The Spine Race is happening in January. Many of my friends simply got used to this fact and so they are watching dots for several days on their computers. And The Spine race is really happening in January. I got used to this fact as well [for the fourth time] and so for several days I change my shape into a moving dot. Working productivity of the spectators is dropping to zero, the same is happening with my speed and mental capacity. It works!
Story of this 268 mile running race in England is composed of many mini-stories, which make up the mosaic of the entire race. Here are the most interesting fragments of my story:
(All photos: Andrea Nogová)
After two wins and a second place last this was the first I prepared especially for the The Spine Race. Under supervision of Josef Andrle of Andrlesport we put together a training block lasting for several weeks a set to work. Preparation peaked week prior to the race, when I had two very hard cross-country skiing training sessions in -25°C. You cannot choose training conditions, you have to accept them and cope with them. After these sessions I felt prepared better than ever before. When I reached England, it was already spring there.
About competitors and strategy
Spine Race is attracts more and more attention every year. Rumours leaked about strong Japanese and Swedish teams, Americans came to win and break current record, racers from around twenty countries should be toeing the starting line. But still, I expected the biggest competition from Eoin Keith who has beaten me in 2016. I also expected Eugenio to be hanging around all the time. In fact my strategy reduced to “how to beat Eoin”. Start strong from the beginning, not offer him any leeway and keep him constantly under pressure – that was my tactic.
About first half of the race
An hour into the race I made a small nav error and was watching what would happen. Everybody just followed, only Eugenio responded quickly, we got a small advantage, in more technical terrain I pushed a bit more, Eugenio pushed even more on a paved flat section, we added a few kilometres under five minutes and we have not seen Eoin ever since (except meeting near CP1). We were cooperating until day two and our gap over was going gradually up. Gap was getting bigger, but under no circumstances we could sign Eoin off. I knew, I had to concentrate and stay focused. One mistake, one sloppy navigation and he would catch us. Beginning with second I was doing all the nav work. Eugenio really wanted to help, but GPS information was useless for me. I was running easy, feeling great, I even thought of going straight ahead in CP3, but in the end I decided for conservative strategy – one hour of sleep.
The only bigger nav error we made in the first night. We went on a new road, which was not in my map. And the road was on the Pennine Way, at first. We ran easily downhill, without noticing that we have deviated from the correct route and got to know it only once we hit a big tarmac road. From here we took the shortest route to reach the Pennine Way. We gained about 20 minutes on Eoin [our route was longer, but on a tarmac]. As per rules we were administered a 30 min. penalty. We agreed not to spoil the race with any credits or penalties on the finish line, so we would have to stop for 30 minutes [without access to our kit] when leaving the next CP.
I really suffered this 30 minutes. I was standing with my backpack in a small room, along with entire Japanese crew and I suspect there was simply not enough air in that room. Most of the penalty I was leaning over a bucket, eyes closed and holding a bookshelf. I was the instant I left the room and got some air outside.
First half of the race we were cooperating with Eugenio, but gradually we attacked each other more and more. I set off one hour earlier from CP3 and tried to maintain the gap. 4th stage is very runnable, partly hilly and very easy in terms of navigation, suits much more to Eugenio, so he almost closed the gap. I wanted to try it once more in CP4, but he caught me up very soon, pulled away from in the swamps and only thanks to accurate navigation I was able to keep the gap from not extending too much. I pushed hard at the beginning of Hadrian’s Wall and to my surprise I caught Eugenio almost instantly and we were together again. And so the 4th began and we fatigue started to set on.
About half-life of decay
This edition I was very surprised that even on minimum sleep I had no troubles staying awake. I needed to sleep mostly due to the muscle fatigue in ever shortening intervals. At the beginning the you use your reserves, I could three stages (42 hours) in one go. In the 5th stage my reserves were depleted [along with Eugenio’s] at the end of Hadrian’s Wall – still some 25 km to go to the next CP. In the last stage we haven even reached halfway point [not even Byrness], when fast metamorphosis from a racer a to staggering zombie occurred. Solution is simple – sleep in shorter intervals. Not necessarily more, but more often. If you run out of steam, you need to lie down and sleep as soon as possible, other every single kilometre in this condition is a big suffering and huge loss of time. Sleeping wild in winter is not a good idea. Should the wetter be as usual, this idea would be right out. Should we have a place to sleep, this would have helped us greatly, but there wasn’t’t any.
About last CP
We reached the obviously tired and very slow. Condition we were in was fully revealed there. In combination with a bit chaotic CP taking place in two buildings had dramatic impact. We prepared things in on building, went to have food in the other one, while sleeping and medical treatment took place back in the first one, went to check out back to the second one. Going back and forth, putting shoes up and down… Under normal conditions it is just details, but after 80 hours into the race everything takes enormous amount of time. It took us more than an hour to prepare things for the next stage, had some food, put ourselves together and went to sleep. Here I had probably my worst at a CP ever (and a have slept on CP a few times). Japanese crew, medics discussing loudly, people coming and going, noisy heater and cold room. Usually I don’t have troubles with sleeping on a race, but this time I had.
