Thursday, 20 November 2014

Long Time, No Blog

Long Time, No Blog.

So much has happened at NAV4 Towers since August on all fronts; work, play, physical, mental and at times ....quite emotional and upsetting.
Plus, don’t like putting finger to key board unless I have something worthwhile to say and contribute to cyberspace. I’ve thought about many postings, and been very busy working on a whole range of events from sportives to Open5’s to stuff with GoLakes and Friends of the Lake District and other Lake District based organistations.

After ITERA, came 'Porage', The Longmynd Hike, OMM ..... 
Work has been busy; I’ve particularly enjoyed delivering several One-One navigational tuition and coaching  sessions, plus we’ve had one big weekend course, the flagship Mountain Running Essentials weekend course.

On the NAV4 Adventure racing front front, I am particularly proud of two NAV4 teams racing at ITERA, both completing the week long race down the length of Wales.  Each team faced it’s own problems in terms of sickness, injury and mechanical issues, and each got to the end together and intact.

NAV4 Adventure Two, was impeccably lead by stalwart John Allen, with the unbreakable ‘Wilko’ grinding it out as usual. Dave Johnson and ‘Young Ben’ Shannon were new additions to NAV4 team and each added skills and experience to the mix; style and panache is everything. We as NAV4 Adventure One had our own setbacks; my annoying and frustrating rear ‘mech’ problem on the very first transition set the tone, but careful use of a file, plus Eddie Windthrope’s excellent bike-tech got us through.It was a full two weeks later that a local bike guru confirmed that the spare rear mech as supplied with my bike had been the wrong one,

And this after a challenging paddle along the Menai Straits; but no capsizes and it was actually rather fun! This is no blow-by-blow account of ITERA.  (Team mate, Jill's blog is well worth a read) Expedition adventure racing is very much an involved and emotional experience...(don’t mention the word ‘journey’) with teams of four working together towards a common objective.  The fact that all eight of us showed our commitment, skill, and application makes me very proud.

Post Race Blues ....
...are real, so onto ‘Mountain Running Essentials’.
MRE is our long-standing flagship weekend course. It’s squarely aimed at trail and mountain runners needing to improve their navigation and all round ‘hill-skills’ and was as successful as ever.  I suppose after fifteen years of delivery we know what we are doing

Working on events provides a life of variety: :
  • Longmynd Hike – 18 hours on Ragleth Checkpoint.
  • Grand Tour of Skiddaw – eight hours of sun bathing on Skiddaw (with tea bags of course)
  • Cumbria Way Ultra – eight hours MTB in and out of Carlisle
  • Buttermere Tri and Swim - drinks stations on road and lakeside
  • Lakes in a Day – a fleeting few hours on Hall’s  Fell ridge ensuring no-one gets freaked on the rocky ridge
  • Ennerdale Trail Races – 10, 25 and 50km – with tea and coffee and cakes for all.
  • Great fun at the George Fisher’s / Petzl night run –
  • etc, etc,

Watching and waiting, helping and hovering,  supping and supporting; all very revealing. This is not the place to bang on about safety, albeit carrying some basic kit and having some navigation skills gives a good foundation for a safer and more rewarding experience. 

So, with winter fast approaching this is the time to layer up and take a long hard think about being out in the shorter days, with the nights firmly drawn in and the temperature dropping.

Looking Ahead – Personal Objectives

Ok – so it’s true – I am taking part in The Spine Race. After two years of working on the safety and logistics side I've decided to take part.  Often said that generally doing an event is easy than working through out ;  will this be true this time?

What I do know is that Stu Westfield has done an amazing job heading up the Mountain Safety side of things for the past three years, he has the patience of a saint, and it’s been a pleasure helping him. Stu Smith came on board last year and helped me and StuW, along with ‘Young Ben’ (a different one) and a few others.  Darren Hunt and The Two Stu’s  will perform a colossal role in January keep tabs on us all.  Let’s helping them by being safe and self-reliant.

Why am I racing? ‘Cos it’s an intriguing blend of expedition skills, endurance and mid-set.  Plus, it’s a varied and iconic route. Plus having watched people suffer, survive and overcome I need to square the circle. 

And, if I can still walk upright and in a straight line by June, I’ll be lining up for a third Dragon’s Back Race but one day, or race, at a time

Thursday, 7 August 2014

ITERA - Further Faster

All packed and Ready for ITERA

They say getting to the start line is the hardest part, and I'm very proud to have two strong and competent NAV4 Adventure teams lining up for yet another Expedition Adventure race.

It's been a busy day, indeed a busy few weeks and months, as we have all been preparing for a full week's adventure 'racing' down the length of Wales. You will be able to follow the race via live tracking here - watch out for our two teams - 'NAV4 Adventure One' and 'NAV4 Adventure Two'.

I guess I was the first to see this!

Just writing that last sentence throws up two key names; Sharon MacDonald and John Allen, our respective team Captains. Both of these people are excellent athletes in their own right, and deserve my thanks for being team leaders.  John (Gentleman John) Allen has come to the fore since he inherited Team Two secretarial duties when Hannah Munchkin eloped to serve the British Army.  John has done a great job of blending Dave Johnson, Ben Shannon and Louise 'Wilko' Wilkinson into a well oiled, and well-gelled team.  John is a natural leader and skillful adventure racer, especially in Expedition length races.

The other key name in this operation is Sharon MacDonald.  Ironically, Sharon came into our Terrex 2012 team at just three weeks notice, and first met team mate Dave (Atkinson) on the drive up to Stirling although to be fair Dave had been in Corsica topping up his fake tan for three four weeks.  Sharon immediately fitted into our TERREX 2012 Sting team and it does feel like I've known her a lot longer having raced well together in the LAMM, two Elite Dark Mountains plus lots of other great days out on bike and foot.  As we all know, it's all about team work, not one individual, we all have diffferent strengths and 'allowable weaknesses', if you are familair with Belbin.  
John and Sharon allow me to simply enjoy a role 'just' as team member, lead navigator and contribute to the team effort.  I suppose I do retain a little bit of a 'Directeur Sportive' overview of both teams, and I have been known to say that I'm on the verge of EXPED AR retirement and look forward to seeing a younger, fresher, strong and faster NAV4 Adventure team go forward in future years. Incidentally, if you want to get involved with NAV4 Adventure know what to do, don't you?

