve. In my year, 2008, the start was delayed while the safety helicopter and rangers ushered away a pride of lions from the course. Running with the Kenyans, in the shadow of Mt.Kenya was magical, I was the 7th non-African finisher.

Safaricom, in the shadow of Mt.Kenya


If there was one word which describes the key to finishing the Spine it is conditioning. Whether you're in the summer or winter race the ability to cover distance and spend time on feet is essential. Toughening is something I've experienced in long winter training miles on the bike as well as guiding trekking groups. Professions which do these things as part of a active daily work routine, such as builders, farmers, doctors, veterinarians, outdoor leaders would seem to do well compared to more sedentary jobs for Spine Race conditioning.

One way and another, during the build up to the Flare, dedicated training time was at a premium for both Don and myself. We would be reliant upon the hill fitness which we had plenty from our work. This itself helped us formulate our strategy. More than being fixated by finishing position, we were more interested in finishing in as good condition as possible, having executed a plan to the best of our ability.

We worked on a sustainable and consistent pace of 5km/h with a +/- 1km/h. This delivered reasonable rest times (important for brain rest as well as physical) as well as a healthy contingency in case things went wrong. We certainly did not want to be surfing cut-offs which adds an additional dimension of mental energy wastage. Although we did calculate location vs time targets, we rarely referred to these. Instead, regular checks of average pace was practically more useful. This also gave a 'heads up' focus keeping track of terrain and route finding. Our forecast finishing time was between 50 and 55 hours, against a 60 hour race time limit.

The result was that Don and I finished together at Hardraw, a couple of miles north of Hawes in 52 hours 22 minutes. Certainly we were tired and in places sore. There was immense satisfaction that we had 'left it all out there on the trail', non the less enjoying the moment of completion.

Stu & Don at the finish


Compared to the winter Spine, there was a reduced list of compulsory kit for racers on the Fusion and Flare, with other items at the discretion of the racer. This made it important for an individual racer to take ownership of their strategy, make themselves aware of weather changes and adjust what they wore / carried accordingly.

For me and Don, the coldest extreme of weather occurred in the early hours of Sunday. The moors were clad in a thick wind driven mist, which penetrated layers. We sought refuge in Top Withens Bothy, where Don admitted to being very cold. We took time to get out of the elements, change our base layers, have a hot brew and warm up a ration pack meal.

The other extreme was on the Cam Road. The heat on Monday morning was relentless and intense. I was frequently taking sips of water and soaking my cap in the thin streams of run off crossing the trail. At its worst my eyes seemed to shimmer, giving me concern about heat illness, although this could also have been due to tiredness and lack of sleep. We found a slither of shade beside a stone wall which offered some relief where we rested for 10 minutes but moved onward as we were worried about falling asleep for several hours.

I had some romantic Victorian images of Roman legions marching along the Cam road and treading in their footsteps. By the time I had descended, I realised the reason why the Romans built a road along such an exposed godforsaken set of hills was because if the Briton tribes could be bothered to attack them, they'd be bloody knackered before they could fight.

By far the best weather related quote of the Spine Fusion must go to racer Nick Reed:

"Because this is in the 'summer' it didn't make it easy. I went for Wainwright's Country Walks and got The Revenant"


The only kit items I bought for the Flare was a new pair of shorts and and Hoka Tor Speed 2 trail shoes. I also invested in several RTE and dry ration packs which I had previously tested and enjoyed the taste (ref  blog  #018 Hill Food On Test ). Racing on a budget, I used existing hill kit for everything else.

The shorts I didn't get to use. The weather forecast was not good enough for me to wear or carry them for the majority of the race. The only time I wish I had them was in the rising heat on the Cam Road, along with my thin Egyptian cotton scarf for a neck covering against the beating sun. On leaving Horton-in-Ribblesdale, there were thick clouds of midges, bursting like chaff from each hummock of grass as we walked by. They seemed worse where the sheep were grazing, which was most fields. Don was very glad he had brought a face net.

The choice of Hoka Tor Speed 2 was based on several factors. I wanted a trainer-boot hybrid with ankle cuff which would help keep the grit and wet out. Although I was initially sceptical about Hokas, the trail versions have been used successfully by several Spiners with reports that the supportive design and cushioning helped fend off impact soreness. The Speed 2 also has a Vibram Mega Grip tread which had good reviews. I ordered a full size bigger than normal to account for that they tend to come in a bit narrow.

Pre-race testing on routes up to 30 miles over similar terrain to the Pennine Way revealed I was right to go a size larger. The Speed 2 felt comfortable out of the box. Arguably the cushioning is at the expense of responsiveness, however this seemed like a reasonable trade off for the mostly non-technical grit, peat trails and pace we were intending for the Flare.

For most of Day 1, I moved well in the Hokas. But, during the last few hours my small toes felt increasingly sore. At a road head checkpoint I applied Kinesio tape and changed my socks. At CP1, I cleaned, dried and aired my feet. After a couple of hours sleep, I spoke with one of the Exile Medics. She suggested different taping ideas and did a great job in preparing my feet for the next long stage. I learnt a lot about taping technique from watching her work as well as appreciating that good taping cannot be hurried. I used the time to neck several cups of tea and some food.

Stu with feet expertly taped by Exile Medics

For Day 2, I ditched the Hokas in favour of the wider toe box of my Salomon Wings, especially as I now had a extra layer of tape on some toes. I have used these for a couple of seasons (ref blog  #017 Spine Race Footwear On Test Part 2 ). Initially I was impressed with these hybrids, but the grip lugs deteriorated too quickly and I was disappointed with the grip in wet conditions).