After two hour of sleep I woke being all over the place – another 50 minutes to pack our sleeping bag with roll mat, get dressed, have our gear checked and were made to add some spare ones (??) and checked out (in another building). Total disaster. I don’t we made any major mistake at the CP, or somehow collapsed. We did forget anything or were not returning for anything. But in these conditions even the simplest things take a lot of time. Luckily we got back to running soon.
About drama on the last section
Tom reached the last CP about ten minutes after us and spend there almost no time. Got some food from his wife and went to chase us. After a few km he caught us, had a chat for a while, then made a push an a tarmac. Several times we were able to answer, but then he upped the pace close to 4min/km and so we were dropped with Eugenio. Few km before Byrness, with still some 40 km to in the Cheviots, we ran out of gas. If we looked tired on the previous CP, here we must have looked totally desperate. We were 20 minutes behind and went to sleep. Not that we would have given up, but I am to chase someone, I need to be able to make a move, to push hard and put a sustained effort and I was not capable of that at that time. More or less I was glad I was able hold a cup of tea. After half an hour we set off to chase Tom. It was more than clear, that we will not catch him unless he collapses. In the end he collapsed, but too late. For the entire last leg I was slowly pulling away from Eugenio, but he always caught me up when I was having a short stop. For the last time I pushed bit harder, Eugenio not only did not catch me, but got lost instead.
About being supported or not
You could always race The Spine Race as supported race, where you have your own support crew with your cat that is driving around, preparing food, gear, sleep and basically taking care of you, or without it. There was always some discussion before the race, if this should be classified together, if it is fair, etc. What are the differences between racing supported and unsupported? We were asking this question before every edition of The Spine Race, but as all competitive racers raced unsupported it all got down to: Who cares? Tom with his meticulous and disciplined approach could use the advantages of the support and made everyone to raise this question. I have tried it both ways (though not on The Spine Race) so I will get back to this in a separate article. As of now I can say, that is very hard for anyone who has not raced unsupported such a long nonstop race (or at least seen someone who did in final stages of the race) to imagine into what condition the racers can get into.
This I had light hallucinations only two times. In the fourth leg, when Eugenio was closing on me, I thought I could see him and that he was already there. When I turned back, there was no one. And on the last leg, when Tom caught us, we were suddenly three. Only a girl was missing to a full adventure racing team. Where the hell is Kristyna? I see her outline appear in the mist for couple of times, before I realised that it was nonsense.
I had and still have big respect for Eoin. He has beaten me last year on The Spine Race, we met at a couple of adventure races, he has many great results from both mountain and road running under his belt (such as Spartathlon this year) and is very experienced. I knew it would not be easy and that I would need to get him under pressure from the beginning. That went well and I could see that this was not really his day (or two..). Still, he fought bravely even and despite his share of bad luck, he was still in the game. He dropped out only on 5th stage, when Tom was passing him – at that time he has been going long time with a cracked rib after falling on his GPS. Eoin is strong, he will be back and I think it is not the last time we have heard of him.
Eugenio is a fast guy, a bit confused, adversary and friend. Last time I let myself distracted a lot by him and lost a lot of time. In the end I did not catch Eoin and Eugenio did not finish (for the third time in a row). This year I managed to strike a balance – not to lose time and go my own race, despite going most of the time together. To the contrary to general belief, Eugenio was not just drafting and sitting in, he tried to help me with navigation and in the beginning we benefited from our cooperation. Later his advices based on GPS were of no use, but I found a way how to move smoothly and maintain speed. And this is true also for the last stage where Eugenio was in a really bad condition. I could not leave him up there in the Cheviots, but we still did not give up our chance to catch Tom. I think the timing of the final push was good – I pulled away from Eugenio, but he still finished the race. It was not easy for him, he did not understand anybody in England, only person who could speak to, was me.
Brutal race course, British weather, strong field of competitors, a lot of media, great GPS tracking, very warm welcome by the organizers and fantastic community around the race. All this creates unique atmosphere. Spine Race is a race with the biggest difference – between the difficulty of the race course and all the rest. One of the most brutal races, but everything else is just fantastic and I always feel good there.
About atmosphere on the race
4 days somewhere in a bog is no easy thing. If I were alone, it would be even worse. I want to thank to everyone who has supported and cheered on me – volunteers right at the course, or people at their homes, on Facebook and over a mobile phone. A want to thank Andrea who took care of me during the race but also before the and after I finished when I finally collapsed on a coach. And still was able to shoot these great images. That support was huge and got me moving ahead!