Last Team outing / kit sort

Team Dynamics

There has been many a time that I have questioned that I should be racing in the same team as John and Wilko as well have a strong track record in previous races, but  I believe there is no clear divide or distinction as to which team is stronger and faster (although I have my own hopes!). I was mightly pleased to receive an email a few weeks ago from 'Young Ben' when he apologised in advance for when NAV4 Adventure Two beat NAV4 Adventure One, as at least it proves we all have a sense of humour.  Of course, if this happens, I'll be genuinely very pleased as long as we have both teams have raced to our maximum.

Setbacks, Profit and Loss

All teams suffer set backs and losses and we have been no less afflicted. First we lost Hannah, then Gareth, but gained Ben and then Dave. And then ... just when we thought we were set and after a huge amount of good training Andy Moucey suffered a stress fracture in his foot, which was so sad and a disappointment for us all.  Fortunately, we found Eddie Winthorpe waiting in the wings 'fresh' from the Marathon de Sables (which will be ideal training for biking down Wales in the rain.) Andy contributed greatly to our team and I hope to see him racing with us again soon.

Me in a hole, them on a lump.

Seriously, Eddie is strong, fit and skilled and has fitted into the team excellently with two Team Traing Days already completed in the past few weeks.  His all round bike skills, especially mechanics skills, compliment the team.

My other team member is Jill.  I've riden with anyone who just looks so comfortable on a bike. Sometimes I think her primary role is to make me laugh, but she has just gets on with everything, especially if Sharon gives her 'the look'.  Jill has done an excellent job on the nutritional side of our build up and I'm looking forward to eating my way down Wales. We had a fascinating session with Sarah Garton a nutritionalist and have welcomed the support Wholesome Bee in Settle. I've introduced the team to 9bars and now need therapy due to addiction.

So we have two teams; are with good experience, skills and comitment. And so just for completeness, these are our final team line-ups:

Sharon MacDonald, Jill Eccleston, Eddie Winthorpe, Joe Faulkner
John Allen, Louise Wilkinson, Ben Shannon, Dave Johnson

It's about the Expedition rather 'racing'.  To finish first ... first you have to finish' and I've seen many teams implode or break themselves or something by not lasting the pace.

Pacing is important.  One of my fears and worries are what I call 'Race Gates'; key points that we must get beyond, usually by a certain time and sometimes quite literally such as before the tide turns or the weather craps out on the mountains.  However, we are strong and equipped, bad weather doesn't frighen us and we have the mountain skills and gear to cope with many things.

We've learnt alot of the past few years;  WARC 2006, ARWC 2007, TERREX 2010, Swift and Sting 2012, not to mention the Open5s and Open24s we've all done.

We prepared wisely;  We are indebted to Distant Horizons for on-going support with our paddling activities. Being based on the shores of Ullswater they have an ideal for water and mountain activities and they don't mind us truning up at all tiems of day during our training sessions, trying out differnet boats and rigs and trims.

It's not about the Bike - nor the drugs you take.
All the Gear and No Idea?  No - we are selective in what we use  - LESS Is MORE. . We have chosen our gear wisely. For example, we have chosen Petzl Meteor III+ multi-sport helmets which saves time as they serve us on the water, bikes and mountains and in caves, too, maybe! 

Petzl Meteor III+ Multi-sport
Ortleib Rack-pack duffle bags are simple strong and waterproof, and without any zips to break or jam up. I'll be using a Petzl Nao and my trusty Myo RXP throughout the race, supplemented by Hope R4 for MTB sections. I went on an excellent tour of the Hope factory in Bar'lick and it's amazing to see such quality items being produced right here in the North West.

Not taking the entire shed!
Our bikes are well serviced and fit for purpose; all on 3x9 speed 26 inch wheels in order to remain compatible (well, with the exception of the young dude who has more bike knowledge than all of us put together)  We have paddle bags and team bags sorted, Drybags and not so Drybags, all borne form experience.

I made my own lightweight group shelter many years ago, and now  Paul Vousden - Mapdec - has made some brilliant 'LESS' group shelters (and I have one or two spare so will bring them down to Cardiff!)

I've worked predominately in Montane gear for many years and the both teams have a passion for Montane, especially due to our links with the North East.  However, our team will each wear what they choose, they know what works for them, and we won't try anything new or radical. 

Ultimately, I've packed the Sporks, and my BIG mug obviously, along with the Jetboil and wholesome food.

We are prepared...And Finally:

I'd like to thank my wife Linz, and all of our partners and friends as without their support this would not happen.


Thursday 11.59pm


Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Basic Navigation for Runners - A Two Part Evening Course

I recently spent two pleasant Monday evenings with some great people teaching -'Basic Navigation for Runners'.  They each gained confidence and had their eyes and minds opened, as we de-mystified the magic of maps, learnt that 'Contours are Crucial' ... and that 'Compasses are not Complicated at All'....( Yes, this was a quote from a client!)

The following is an edit from a previous article which sums up why I think it's imperative that runners and walkers a like, need to think about their navigation and 'hillskills'.
'Beautiful evening ... magical maps de-mystified'

Hill Skills and Happy Hill People        

How we access is the hills is changing:  the outdoor industry is far bigger than it was just a generation ago and majority of people are introduced to and engage with the mountains  through some form of guide book, magazine article, organised event or challenge.  There are some brilliant courses and ‘providers’ out there but sooner or later it’s time to go forth on your own.   Developing your own ‘Hills Skills’ is a very worthwhile and satisfying.

We Learn by Doing
I’ve walked, climbed, biked and paddled in all corners of the UK and beyond.  However, it has been in those far flung places that I’ve realised it is the exploration that gives most satisfaction, together with the appreciation of the freedom we are privileged to have in the UK.

