When speaking about The Spine Race, I always remember two things:
1] Getting my body thrashed right at the beginning of the year as a result of bloody cold and wet bogs and dales covered with ice sleet all over the 430km january route of Pennine Way.
2] Massive support I receive from… basically from everywhere. Very warm welcoming and acceptance before the race and tons of supporting messages during the race, regardless where I actually am. These make the brutal race bearable and beautiful experience in its own way.
These two sides clash and as time passes by, the latter is gradually beating the former. So this year I toed the starting for the third time. During these three editions the race has grown in every aspect – everything seems to be prepared better than ever, lot of tiny details sorted, more publicity, more media attention and of course – more competition. Eoin had trained specifically for this race and Eugeni was running for his sponsorship. What a contrast to myself – I think that this race is so long that you cannot properly prepare for the next edition, if you start only one year in advance 🙂 Having proper food and believed that we would so long without stopping, when only will and resilience matters.
To be honest, I just love this kind of races. When the race is so long, that running ceases to be running and is transformed into just moving forward. When you have to navigate your way through and when you are tested and sometimes beaten by the elements. The course could be less wet, less boggy, but hey, this is what makes the Spine Race so unique. I like the British way – have a tee, have some rain, stay calm [and know where your towel is].
The only thing I really hate is the use of GPS. Not the trackers, these are great. But GPS for navigation. I am an orienteer, hard-core map freak and navigator. I would feel ashamed to use GPS in a race, I would rather use stars and go in circles than to use GPS. To me using a GPS in a race is like using cheats in computer game. Well, so much for GPS. It is allowed by the rules, it is mandatory and that is the end of it.
Once in the UK, there was not much to prepare. Maps I had prepared in advance, Andrea with my sister took care that I would have the best chow on the course (chilli chocolates and dried meat). Day before the race I met with some old Spine friends, technical briefing, couple of beers at Rambler’s, last good sleep before the race, proper English breakfast, packed my towel, BBC interview, translation of interview into Spanish, read a Spine space tweet and here we were. All the Spiners at the starting line – at 10 AM we set off for Kirk Yetholm.
The course looked pretty muddy, so first downhill meant first fall, first slide and there goes my clean towel. Soon our leading group had only four people – me, Eugeni, Eoin and Richard. We were going easy, only Eoin seemed to put some effort into leading the group. Not really trying to break away, just have a few meters gap at the front. Sometimes we pulled away from Richard but his knowledge of the trail was unsurpassed so we reached CP1 at Hebden Bridge together.
Studying my competitors
I won the Spine Race twice, using the same tactics. I knew that everybody would be prepared for this. I would either have to get this tactic into perfection or try something different. I was prepared for both – to give it a try and if not successful, try something else. I suspected that we would stay together for a long time, so I tried to use my time on the first stage to learn about my competitors as much as possible. What are they like? How would they respond under pressure? Would grit there teeth or back off? These were questions that remained to be seen.
Going easy but smooth
I tried quick transition at Hebden Bridge. Quick, but no no-transition as last year. And the guys were ready, so I left with Eugeni shortly after Eoin. Few kilometers later we almost caught up with Eoin, just as he took a wrong turn. I put up a pace a bit and tried to put Eoin under some pressure for the first time in the race. Eugeni followed. I navigated my way some good 30 km before Eoin finally caught us. From there we shared the load with Eoin, moved easily and confidently, not making any serious mistake. Both Eoin and I had learned a lot from last year, we avoided navigational errors and were moving quite effortlessly.
We reached CP1.5 still in the dark, tackled Pen-y-Ghent this time and soon we were descending to Hawes. Andrea was waiting for me at the last descent, we made some shots, had a chat and smiles, but soon I went to chase the guys. Once in Hawes it was time to try push away.
I transitioned the fastest from us and opened a small on gap on Eoin. But not on Eugeni. Here I learnt how desperate he was to stay with me. As I was leaving the CP, he simply ran from the transition, regardless of what he was just doing. Quite bizzare a scene as he was running down the Hawes, partially dressed, backpack half-open, almost no food and who knows what else he lost or forgot. But we were back together, that was all that mattered. We lost some time tweaking his backpack and started ascending the notorious Greater Shunner Fell. Eoin soon closed the gap and once again we were moving as a group of three. This time no weather pranks, just a bit of snow. I totally backed off at this point. Many times I let the guys open quite a big gap, taking things out of my backpack, taking long toilet, stopping and basically doing things I normally would not have done. In a couple of minutes I was back with them.
I was thinking hard what to do. To me the half-loop around Keld is a place which requires probably the most accurate navigation. I saw Eoin’s navigation and movement at that point – awkward and slow. I felt no need to push hard as long as we were together. I felt quite uncomfortable in this situation. All wanted was to go on my own. Leaving Eoing and Eugenio behind or letting them go was not important really important. But with our speed so low, I started soon feel cold, so pushed a bit more and guys quite unsurprisingly seemed determined not to let me push away.
