Hello, my name is Jen Scotney and I am an addict. I have a problem. I just can’t stop it. Every year, around the second weekend in January, I pack up a bag, drive to Edale, and run along the Pennine Way to Hawes… I think it’s the mix of the weather, the sense of adventure, the lack of other races around that time, and did I mention the weather? And all that adventure wrapped up by Sunday night (hopefully) and back to work on Tuesday, so only one day’s annual leave. I think there are other addicts out there, intrigued by this so-called ‘Brutal Race’ and how it really compares. Sometimes they message me, asking for advice on how they face this race, and so I thought I would share my ten top tips:
1. Check the Kit List
This race is more than a weekend run in January; join the Spine Facebook group at any time and there will be a constant discussion about the kit and what performs and meets the sometimes surprising kit list requirements. It’s a long list of mandatory kit, each with its own rules. Read about what I took on my 2020 Challenger here but the kit list changes each year so make sure you know what you are required to take as early as you can and see what you need to beg, borrow, steal.
2. Know the Terrain
One minute you are up to your ankles in bogs, then knee-deep stream crossing, then miles of slippery frozen flagstones… I love the Pennine Way for the variety, but it does make it more of a challenge to train for. In 2020 I have never seen its paths and fields so flooded. If you can get on to the Pennine Way to train, do, as it will give you a great base and knowledge of what’s coming up and what shoes would suit. I use Scott Supertrac Ultras as I find they grip to the flags, mud, bogs, paths and whatever else my feet have to cope with. Another tip is that the Pennine Way in summer is nothing like the Pennine Way in winter!
3. Test your Kit
Doesn’t this race give you the excuse to buy lots of shiny new kit?! Exciting! But my tip is don’t forget the basics and test it on your long training runs. For me the plan is never to use most of the kit I’m carrying; something has gone wrong if I needed it. Focus on what keeps you safe on the wet training runs, for me that’s experimenting with a baselayer, a midlayer, synthetic insulation jacket and a GOREtex shell. You can read in my kit blog that I take a lot more clothing than is on the kit list . Know what layers and bits of kit work for you, know how you are going to change your headtorch batteries in the dark, know that you can still enjoy your food after 24 hours of running, know whether your food works in sub-zero temperatures or if it will freeze and break your tooth (yes I speak from experience in that one). Because you can spend limitless amounts on the kit but if you don’t have the experience of what you need for the weather it’s all a waste of money. Another tip – don’t wait too late to put your layers or waterproofs on during the race. Yes stopping for those few minutes will hold you back, but staying warm and dry is worth it.
4. Recce if You Can
If you are worried about navigation, then get on a course to learn the skills, it’ll repay you for more than just this race. Get in touch if we can help you with navigation or guided runs.
The trail is signposted with the acorn sign, and most of the navigation is fairly straight forward, but if you can train or recce part of the race I would say do. If you can only recce a section I would say from M62 to Gargrave is useful; most of this is in the dark for me, and there is a tricky bit finding the path to the checkpoint (spoiler alert: it’s also a steep jungle slippery nightmare). Parts near the end are always helpful too, as you will be tired and sleep-deprived at this point, and it could be dark again. It’s also beautiful so why wouldn’t you want to see the views in the light on recces, although the sunny recce of Cam End I did seems like a different planet to the weather-beaten hell I have usually found there in the races. Have I mentioned the scramble up Pen-y-Ghent 90+ miles into the race? I’m not sure if it helps to know you have that to come or not.
5. Be Self Sufficient
If you like regular well-stocked checkpoints… then this isn’t the race for you. I think the years of being vegan, and therefore not relying on checkpoints to have food for me, means being self-sufficient for 50 miles isn’t too much of challenge. But if you are not used to this then you need to plan. What food do you need to carry? How much water will you need? I find that water is easy to find up to the M62 – plenty of fresh streams and Mountain Rescue Teams at road crossings to top up bottles and mugs. But beyond this? There is generally a water supply at the pub at Lothersdale from either the pub or a tri-club, and then Malham Tarn and Horton in Ribblesdale, but with a lack of high ground in between these points, I don’t find lots of streams to restock from in the second half of race. But I know from my training what I need and this is one less thing to worry about going into the race.