Risk and Responsibility
Looking after your self in the mountains is as paramount as looking after the environment. Being warm and comfortable is quickly mastered – get your layers right and be flexible in your clothing.  Modern fabrics make life a lot less sweaty, our rucsacs are lighter, our understanding of food and hydration a whole new science.   We have better maps ( it’s not that long ago that maps of Scotland where only One Inch to the Mile) and now have a proliferation of techno gadgets that will get us to within metre of a known point on the globe.  We have phones that can reach all corners of the world; if the signal is there and the batteries are sound! 

Sound Mountain Judgement
We learn by doing.  We can be taught skills and techniques whether it is knot tying or fire lighting but until you need to do this for real you have not mastered the skill.  You learn; ‘When to turn back, How to respect the mountain environment, and be flexible in your plans’.   It is often said, there is no such thing as bad weather – just bad clothes  .... Or the wrong activity!

It is our responsibility in to make ourselves safe and in doing so we greatly enhance our performance and enjoyment.  And the biggest factor in doing so is by learning how to navigate. By being out there in poor weather and gaining skills and experience so that we can go further and maybe, even faster?

Hill Skills - Navigation isn’t Rocket Science
OK, soon as you mention the ‘N-word’, some people glaze over or become freaked by childhood memories of geography teachers or Duke of Edinburgh expeditions.  Another group reach for their smart phone and then spend a while bringing up some form of mapping software which struggles to scan and sweep to the desired scale and location, whilst fearing the basic skill of navigation.

Contours are Crucial
All those wiggly lines are the most important things in the hills and mountains. Don’t worry too much about compasses; they are often over rated (especially complex ones just like Smart phones!)   Yep, you need a compass and a map too of course but don’t get hung up on compasses bearings and magnetic variation.  Good navigators ‘read’ the contours of map far more than they dial up a compass bearing. 
Good basic navigation is easy!  There – I said it.  We can all do it, if we want to.

About  Joe Faulkner;
I’ve spent 30 years walking, climbing, running, biking and paddling in the UK and gained a reputation as a competent ‘Mountain Athlete’.    I coach all forms of mountaineering with a specialism for Hill Skills and Navigation.    Further details can be seen at my NAV4 Adventure website  -

Wednesday, 26 February 2014

So, You want to buy a head torch

OK - I confess - I'm a Petzl-phile!   But please read on ....

Whilst many other brands are available, Petzl is by far the market leader and also the originator of the head torch. I have used Black Diamond torches - for a while the BD Gemini was a great torch but the build quality and warranty at the time wasn't good, and as I know from first had experience,  Petzl's is first class.

Just selection from the shed - missing an e+lite of course.
My NAV4 Adventure colleague, Stuart Smith is a great fan of Suprabeam torches, which are modular and rechargeable.  Team Mate Sharon favours her Aye-Up lights which are awesomely bright, long lasting and expensive. I also bought a 'Hope Adventure One' and year or so ago and wrote a full blog post about it here. The Hope was bought it after much thought and research, as explained in that blog, but unfortunately it disappeared only a few weeks after I had bought it and I never got around to replacing it. Now it seems that things have moved on again.  

One of the bi-products of spending a week of my life deep in the Peninnes providing Safety Cover for The Spine Race, was the chance to get to grips with Petzl's (relatively) new Reactive lighting technology.  I got a a chance to sample the Nao last Summer, but that isn't exactly the best season for headtorch testing, plus I'm always reluctant to commit to anything new without a thorough testing, especially a techy thing like this.

During the Spine I used the new Tikka RXP extensively and really got to like it.  It has the same reactive technology as the top of the range Nao, but in many ways in a much neater package. It has a simple elastic headband, has the rechargeable battery mounted within the headlamp unit and recharges from any source including my car USB.  It can also take 3x AAA batteries if you track down the adapter as a spare part, which makes it possible to use it away from base on an expedition.

Petzl Tikka RXP (left) and Nao (right)

Rechargeable Verus Battery Fed?

One of the biggest factors in choice of headtorch is the power source; rechargeble battery or battery fed? Afterall, I'm very unlikely to head off on a multi-day expedition solely with a rechargeable head torch or enter a multi-day race expecting to find a charging point - (who needs that stress!)

Therefore, for forthcoming adventures, such as ITERA, The Spine or Dragon's Back Race, the powerful rechargeables probably won't be featuring as my main line torch.  Perhaps as a secondary torch but more of this later.


If Jeremy Clarkson was to buy a headtorch it would be the most powerful, but light output isn't everything.  Not many people by cars purely based on maximum speed or power. Economy, useability and various differing features are equally import as is price; both the purchase price and that required to run it, ie cost per hour in use?

Over the past few years I have regular used a Petzl Ultra - high powered MTB type use, a Tikka XP2 with rechargeable Core Battery, and of course ... the humble Myo XP or RXP.  The XP2 with it's rechargeable and programmeable Core battery was a significant development a  few years ago, and this torch became my 'goto' torch as it lived my car's door pocket and got used extensively for a range of activites. It was certainly cheap to run, eco-friendly and pushed out quite a beam although for a relatively short period of time. However, it got me in the way of using a rechargeable and, at the time it's mini USB charging lead was quite a new idea.

Petzl Tikka XP2 - Core rechargeable and programmable
Dark Mountains - Technical Navigation

During the recent Dark Montains mountain marathon I used the Tikka RXP. The Reactive lighting technology is brilliant for night navigation when you are constantly looking at the map and back at the ground. This point was highlighted (no pun intened) to me I was out on a night run recently and came across a few mountain bikers coming the other way, all taking part in a Night Orienteering event. Each rider was probably loaded up with inexcess of 1000 lumens, some purely head mounted and some head and handlebar mounted.

The immediate effect on myself was to ruin my night vision .... but I averted my eyes as much as possible, and of coure the Tikka RXP, being reactive dimmed down a little.  Interestingly, one of the bikers had over-shot a control and came back past me, screeched to a partial halt and the tumbled into the bushes. He picked himself up, I asked how he was, and whilst he sorted himself out he muttered something about being 'OK' and starting jabbing at his map.

Not only was he shaken up, but I he was over simply powered - too much power, too much speed ... trying to navigate as fast as he could ride, etc.  But what really struck me was that he couldn't see what was on his map simply because it was 'washed out' with so many lumens reflecting back off his map.

