After 3 years preparation, I fulfilled my dream of completing the Montane Winter Spine Race on my first attempt at age 60. It first caught my eye about 7 years ago so I decided to get a closer look by volunteering on the safety team for 2 years. By the time I stood at the start at 8am line on Sunday 15th January, I knew what I was letting myself in for.
The forecast kept changing as per normal on our fair Isle and it was lashing it down with rain. By the time I reached Kinder Low, there was a good covering of snow, making the rocky and rounded boulders slippery. The paths had become streams and it was impossible to keep feet dry despite new ‘waterproof’ (haha) socks. I had not recced the first 30 miles of the race and found it much harder than anticipated and it took 17 hours to reach CP1 at Hebden, an hour or so longer than my slowest estimate.
I’ve been using Mountain Fuel products for about 8 years now and prefer them as my gel/powder of choice due to the ingredients that are specifically formulated for such endurance events. Interestingly, I have been experimenting with a ketogenic diet for the last 12 months and I believe that this, in combination with selective use of Mountain Fuel gels, helped me combat the huge calorie requirements of a non-stop 6 day winter race.
With 63 miles until the next official checkpoint and 20 miles to the next food station at Lothersdale, carrying sufficient spare food was always going to be a challenge. Training my body to preferentially utilize and burn fats suited this event with my heart rate mostly in zone one, well within aerobic respiration. Of course, my muscle cells would also require glucose, as well as fat, as a respiratory substrate and its important on such a long race to conserve glycogen reserves as much as possible. So, in addition to the solid food resupplied from my drop bag, I carried had to carry supplementary calories. Moving for 6-8 hours without a food resupply meant burning somewhere in the region of 4000-4500Kcals, and this where the Mountain Fuel gels proved crucial. I used the Sports Jelly + with 50mg caffein (119kcal) maltodextrin & glucose (plus Na and K) and Ultra Chia Gel (95kcal) with 3g protein and antioxidant properties. Not only did they supplement other ‘proper food’ sources and my fat reserves, but they ensured a steady trickle of electrolytes necessary for nerve and muscle function. In addition, the Ultra Chia Gel provided some protein for ongoing muscle repair. I also started out from each checkpoint with a 1.5l bladder containing Extreme Mountain Fuel which I rationed to myself at key points, using refreshments available along the way or my other 500ml soft flask for water as and when necessary.
I very nearly ground to a halt at Malham, 70 miles into the race, and had to bivvy down to rest my upper leg muscles that had started to tighten, probably from pushing too hard at the start. My feet were also aching badly from blisters. Two hours sleep did the job and I was up and off again at 1:45am, heading up to Malham Tarn and then over Fountains Fell and Pen y Ghent before a welcomed food stop at the Pot Hole Club in Horton. This gave me enough energy to make it to CP2 at Hawes with 4 hours to spare for rest and admin before the cut off.
Being towards the back of the field meant that I was always chasing cut off times and planning ahead to make sure that I had sufficient time to complete a section with time for food, drop bag admin, foot care and a bit of sleep. By day 4, it became like ‘another day at the office’, ticking along, churning out 20 miles sections at a time, ensuring the minimum 40 miles were covered in each 24 hour period.
I’m sure that the Jelly + with the caffein helped me stay awake and alert through the nights as I didn’t suffer that badly from sleepiness, but I did experience the mild ‘drunkenness’ feeling associated with sleep deprivation and the only cure for that was to bunker down for an hour or so.
It was hard pushing on through the 5th night from Alston up to Greenhead and Hadrian’s wall, but necessary to get in a good position to reach Bellingham by tea time on Friday, allowing sufficient faff time before the final onslaught towards the Cheviot. By now, sleep deprivation was accumulating and harder and harder to stave off which is why I had to make an unscheduled bivvy in the cold dark hours of Friday night in the Forest en-route to Byrness. A big group that I was with pushed on, only for me to unwittingly overtake them as they slept in the church at Byrness, as I pushed on straight to the Cheviot after a welcome bowl of tatties and mash.
I completed the challenge in 158 hours and 23 minutes, and was elated, although not emotional, at the finish line. It was almost disbelief at what I had achieved. There were so many people who DNFd, around 50%, so a finish was a grand result.
Completing a grueling race of this nature requires a high standard of personal administration and looking after oneself: nutritionally; hydration and sleep wise. In addition to looking after your own feet, keeping the muscles well supplied with fuel, electrolytes and micronutrients staves off fatigue and cramp. This race is about keeping going and the less your legs suffer, i.e. the better you look after them, the easier it is to keep going. Of course, training and preparation are key to success in the Winter Spine race, and I trained using the same food and gels that I intended to use on the race.
Remarkably, I finished the race feeling good: certainly not flagging or fatigued. My time was very ‘steady away’ but I aimed to keep trucking along at a pace that I could maintain. I’m certain that adequate fueling throughout, plus taking short 90 mins sleeps when necessary, were both integral to success. I found the gels convenient to store in my race pack front pouches and easy to consume on the go, specifically before a long climb such as the double hit of Fountain’s Fell & Pen Y Ghent, the triple whammy of the Great and Little Dun Fell and Cross Fell or the long drawn out ascent up to Auchope Cairn in the Cheviot.
5 days on, the enormity of my accomplishment is still sinking in, but I have a very satisfied feeling of ‘job well done’ after setting out my stall to achieve a big goal.