Eugeni proposed to bolt through Tan Hill and I agreed. Couple of minutes later I told him, that I was thinking about sleeping for longer time, maybe 4-5 hours. Another “Perfecto.” resonated in my ears. Guys seemed eager to go through so have chosen to sleep for two hours. Suddenly they changed their minds and did likewise. When getting back up to hit the trails I took a bit and Eoin was eager to get. “I go slowly ahead, you would catch me in a while.” And the race began. Even though this was not they way I imagined that, the plan worked. Eoin was on his own, I was on my own, only taking Eugenio along.
We pushed hard to catch up with him, but that never happened. He must have given it all, only after sustained effort we saw his headlamp some 15 minutes ahead of us. To make things worse, few kms before Middleton I lost my compass somewhere, probably when going over some stiles. Eugeni could not use his GPS for some reason and I would rather go in circles then to use mine. So in Middleton we were around 40 minutes behind Eoin.
Soon after we set off along river Tees, day three broke in. Technically we were moving together but each of us was going his our own race. I tried to go smoothly, no stops, no errors. Eugeni was stopping all the time but always caught me later. At Dufton we lost some 15 minutes by searching for nonexistent CP as we were not told it had been cancelled.
Darkness caught us somewhere at Great Dun Fell. This was the first time I was really scared for Eugeni. Always going off track, constantly tripping over while watching his GPS. Finally got over Cross Fell, descend to Garigill seemed to never end. We lost some more 15 minutes when trying to localize the CP4.
Machine mode ON!
Alston. 2 hours behind Eoin. I was determined to hunt him down and leave Eugenio behind at this CP. Go fast, stay focused. Go smooth, go efficient. Quick meal, clean [and dry!] my feet, I opted for one hour of sleep as Eugeni and Eoin both went for two. Usually, cutting down sleep is not the way to close down a gap, but I had enough of it until this point. One hour would do. I didn’t if it was fear or luck or if Eugeni had changed his mind, but as I was getting ready to go, he woke up and joined along.
GO! The gap is down to 50 minutes as I run out of the door, my feet are clean, my shoes are dry, I am almost flying. Wohoo! No slowing, no distractions. Machine mode ON. Next stop – Eoin. Just stay focused. Pushing steadily and three hours later I can see Eoin’s headlamp. Wow, that was quick! I get closer, see it many times, I almost catch him. Almost.. but not completely. For a few moments I lost my focus, I got to distracted became too much focused on Eugeni and much less on the map. Few inaccuracies, sloppy map reading and here I am, trailing behind. Again. Finally I break away from Eugeni in the streets of Greenhead. I break away from Eugeni only to make another error. As I start to tackle the Hadrian’s Wall I have to pass medical test and the news is that Eoin is 80 minutes ahead. EIGHTY MINUTES! I almost caught him and now I was behind more than before. I felt terrible. So many people were supporting me and I made so stupid mistakes. Truly and totally unnecessary.
No. Not now. I’m down, not out. I upped the effort once more, convinced that if I go fast and sharp, I can cover the gap by Bellingham. Go fast, stay focused. Yeah, stay focused. I pass confused Eugeni once more and Matt is reporting that I was 40 minutes behind. Yes. Putting more and more effort, but the speed is slowly going down, my fuel levels are running low. 10km before Bellingham I am 56 minutes behind Eoin and so is the gap when I reach Bellingham. In this conditions I need to put myself together. Get some sleep and dry my feet so I can fly once again.
Hasta la vista, Eugeni
“Eoin has gone through. He spent here just 23 minutes.” What? He is not sleeping? Yes! This was the mistake I was waiting for. The reason is simple: If I am in this bad shape and he has not made any time on me on the last 10k, then he must be in similarly bad shape. In this conditions he cannot run far. I have some sleep and then hunt him down.
I took two hours of sleep, but I was not very effective – spent over 3:30, but got only 2 hours of sleep. Dammit. What is more, Eugeni after reaching Bellingham, almost gave up. Almost, but not really. In the bogs over Bellingham it was second time I was really scared for him. Not having properly slept at Bellingham, he was almost delirious. Could not stay on his feet, constantly falling down. Not paying attention to the trail but to GPS, which cut the corners through a very deep bog. I grabbed him many times out of the bogs and put him on the trail, only to see him fall again. I notified the organizers about this and after some time we met a medic. I hand him over, translate medical test into Spanish for one last time and set on chasing Eoin. Now I am on my own. On. My. Own. Completely. Sometimes I stop, forgot myself but once on the forest track I put up a decent pace and in Byrness I am 1:45 behind Eoin.
Well, both the estimation and decision to go to sleep were correct. I would have caught Eoin by now, I just did not count with this emergency operation. Well, race was still on.
GPS always knows, does it?