Petzl night run ....I'm not biased, honestly!
So this is where Reactive lighting comes in ...

During Dark Mountain I used the Tikka RXP with Reactive Lighting. OK, my race partner, Sharon, was using a high powered Aye-Up light which has it's advantages when picking out reflective control markers at 100metres+, but I found that the Reactive Technology really preserve my night vision so running along the rough technical terrain of the Dark Peak was made much better using Reactive.

All bases covered; perm any two for any event
The other great advantage of Reactive Technology is that it preserves battery life when you don't need maximium power. I suppose it's a bit like stop-start techology on a new car.

Overall, it does take a bit of getting used to it.  If you've been using something as simple as a Myo XP for many years switching to Reactive doesn't seem too natural to me, but now, after a week of Spine Race Safety cover - in and out of the car, writing notes, out on the trail looking for runners, charging the thing from the car USB, etc it all became second nature. 

So much so, that I have now gone out and bought a Nao, and I have a second battery as well. Maybe they will be going to ITERA with me, but I can promise you one thing - a trusty Myo RXP will be going as well, along with a good stock of lithum batteries.
Two Myo XPs nearing the end of The Spine ...with very experienced owners.

Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Dark Peak - Marmot Dark Mountains

Just a week after The Spine, I was back out in the darkness but this time competing in the Marmot Dark Mountains event.  It was good to be able get out and have some fun as a competitor, and the courses were going to be tough and technical in The Dark Peak.

Fortunately, underfoot conditions were a lot better than last year's event, when shin deep snow required some very committed effort to keep moving forward never mind finishing.  Once again my race partner was Sharon McDonald, who is very determined and talented, and eager to get involved in some gnarly navigation madness.

Sharon and myself before the start

An unsettled weather forecast and some new equipment choices created a certain amount of faff from me, with 'Captain Sharon' quietly and patiently waiting whilst I decide what to wear and carry, especially as the weather seemed a lot more settled and warmer than forecast. It was the first time that I would be using glasses in competition.  These Vapro Sport Reading Glasses with bi-focal inserts give me a fighting chance to see small map detail as well as some protection from the wind and cold. I've been using these glasses for a while, but I not in wet and dark conditions, and not in an event. 

The other big choice was footwear. Last year I had very battered toes, not just because of the cold conditions but from squeezing waterproof socks and woolly liners into a pair of overly-snug Inov-8 315s. This winter I have been testing out Sealskins socks in a 'a size too big pair' of Inov-8 295s, having found the toe box to be much roomier than the 315.  However, although the Sealskins do a reasonable job on a bike, they just get too waterlogged and heavy in a Lake District or Peak District bog so I reverted to an old pair of Berghaus stretchy Goretex oversocks with just a thin pair of Smartwool socks underneath. I topped these off with a pair of Inov-8 DebriGaiters and so my feet were perfect this year.  (damp and warm - but never dry!)

The third and final new choice of equipment was a head torch; my choice being a new Petzl Tikka RXP which has the reactive technology. I was lucky enough to borrow a Petzl Nao for a few months last Summer and used this Tikka during Safety Cover duties during The Spine. I'm now convinced of the Reactive Techno-benefits  ...  but more of this to come in the next blog post ...

To Finish First - First You Have to Finish

Overall, Sharon and myself had a great time and quite a laugh; just taking it steadily and navigating well which is our forte.  I'm not known for my speed, and both of us suffer with bad backs and ageing knees, me more so than Captain Shazza, of course.   It took a while to tune into the map detail and to get a feel for the ground, so I wasn't surprised when Bruce Duncan and Lucy Harris caught us up on the relatively easy run out up the valley and onto the moors.  'Team Brucy-Lucy' are both excellent navigators and much younger and faster than us but we enjoyed running a few hundred metres along the Peninne Way with them, before watching them bound off over the rough tussocks, with a 'See you at No.2...'  

And so we did! Even the very best navigtors get it wrong some time and the approach to No.2 was tough and probably the most technical of all controls on the course. I did think at the time that Brucy-Lucy had gone too far rightwards. Hence, we stay more central and then had the advantage of seeing their headtorches sweeping back leftwards so we arrived at the control together.  I have learnt to run my own lines over the years, but also to take note of those around you, especially good navigators like Bruce and Lucy.

After that they were quickly gone but for the next hour or so we became good at spotting the occasional, and very reassuring,  'Brucy-Big-Foot' and 'Lucy-Light-Foot' footprints on the run around Kinder Scout.   Incidently, Lucy's blog is a great read. It's very imformative and contains a lot more local information and route details than I can.    The eventual winners, Tom Gibbs and Steve Birkenshaw,  and I assume one or two other teams, took a direct line down and across one large re-entrant rather than the run around the Edges like Bruce and Lucy and ourselves..  At some point I think we were passed by Jim Mann and Stuart Walker, and then Dave Troman and Simon Patton (one of them more than once!) but visibility was very poor at times and it's difficult to tell who is who when you all have head torches on.  We met Russ Ladkin and Paul Dickens on the steep down and back up climb in Grinsbrook and expected them to catch us up later but they retired at The Snake Pass thinking they were going too slowly.  Other than that, we saw some pairs in different classes, but it was far from processional and great to be out on such a night, being generally mild and clear.

It was a long night, but an interesting one;  I was really inpressed with the Petzl Tikka RXP, all my gear and our steady perfromance.   The weather stayed very kind to us until dawn, then it quickly became cold and wet with increasing wind and rain turning to sleet.  We stopped once to put on an exta layer of clothing, including overtrousers and gloves. Eventually, with several centimetres of snow settling all around the short but very steep sided re-entrants started to sap any running strength remaining in my legs.

The last few legs were spent over Bleaklow in increasing amounts of snow, with the wind picking up considerably.  Just as we were pondering a long route choice, Jim and Stuart came passed us (I'm not sure where they had been) and then another couple pair appeared in the murk and we jogged and walked together for a while on the rough track that is the Pennine Way.  It felt a little strange being in such a group after a long night but it was good to have a bit of new company, and to check each other was OK.