I took advantage of the opportunity to retape (again done expertly by Exile Medics) at Malham Tarn CP1.5 as well as a change of socks. In retrospect, I wish I had carried more changes of socks...for every 4 hours instead of just half day changes. I was travelling well and smoothly on the second stage until the clinker and boulder strewn descent from Pen-Y-Ghent down to Horton-in-Ribblesdale. That section alone left me very footsore, craving for the cushioning of the Hokas Speed 2 but with the toe box width of the Salomon Wings.

And so there lies the conundrum. Why would Hoka manufacture shoes with such a narrow width? They must have been made on a last to suit an Asian demographic. Also if no allowance is made for a Gore Tex liner to the shoe width, then this will make the fit even tighter for a given size. I have encountered similar issues with clothing in the past, where an Asian size large will be the equivalent of a European medium. If the brand quality assurance does not specify or perform first article inspection then Continental size discrepancies will be more likely, such are the problems of globalised manufacturing.


Overall, I was pleased with my choices of RTE meals for real food eating on the move. I did have chemical heater pouches but was disappointed when all bar one failed to generate any heat. Cold savoury RTE meals were still preferable to sweet or insubstantial snacks. The occasions when Don and I paused for a proper brew up and re-hydrated high calorie meal were well worth the time not moving as we both felt much more energised and satisfied afterwards.

The only time we stopped at anywhere commercial on the course was at The Dalesman, Gargrave for several mugs of much appreciated of Earl Grey tea. We just made it in time before closing, the owners were very happy to serve us and chat late in the working day.

Old cycle racing habits resurfaced during the traverse of the Cam Road. I craved a slug of flat coke. I wish I had carried some for such an eventuality. This was duly sorted on the way through Hawes. The sugar and caffeine felt like an injection of nitrous oxide into my engine. A welcome sharpener for the finishing 'run' into Hardraw.


Doing the Flare as a racer and an outdoor leader there is a certain amount of 'cocks on blocks' regarding professional reputation. Over 110 miles we only made one navigation error, for which I take responsibility. Unfortunately the error occurred at the point where racers deviate away from the Pennine Way on the approach to Checkpoint 1, Hebden Bridge. I cover this area in my Spine training courses and briefing as a navigation black spot for where racers traditionally going wrong. I have even reccied the route with a client.

However, with a tired mind focused on food and sleep, I forgot about crossing the first B-Road (to turn right at the second B-Road, the Slack road). Instead, I turned right at the first B-Road. I realised my mistake when the road started down some zig-zags. At that point I thought, oh bugger there's a whole bunch of folks laughing at this on the tracker!

We corrected our mistake, cutting across some minor paths, up an additional incline to bring us out at the point on the Slack Road near where we turn for the checkpoint. The error had cost us about 30 minutes and we had gained no advantage over our fellow competitors.

There was quite a bit of mostly good humoured banter about our off-piste excursion. The best of which was a hand written sign for CP1, outside CP2, specially put up for us by safety team friends Pete Gabriel and Al Pepper.

It was very special that both Al and Pete were there to present our finishers medals and t-shirts, as I had the pleasure of giving Al his finishers medal in the Winter Challenger just 6 months previously and Pete has been a stalwart of the Spine Team for many years.

Al presenting Flare medal


After finishing the Flare, Sarah drove us back south to Edale. Tom Jones, looking lean and fit from his recent adventures in Corsica, was there to greet us. It was a hot, sunny day, although sitting on the sofa Don and I both kept our jackets on, perhaps we were a little more depleted than we cared to admit.

I returned to safety team duties the following day. Then mid-week another blast of rough weather hit the race. During the night we were notified by HQ of a racer at Windy Gyle up on the Cheviots who had changed direction, as if returning to the Lamb Hill hut. Shortly afterwards, he triggered the SOS button on his tracker. Race Director, Phil drove us (Pat and myself from safety, Rhiannon from Exiles) to a road head access point and we made for a direct line up to Mozie Law where we anticipated meeting the racer.

The weather offered up heavy rain, gusting wind and low visibility fog. Indeed one racer reported the conditions as being among the worst he had experienced on The Cheviots. It was mid-summer, yet I too thought it more like winter, just without the snow. In the meantime, the racer had reversed direction  again, now heading away from us and pressed the SOS again. HQ kept us updated with location information as well at Mountain Rescue had been called for assistance. The racer made the sound decision to descend Cock Law Foot where MR met him and brought him to a place of warmth and safety where Exile Medics could continue to monitor him. There being no need to follow, we retraced and returned to the 4x4. The racer was an experienced alpinist who felt he had set out prepared yet, having experienced it, readily recognised the drenching and chilling potential of weather in the UK hills compared to the higher and drier Alps.

A quieter moment on the Spine Safety Team

It was a great pleasure to see the Spine from a racer's perspective. At every road head checkpoint we were greeted by encouragement and enthusiasm from the on-course safety teams. There was a warm welcome from the volunteers at each main checkpoint, with sweet tea, hot food and the superb Exile Medics. What most racers see is just a part of the energy, dedication and commitment from the whole Spine team and Race Directors during the race and in the months building up to it. Lets not forget the drop-bag transport team, ensuring that racers' bags (some of which are well in excess of 20kg) are carried to the correct location and unloaded in time for their arrival. Off-site is the HQ team, looking after coordination and communications. Then, at as many places as they can be, the video and photography folks capture many fine images to cherish once the racing is done.

Al doing the presenting honours.

Stu Westfield

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Build up ultra races to the Spine Race