Let’s face it – the race did not bode well for me. At Middleton I was 40 minutes behind. Now I was two and half stages closer to the finish line and the gap was bigger. I almosed closed it, than it mushroomed again, but in the long run, it was getting bigger. Due to my own mistakes I was not able to close it completely. And I am almost sure that Eoin did mistakes too, so he did nit pull away and was still within reach. And then.. Cheviots. Perfect playground for the grand finale.
I tried to chase Eoin, but the truth was that I had more troubles with myself. I lost one of my gloves, lost my cap and some other things to keep me warm, I had to fight sleepmonsters. I was highly ineffective, I looked more like a pilgrim beaten by a rugged trail then as a racer. But so must have Eoin. On two hour stretch I made mistakes totalling one hour. But gap is still the same, nothing gained, nothing lost, except opportunity.
However, as I climb to the ridge line, wind gets stronger and both my body and brain are perfectly alert. Unlike my GPS. Thick fog came upon me. It was so thick that despite my distaste in GPS I took to navigate my way through this fog. “Internal Error Reading Memory. Format? YES/NO” WTF? Technically, I have coordinates, but the GPS just can’t read the race course to follow. I am in the middle of nowhere, with howling wind, thick fog and blind GPS. I try to make my way through using only compass and trying to infer my position from orientation of the slope I am going over, but unsuccesfully. Result is obvious – big navigation error, gap on Eoin extended over 4 hours and some people watching the online tracking had probably really funny morning coffee. Racing is over, but I still try to push hard as if it was not. Finish line is a motivation in itself. I have great view in the Cheviots. Last stretch is hard. Nothing left in the tank, and my mind knows that the race is over.
Border Hotel. Finish. Yes. Scott, Phil, Matt, Ellie and Andrea. All these are waiting for me at the finish line. After 100 hours and 36 minutes.
I did not brake the 96 hour mark, I did not brake 100 hours, I did not beat Eoin. But to finish such a race is always sweet. And also hard. This time harder than ever. No inflammation, no injury, but my collapse just total. For the last 12 hours I was totally alert and focused – on a borrowed energy bill. Sheer will and motivation carried me through Cheviots, my body alone would stop at Byrness. Now I have to pay for that, and I pay dearly. Basically.. I don’t know. Once I again I have to thank the wondeful community around the race, that took care of me. I was taken to Damon’s place, got a shower, sleep, meal, sleep, meal, train, plane, train, home. I properly woke up on Thursday evening giving having a presentation about Spine Races to some youth white-water kayakers. The presentation was very.. authentic 🙂
Second place is good, eh? Or not? Well, win is a win. Second place is neither win nor lost. Second place means that there was exactly one person better than me. And the person was Eoin. Second place is good when the competition is fair and it is worth being beaten by the the winner. And it was. No question about that. I did far too many mistakes to win this year. And Eoin was prepared and let me pay for these mistakes.
I learnt some new things I confirmed some things I already knew. I am no fast runner. But I can run long and once I cannot run, I carry on more and more. I can keep my movement efficient and smooth even for long hours when sleep deprivation starts to play its part. But this is an advantage only when I am on my own. This is very easily followed, much harder to replicate by other people. With that said, Eoin and Eugeni had done great from their part to stay with me. In the second part of the race I lost focus at times and this cost me a lot of time. I lost race many times [or at least I thought I had lost it], but the always regrouped and got back into the race. Until The Cheviots, where I lost for one last and final time. This kept the race between me and Eoin interesting, I think. No real troubling weather, but a lot of tactics, that’s also style of racing.
What is next?
Three time Spine Race, what more? Well, there is something…
Spine is a blast, but it is the first race in 2016 racing season and there are more interesting races to come. Spine Race is a great race, but it is “just” a race. It has a new edition every year, winners come and go. [Although it was not my intention to show it this year:) ] After going the Pennine Way three times in winter and being told how beautiful it is in summer, I decided to come back to Pennine Way. And go for the FKT! Yes, you hear it – I want to make a serious attempt to brake the all time record on the Pennine Way held by Mike Hartley. The current record is 2 days, 17 hours, 48 seconds, which way below both my and Eoin’s time. So it will be a challenge and a big one. I am looking forward to that.
Not only that, I don’t want to keep it as personal event or attempt, but as something that can be shared by this wonderful community around Pennine Way and The Spine Race. Of course there will be online tracking and reporting/photographs. But the plan is also to make a documentary about it. The plan is almost ready, it is getting more and more accurate shape. In order to make this happen we will also launch a crowdfunding campaign called “Czech Machine goes England.” If someone wants to support me right away, you can do it here or buy photos from Andrea. The attempt will take place in June/July 2016 [exact date to be confirmed].
My race calendar for 2016 you can find here [and there are races in the UK].
I will release more information about this soon. Hopefully, I will finally see the mild face of Pennine Way, which is everybody talking about. I hope you will enjoy it the same way as I will. Stay tuned for more details and huge thanks you for all the support I was receiving. And don’t ask if I am coming to Spine Race in 2017. At least for some time…