Being much faster than us, Jim and Stuart pushed on ahead and then we dropped the other pair (who we latter met in the cafe and learnt they were on a different course)  The wind increased significantly to such a point that navigation was becoming a real chore. I was wearing waterproof over-mitts and didn't want to lose the map by fumbling in the wind, but needed to re-fold it to check the control descriptions. Conversation between us was difficult and we made progress by 'running' from one bit of shelter to another, and then regrouping and comparing thoughts.  Latterly, we found out that Jim and Stuart had mis-punched Control No.19 so our cautious nature was well worth it.  We had a very strong head wind for the last three controls, all sited on technical terrain in some dis-used quarries and pits.  We were reduced to moving very carefully, and only when the wind and terrain made it safe to do so, to avoid being blown over onto rocky ground, with walls, very steep slopes and small crags around us. 

But as per last year and our epic battle to finish,  we were the first to start in the Elite class and also the last to finish so overall we were out for quite a long time!  But, we retained our 100% finishers reputation, won the Mixed Veterans trophy and placed fifth overall.  Having reviewed our routes with the trackers of the leading pairs, we seem to have taken very good lines betwen all controls. 

All good fun, and good training for bigger things, of course!  I think the wind cost us an extra hour or two and I so wish I could run better on rough technical terrain....but age and experience does have it's adventages.

Tuesday, 11 February 2014

The Spine Race - 'A View From Behind the Dots' - Part I

Some people have emailed me asking for my views on The Spine.

Some expected me to be running in it, whilst others appreciate that I was out there for eight, or nine days in a support role.   I haven't been wanting to write anything until now. I some ways it's not mine to write about as I was only working in a support role providing Mountain Safety for the event.  

There are many blogs already out there, and I'm full of admiration for many competitors who got so far in the event, and I haven't really got an exciting story to tell. Having said that my perspective is a pretty unique unique one and there are many different perspectives on The Spine generally.

Overall it was fun. In parts it was very tough, tedious, stressfull, and frustrating, but ultimately invigorating and rewarding in that I was helping runners achieve the what they could do.  What I've tried to write is what I did for a week, just to give you some idea what goes on behind the scenes.  Next year, I'm looking forward to taking part, maybe. I hope the NAV4 Adventure team will be there once again to provide Mountain Safety Cover once again. There are several people who need to be thanked for their enormous and tireless contribution - you know who you are, I don't need to name you.  I know the runners, and certainly myself, are very grateful.

Well, after helping out last year, NAV4 Adventure had been asked to provide Mountain Safety Cover. Last year, I'd gone to help mid-week for a day or so, but ended up spending five days supporting the race Northwards along the Pennine Way to the end. This was partially due to need, part due to concern and but also because I couldn't really drive home due to snow!  Last year the event was blighted with frequent weather fronts dumping snow along up the route and dumping a huge amount on the final high level Cheviot section. This made driving and logistics generally a very testing task, not to mention being in the hills on foot.  The event hit the headlines due to the epic snow conditions and the very really need for excellent hillskills and survival of some who could quite easily have died. This year the weather was generally 'just wet and windy' ... so a normal British winter!

So, Where to Start?
Well four weeks ago today, I was driving on sketchy roads from Teesdale to Swaledale to Wensleydale and back again to collect a retired runner and missing laptop.

Prepare for the worst ... and things will be better! 
'Forewarned is Forearmed' ... 'Fail to prepare, prepare to fail' and all that, so this year I was there for the duration with a car load of gear, food and had my colleague Stu Smith with me for the week. However, Stu was going to set off on The Challenger route (just the first 106 miles of the Spine) before helping out with the Safety Cover later in the week.  No worries, the first two days (36 hours) are straight forward!

Safety Cover is not glamorous; in fact it involves long periods of sitting in car parks, or perched on verges near road crossings or standing on isolated lumps of hills trying to maximise very limited phone signal so that you can send and recieve intermittent text messages.  Communication with colleagues is far from straight forward as phone signal wafts around on the breeze and your team mates may be dozens of miles away in a straight line, and may be a couple of hours drive by road.  But, I've worked outdoors for decades and so I can look after myself and others and know what I'm doing, and enjoy it.

This year The Spine had involved James Thurlow's excellent Open Adventure's tracking devices, which, if you are sitting looking at a good internet connection does may life a lot more interesting and appear a little safer.   They certainly add a huge new dimension on social media .... but ultimately do not make a runner totally safe.  Regular readers of this blog will know that I strongly believe self-reliance and Sound Mountain Judgement (SMJ) is a core base skill for all mountain runners, and I remain concerned that they promote a culture of runners pushing themselves too far and give a false sense of safety and security.

There is nothing more frustrating than watching a tracker dot move in the wrong direction.  Perhaps, not watching it move at all is worse, or .... well, let's just agree ... there are a few small disadvantages but managed well these are not insurmountable.  Therefore, whilst monitoring road crossings and hill tops 'on the ground' we note down times and numbers of runners manually as well as performing 'welfare checks' on everyone.

However, the Spine has only five formal checkpoints over a distance of 268 miles, hence the distances between are around 45-50 miles per stage.  Assume an average of 3 miles per hour for all 'runners' and you are quickly looking at stage times of 12, 15 or 18 hours.  So, managing all this in remote areas where phone coverage and Wifi connections are sparse relies all lot on old school methods.  What this means in practise is taking regular 'manual' screen grabs' and computing ETA and speed predictions of each runner, bearing in mind that some will sleep only in a CP, whilst others are skilled and intend to sleep on the trail.
( Remember - all entrants are equipped to sleep on the trail, carrying full bivi / camping gear)  

Back to where I was this time four weeks ago;  Trying to find Annie, who (who quite wisely, as a Spine 2013 Survivor) had turned around on Great Shunner Fell and returned back to the Hawes Checkpoint having made a 'SMJ' decision.  Unfortunately for Annie, Race Control had left Hawes some hours ago, and moved upto Middle-in-Teesdale (CP3) where facilities are very good at Kingsway Centure in terms of beds, showers, and Wifi.