6. Get your Bag-min and checkpoint routine organised
There is only one checkpoint, about 50 miles in, at Hebden Bridge. When you get there you will be met with your drop bag and taken into the centre. Twice I have had to take my shoes off at the entrance. In 2020 there was an area inside for accessing your bag, and you had to move to another area for hot food and drink. It’s cosy (I was near a wood-burning stove last year), its warm and dry, and the temptation is to stay. Maybe you are happy to, and that is fine. But for me, I want these checkpoints to be as quick possible. I do go inside, but I am as efficient as I can be. I take my food and drink out of my drop bag first, and start eating, so I can get as much food in during my time in there. For me, this is usually tomato pasta, vegan pastries, vegan custard and Marmite sandwiches – watch my YouTube video to see my food. For drink, I will have some squash. I will then wash, dry and patch up my feet. Then will check my kit, swap anything wet, make sure I have enough dry layers in my bag, put on some clean socks. I will swap my headtorch battery. Then I will refill my food and bottle in my pack, pick up my poles if I didn’t start with them, and then hand back my drop bag and head on my way. Organise your bag (I use clear plastic boxes and bags), have a spare bag ready for your wet muddy kit, and know exactly what you need to do and keep an eye on the time. I think Hebden minutes fly by and seem to last half the time of the minutes on the rest of the race.
Also, think about your pack you are carrying and arrange it; anything I won’t be using goes in at the bottom. Waterproofs, spare gloves, head torches, food, googles if the weather is bad all at the top. I have only once had a kit check during the race, and so the rest of the time it about being as efficient as you can and having what you need to hand.
7. Look After Your Feet
I’m here make stupid mistakes so you don’t have to! You’re welcome! In 2018 the build-up had been cold, snowy and lots of slushy bogs. With training runs not going beyond 30 miles, I had smugly kept my feet warm by using Neoprene socks. So I decided these would be perfect for the race. I should also add that I hadn’t run more than 100km at this point and was approaching the Spine Challenger with a big dose of naivety. Anyway, with no socks or any attention to foot care in my drop bag, about 10 miles after the halfway checkpoint I felt the first blisters popping… at 70 miles I took off the neoprene socks but had nothing else to ease what was now like walking on hot coals.. and by the end, it really felt (and smelt) like trench foot was going to kill my feet. None of my toenails survived and I will spare you the peeling skin in the bath story, but the moral is, LOOK AFTER YOUR FEET! What works for me are Injini socks and gaiters from start, then I will wash, dry, tend to any hot spots with tape, and put new socks on at Hebden Bridge, and then I’m fine. I also carry tape and spare Injini sock in my pack… just in case.
8. Embrace the Weather
Look, you have signed up for ‘Britain’s Most Brutal’ race… so don’t start moaning about the weather! For a start, you should be used it after training all of autumn and into winter, so hold on to that experience. For me, 2019 was the worst of the weather for the Challenger. We had a storm blow in just for the race weekend, and pretty much all the race was into a headwind, and I could barely stand up on the high ground. I just remember using my hands to crawl over Stoodley Pike being battered to the ground. And you know, it was also one of my most enjoyable memories! Because how you approach this race is all in the mindset. You are in control of how much fun you have. Tell yourself that you don’t like cold, or rain, or wind… and guess what… the negativity will give you a long and miserable race. But I embrace it, laugh at it, know that the weather is the same for everyone and that being out there is a privilege and I have never once let the weather affect my race. Put on the right kit, put on a smile, and get out there enjoying it all!
9. Keep Perspective
I am already visualising, training, and gathering a few bits of kit for this race. It’s 8 months away. Luckily I have a supportive partner who is happy to let me discuss the comparison weight to the nearest 0.1g of sleeping mats, but if I tried this with anyone else I would definitely start to grate. This race is a massive financial and emotional investment, and may become a huge part of your life. While everyone is gearing up for Christmas, I am out training on run after run in the dark, and won’t be tapering until Christmas is over. So check in with how your family feel about this race, be considerate that this isn’t their choice, and don’t lose perspective that this is a just one race. Find your Spine tribe if you need to, the Facebook group is good for first-timers, with all year round kit, recce and race discussions. They don’t call it the ‘Spine Family’ for nothing.
10. Keep Smiling
Ok, so months of planning, training, recces… it’s just going to go so well? Erm, no. It’s 108 ish (sometime 115) miles with the weather out of your hands. Things will go wrong… blisters, dropped gloves, nav errors, broken teeth… yes, all happened to me! So how do you cope when things don’t go right? For me, it’s all about adapting, keeping a positive internal dialogue, and just keep moving forward, one step at a time. An ultra that is as unpredictable as this one is all about the adventure, the unknown, and that even if you can’t see it on the start line, it’s about the race revealing that you have everything you need to keep going. Enjoy the rollercoaster of emotions and weather, the highs and lows as you weave along the trail in a wonderful race bubble. For me, the stresses of life just evaporate as your focus is reduced to just moving, looking after yourself, and a weekend of pure selfish running indulgence. It’s a privilege to switch off life for a few days, to see some beautiful parts of the country (ok, maybe a lot of the views are in the dark), and to get to spend time with yourself, realising just how strong and resilient you can be. My mantra is ‘keep moving, keep eating, keep smiling’, and I have managed that in pretty much every race, even with a broken front tooth.