Remember when I said it's frustrating not watching a tracker move? Well watching a dot sit in the middle of a village and not being able to locate a very distinctive dark skinned petite highly trained athlete with a huge rucsac was incredibly frustrating.  Fortunately, the Maket Hall caretaker where CP2 had been sited, various market traders in the main street and two very helpful staff within the local Spar helped me locate Annie who had quite righty got herself into a B&B for a few hours.  It was an unfortunate set of factors, as we had staff on the ground at road crossings ahead of where Annie had turned around (Annie and her little group were back markers.) and so if she continued we'd have swept her up sooner.  Hindsight is a wonderful thing but not having a 'back marker' was a mistake.

So, What About The First Few Days?
Well, Day One being Friday involved packing, shopping and further packing, before dropping Stuarts car in Hawes, ready for his Spine Challenger finish, before driving to Edale. A very busy evening of race briefings,  a quick bite to eat and an excellent cheeky beer, before further staff intros and the inevitable 'faff' filled a very long day.

Stuart waiting for chips and sussing out Hawes CP2.

A very short Friday night preceeded an early 5.30am start on Saturday with the majority of kit-checks still to be done prior to the 8am start.  Kit-checks, or more accurately, the small and very light sacs that a handful of runners presented did give some cause for concern and have caused much discussion about  runners skimping on gear, or even cheating.  In my role as Mountain Safety  I personally checked the kit of three runners who were referred to me and had what I call 'Elite Racing Kit' and I can assure you they all had the required kit; their kit was 'legal' in terms of the kit list.  Whether each runner has the fitness and skills to operate and survial with such 'ERK' is always a concern. One Spine Challenger racer, Marcus Scotney, is well known to me, having worked with me on our NAV4 Aventure Mountain Running courses, and together we have presented workshops entitled 'Every Gram Counts'.  The second runner presenting 'ERK' seemed very well sorted too,  although the third did worry me appearing a little naive in terms of the 'skinniness' of his gear. I think he was unaware of the nature of the terrain and hence speed he may well be moving at, (and how cold he would get) especially in the latter stages of the his Spine Challenger Race.  He did have a support person who would be meeting him at road-crossings, so ...(Just 106 miles for The Challenger, remember)

The view from the kitchen during race briefing ...

All The Gear No Idea?

There is definitely a hard core of Spiners who have learnt that to skimp on gear and food is false economy and even dangerous.  Equally so, there were some huge rucsacs on the start line, which isn't a great idea either....
This is not a trail race. Indeed, after last year's Spine I was tasked to write some notes in preparation for a magazine article along the lines of  'How to Train for The Spine'  ... but the editor quickly concluded that, 'This isn't really trail running is it!'  Hence the article never got to print.

What is apparent to me is that those who do well, and certainly those who get to the end of The Spine or Challenger, have some solid hill walking experience, probably have lightweight backpacking experience, and experience of mountain marathons, and probably some winter walking experience as well.   The ability to navigate simply using a map and compass is also a given for these type of  mountain runners. And a competitors ability as a 'runner' counts for relatively little on The Spine.

Day One - Rat Race
After the frantic pre-start checks, runners were blighted by an unexpected sleet shower whilst standing on the start line, just as if  The Spine was just giving them all a little prod to say, 'Don't mess with me!'

Departing from Edale, laden with some runners 'drop bags' due to kit explosion that had developed and the sheer volume of bags involved, I drove to the first road crossing on top of Snake Pass. I was being followed by Dr Fiona equally laden with drop-bags, but as we drove up The Snake the snow was lying and starting to stick.
Marcus and Stuart just before the start - great NAV4 tutors

There was no real need for us to be on Snake Pass and our intention was just to observe and conduct some random kit-checks and welfare checks but with the snow covering the road, and cars struggling for grip, this simply wasn't the place to stop.  A local Mountain Rescue Team were due to sweep the first stages of the route and a handful of private supporters had taken the available parking spaces.  Therefore, we moved quickly onto road-crossing No.2 near Crowden.  What struck me very vividly here was just how fast some runners were going, supported by some very enthusiastic personal support teams.  Having performed our ad-hoc duties we decided to move onto a later road-crossing, via a coffee shop, diesel and Wifi stop. 

And so that was the pattern of the day and Stage One. At Hebden Bridge, having driven 85 miles in six hours, we arrived at the front end of the race to help set up and await the front runners.  Naomi and Jamie had come to boost numbers in our Mountain Safety team (Naomi was a medic last year and both her and Jamie are very competent mountaineers) and so they went back out on to the course to observe and perform more random kit and welfare checks on runners.

Marcus arrived leading The Spine Challenger in the early evening, already geared up with his head torch on and layered for the cold evening to come. Marcus was certainly on a mission (this guy has run 100km for Team GB in around seven hours, and is an excellent orienteer and has planned the KIMM, so he has all the bases covered. ) His kit-check was brief and perfunctionary and he was out into the dark dank evening. 

During the Saturday night, Naomi and Jamie and myself played leap frog in two cars as we monitored road crossings on the challenging broken terrain towards Gargrave, which is the start of the Yorkshire Dales proper and Limestone country.   Amazingly, I actually managed to be horizontal my car, in a cosy sleeping bag for nine hours that night, perched high on the Lancashire moors with a grand view of Pendle Hill and Lancashire towns.  Unfortunately for me I had runners coming passed every 30mins to an hour so sleep was not entirely deep or slumberful.

Day Two - Malham, Pen-y-Ghent (and The Hill No-One Has Heard Of.

Naomi, Jamie and myself were grateful to get to Malham (CP1.5) where the stoic John Bamber, Paul Shorrocks and team were running an intermediate checkpoint were many entrants choose to stop and sleep or rest for a while.  Despite John's roomy mess tent and multiple petrol stoves going non-stop is was a cold, damp, muddy, and miserable place, but offered some welcome relief to all. And he makes good tea!

We were now towards the front of the bulk of runners, although the leaders were well gone.  Pen-y-Gent is well known as being one of  The Yorkshire Three Peaks; it is steep with two very minor rocky steps.  Late in theafternoon we went up to take a look at conditions and assess whether it was safe given the weather forecast including increasing wind and possible icying of the path. It was good to get moving and we had a blast up the path to the summit. Conditions were dry and a bit breezy without any snow or ice.  But in the dark it would appear very different to a cold and wet and tired runner, who had been out for 36-48 hours, maybe without any proper sleep.

Pen-y-Ghent route options - quick over the top or long way around

It was great having help from Naomi and Jamie but both had to be home for work on Monday so I was left to another night in the car, monitoing the road between Pen-y-Ghent and Fountains Fell.  In terms of height Fountains Fell (the hill no-one has heard of) is nearly as high as PyGhent. In terms of bulk, bogginess and intermittent paths it is a lot bigger than PyGhent and several entrants arrived through the night, grouped together for commaderie and safety, having been battered and bruised by weather and bogs. Two competitors actually thought they had been over Pen-y-Ghent when they arrive at my control.

Several entrants aborted here, two or three at my location and a few more over the hill at Horton. The weather had become wet and windy, and clearly some were way out of comfort zone and succumbing to injury, battered or blistered feet and even mild hypothermia. Entrants were also advised to miss out the summit of PyGhent if they felt it too much for them and given the lower route option around Horton.  A bus was arranged to ferry those withdrawing upto CP  at Hawes.

My night at Dalehead was very long, wet and windy, and without proper sleep. I was in and out of the car repeatedly to check on weather conditions, expecially wind and any possible icing of the gritstone paths.       I was now monitoring the back off the field and spent the next morning ticking off the remainder of entrants and tracking down the back markers.  It was evident to me that some at the back were really struggling to maintain the average required and with very poor phone coverage I drove back around to Malham to cross-reference info about the tail-enders, and exchange texts and then phone messages with James and Charlotte who were watching trackers at Race Control in Hawes.

The big unknown at this stage is that some runners stop and camp for several hours, which really messes with tracker dot watching and raises the issue of whether they are in difficulty or just asleep.  But more of this later in the week....

So - Sunday is Now Monday .... and so to Middleton (CP3)   

Hawes Market Hall (CP2) was quietly busy with battered runners, sleep depraved staff and a strange mixed sense of satisfaction for some. This is the end of Spine Challenger, but for The Spiners, is not even half way.  The checkpoint was running as best it can in such circumstances, and I managed to catch up with Dr Fiona and Stuart Smith, who had both been working hard at Hawes and out on the hills.  (Fiona's original brief was one of competitor and staff cognitive welfare but who became increasingly involved in catering and kitchen duties and did an excellent job in very difficult circumstances.)  James Thurlow and his PA, Charlotte, were driving lap tops and monitoring trackers, so it was time for the three of us to move ahead and towards the front end of the race again.

Consequently, arriving at after a very scary 90min drive, Middleton-in Teesdale the situation was relatively calm. Kingsway Centre was spacious for our needs, offering room for all to relax a little, showers, bunk beds in dorms and the general atmosphere was calmer.  After a very nice mushroom lasagne and side salad, Stu and myself managed to grab a short nights sleep, may be six hours.

It was early the next morning that we got the call to say Annie was retreating back to Hawes, which in turn needed both me a Stuart to drive in convoy back Southward as naturally there were still many entrants strung out over a very wide area.  We were luck with the weather and snow conditions, as overnight there had been snow showers.  We stayed on main roads where possible but, after a discussion about road conditions on the side of the busy A66 decided to cut up across country on tiny snow smattered roads to Tan Hill (the highest pub in England) Ben and Gary had been monitoring runners here for around 24hours and were asleep in their car, so Stu stayed parked alongside of them and I went onto Hawes to find Annie and the laptop.

With Anne and laptop located, and with Stu, Ben and Gary remaining at Tanhill, I was able to drive a longer, safer and probably quicker route back around to Middleton. Middleton was becoming increasingly busy with runners, and Race Control was now located here as it was in centre of operations, with runners strung out between Keld and Hadrian's Wall.
There are moments of relaxation ....sometimes

There is a race cut-off of 84 hours at Middleton-in-Teesdale. As this dealine approached, I watched  competitors appeared out of bunk rooms in various states of disray and distress, readying themselves for the trail ahead.   Some are were hobbling and needed an inordinate amount of medial footcare to simply getting them moving around the centre. Others were looking good; looking after yourself on The Spine is crucial. I was concern for the safety of all of them as the next stage of the route would take them over the Pennine watershed and onto the highest part of the route - Crossfell.

Steve Hayes multi-tasking at Middleton..

There is a long valley section up the Teesdale valley from Middleton before the route crosses above the notorious Cauldron Snout (an impressive waterfall below Cow Green dam outlet)   Phone coverage is non-existent here and there is a long black spot on the tracking system just in the worse possible place where competitors are most vulnerable.  Therefore, I had planned to drive upto near Cauldron Snout and walked in to spend a long night monitoring competitors as they passed over the bridge between the dam and very impressive waterfall.  The competitors at this stage are generally very good at looking after themselves and each other.  Although the terrain is remote, it is not too rough and the navigation relatively straight forward.  However, it is a very testing time for the Mountain Safety team, especially as it's a very long drive around to Dufton, the next road crossing, which was to become an informal CP3.5. We had Darren Hunt position at Dufton and I was keen to avoid any unneccessary driving as it is by far the most dangerous activity we undertake during the week.

Cauldron Snout - Crossfell - Big Wild Terrain

In some strange way I really enjoyed my six hours at Cauldron. The weather was kind to me with medium to high cloud, no rain and fairly good visibility back down the trail. I had some shelter, a Jetboil and some interesting food, so what could be wrong. From my monitoring point I could see a couple of miles back down the trail and by timing the head torches travelling in small groups coming towards me I had a good a very good handle on all but one competitor, who never appeared along the riverside path.   The sense of doom and concern was ever present. I walked back along the river checking out as to whether he may have camped because I was aware that he was probably short on sleep having been tight against the cut-off at MiT CP3.

Cauldron Snout - (testing new camera)

Sadly, I could not locate the missing competitor so I had no alternative to drive onward Alston and confer with Race Control.  The missing tracker had not moved or registered for some hours and so it was difficult to know what to do. 'RNI' - Radical Non-Intervention'. Most trackers had burst into life a few hours after passing through the blackspot, so this was a chance to grab a few hours sleep ....once again in the back of my car away from all the bustle of the CP and Race Control.

Early next morning, the tracker still hadn't moved and so we need to go and search the area where it last operated. Stuart Smith, Stu Westerfield, Ben Taylor and myself drove back out to Cauldron in two cars and the three of them performed a good search of the area, from both road heads, where the competitor could have been.  I monitored the road and tried my best to get phone coverage. Suffice to say, eventually the tracker did start to move but on the western side of the watershed.  With Darren having left Dufton and CP3.5 no longer in place, Stu W, Ben and myself drove the long way around whilst Stu went straight back to base to help co-ordinate further cover.  Eventually, we found the missing competitor, some way off track and bought him back to race control at Alston, CP4. It had been a very long night and day for all of us.

Whilst all this was going on, John Bamber and Paul Shorrocks had spent 48 hours high in a mountain hut on Crossfell, offering support to all. Weather conditions had been bad enough for them to 'close' the moutain for a few hours whilst a snow storm had dropped several inches on the hills. During this time, competitors had camped at Dufton CP3.5.

Wednesday. Or is it Thursday?

The trail north of Crossfell is lower lying and more of a trail than the high fells, but these low lying sections tend to be very muddy in places and the navigation requires constant monitoring through farmland looking for gates and stiles in field corners.  The section on Hadrians Wall, is rocky and paved, but also hilly with steep steps both up and down, and from last year's experience I know that this sesction and onto Bellingham is what 'beasts' the unprepared.  There is some very rough and featureless ground between The Wall and Bellingham, and with it being the final CP before the mighty Cheviot ridge it's psychologically a very tough section.

Time for Me

One of the mantras of Mountain Rescue teams, 'is look after yourself, look after your team you can look after your casualty.'  Please take some time to re-read this and think about it. 'TFM' is not about being selflish, but it's about being safe and professional.

After a hard shift at Cauldron Snout and a long day at Dufton, I got in my car outside the CP tried to sleep for a few hours. (Incidentally, I highly reccomend a Ford S-Max for five star sleeping comfort and it's multi-sport / outdoor capabilities) My mind was busy reviewing the actions and decisions of the past day or so, and outside there was constant noise and bright floodlights.  To make matters worse my bed was far from level so I got out of my sleeping bag, climbed into the driver's seat and drove a mile up the road. Naked driving in the wee small hours in The Northern Pennines is a strange past-time..  But I slept soundly for four hours waking to an amazing dawn as the birds began to sing.  With my Jetboil boiling a second brew, I got dressed and then drove back to Alston CP4.  The whole place was a sleep. Everyone - staff and competitors, everyone.  The lights were on, Race Control laptop was on, so I logged on and updated myself on all things Spine Race. I clocked who was where, and at what time; I even surfed on the Spine facebook page for a while. Then I did some washing up, then I gathered more updates..

During the last few days I'd driven 699 miles, and blown a headlamp blub. I needed diesel and a replacement blub, not least becasue there may be a similar distance to drive on even more remote terrain. After gathering up some of the competitors 'drop-bags' who were safely ahead on the trail, I set off to drive to Bellingham. I know these roads well as they are within an hour of home.  I like driving them, often ride them on my road bike, and the morning's weather was simply glorious.  I stopped to take some photos and made coffee, as sleep depravtion was still a problem. Hexham, the biggest town near the route, provided diesel, bulbs, some new heavy duty rubber car floor mats, and a decent Tesco shopping trip. TFM and I suitably refreshed.

Stu, Stu, Ben and others were to monitor the numerous road crossings between Alston and Bellingham and once I'd dropped by load 'drop-bags' off at Bellinghamd and supported the CP staff in anyway needed, I could work my way back down, or onward, the route if needed.

Amanda and Ally had done a sterling job working at Bellingham having been on their own with just a few leading runners for a day or so.  The weather was still OK, and with the CP running very well, I was able to fix my new headlamp bulb, dry out and organise the car a little and generally get to grips with many things. The next few days would be very testing and could easily become epic if we didn't manage things well, but I hope we'd learnt a lot from last year.  Andrew Burton was there, having pulled out of The Spine at Horton and he was informally supporting a Neil and Steve (?) who were about to leave on the last 43 mile section.  They were in fine form, joking and moving well, and it was good to get Andrew's news and perspective and he is always good company.

CP5 - First job Hi-Viz signage and banners

Overall things were going well. We had intermittent Wifi coverage, which updated reliably if you walked to the bottom of the car park.  The self-catering chalets were were using for runners and ourselves had been well organised by Amanda and Ally, and we had adequate phone (text coverage from Stu, Stu and Ben and a few others who had come to help (Tony Holland and Flip Owen, and one or two whose name escape me for now, sorry?)

As the evening progressed more runners arrive to eat, rest and gear up for the last section. More Mountain Safety and Support staff arrived (Dr Fiona, Stu W and Ben) we had a good control over the remainder of the race. A few runners had already finished at 'KT' and a few were on there way over the last section. As the evening progressed Bellingham CP became more active, then a bit of a quieter zone as most people, runners and staff got some well deserved sleep.  I got another few hours before waking early and getting back upto speed with the laptop and tracker dot watching,  and updating my manual log of competitors positions.

Debbie 'enjoys' footcare at CP5...

From Bellingham to Bryness there are a three minor and very remote road-crossings, and each were monitored but myself or volunteers. Bryness really is the last chance for support, and so we monitored and supported this very well. Flip Own had been there with a lonely vigil for many hours, and then I did a couple of hours until John Bamber and Paul Shorrocks arrive to do the final shift. With copuious amounts of hot water and TLC, these guys are the experts at living and working in hostile conditions.

Whilst Bryness to Kirk Yetholm is 27 miles along the Pennine way it's nearly double that by road, which is typical of the logistical issues the Race Organisation faces.  But Byrness is very much the 'Start of the End' and a very busy and eventful 36 hours.

Maybe I'll be writing about that soon...after Dark Mountains?