Upping The Ante; Why I Entered The UKs Most Brutal Race

pre race

I needed a hobby, at least I thought I did. It wasn’t that I was bored, a twenty something in London has plenty of distractions, it was just that I needed something to focus my jumble of thoughts. Something to stop them from ricocheting off the inside of my eyes.

Writing software was one option, I had no shortage of ideas for websites. But I already spent all day hunched over a keyboard, tapping out line after line of algorithms and business logic for a ‘certain to be the next big thing’ start-up telecoms firm. Any more of this and I was sure to turn into a full-blown, out-and-out computer nerd.

The pub was an excellent distraction, it calmed my swirling mind, and there was never a shortage of drinking partners.

Ah, the pub. The lovely, lovely pub. A dear friend on the surface, but sadly one that doesn’t really have your best interests at heart.

An expanding waistline and a chance conversation with a recently reconnected Brummy friend, and running was suddenly something I was going to do. Maybe this could be my hobby?

In keeping with how I approach most things in life, I embraced this new pastime with arms wide enthusiasm and went at it with everything I had.

Typical “too much too soon” injuries followed, but after a few years my body settled down, and I started training for The Fell Race (there is only one worth mentioning, like The Marathon).

I’d never been all that interested in the Paps when I lived on Jura, fell running and young teenagers aren’t an obvious pairing. Now that I was a Runner however, the lure of the challenge was drawing me in.

Trundling around my now favourite 20 mile loop which took in the West End of London and many Thames river sights, I noticed that something strange had happened to my body.

It was a bit sore, but seemed to want to keep going. Not fast you understand, but not walking either.

“Just to see if I could”, I rapidly increased my long run distance, and a few weeks later clocked up 26.2 miles in 4 hours.

The subsequent euphoria damped the complaints of my (now very sore) legs, and I dreamily contemplated a future of long distance running.

It turned out that running produces endorphins (endogenous morphine – say no more!) which not only give you a nice post run boost, but imbue you with a calm and gentle feeling of wellbeing. The perfect antidote to working on a busy and aggressive trading floor (which is where all that tapping had taken me).

Some years passed, I accrued running paraphernalia (garmin watches, heart rate monitors), obsessed about nutrition, gained and lost weight, and entered the odd race here and there.

Dimly at first, I became aware of something called “ultras”, or more precisely ultra marathons. These were foot races longer than a marathon, typically at least 30 miles but apparently there was no upper limit.

Someone at work had started doing them, I thought there was something wrong with him, he didn’t even look all that fit.

Running a marathon was hard, ‘AL’ Fell Races were even harder (category A, long. Jura falls into this classification), why on earth would anyone want to do anything even harder than that? The whole idea was preposterous.

The seed wouldn’t go away though, as much as I tried to ignore the idea of these races, the ridiculous concept kept finding it’s way into my thoughts.

Inevitably I gave in (home alone with a bottle of wine and the internet, I’m not the first and won’t be the last to do something silly in that situation). The dusk till dawn ultra marathon sounded perfect.

I was keen to minimise time away from my (now) wife and small child, so the idea of an overnight race was ideal. Sleep deprivation was something I’d been practicing, (unintentionally, babies force that upon you), so that aspect didn’t bother me much.

Neither did the facts that it was to take place in October, was 50 miles long, entirely on muddy hilly trails in the Peak District, and was the inaugural running of the event.

They should have caused me some pause, as it turned out to be really hard (and cold, and wet).

I finished though, in a respectable position. Other than a few scrapes and aches I didn’t suffer particularly afterwards, and felt, quite frankly, invincible.

Without really seeking them out, I stumbled into various races over the next few years, invariably longer and tougher than the ones before.

They were all hard, and I swore I’d never run an ultra again through gritted teeth a few times, but the memory of pain fades quickly, and more challenges duly presented themselves.

Which brings me finally to The Spine Race.

I don’t know where or how I first heard of it, but the mere suggestion of taking part made me feel physically sick. No other race had done that before!

The details don’t sound all that bad:

  • 268 miles of trails, in the UK, in winter
  • 31,000 foot of ascent and descent (Mount Everest is only 29,000 by the way)
  • A generous sounding 7 days (and nights) to complete the route

The description from the website adds a bit more colour however:

The MONTANE® Spine® Race is a 268 mile, non-stop, uncompromising winter challenge encompassing the entire Pennine Way. Widely recognised as one of the most demanding National Trails in Britain. The Pennine Way crosses some of the most beautiful and, at times difficult terrain found in England, including; the Peak District, Cheviots, Yorkshire Dales and Northumberland National Park – finishing on the Scottish Borders.

The MONTANE® Spine® Race is open to anyone with appropriate experience* who wishes to test themselves and compete in a truly demanding race. Expect to race through extreme weather, deep snow, ice, mud, bogs, strong winds and rain in a gruelling non-stop, 7 day race from Edale to Kirk Yetholm.

It’s not just the conditions that are against you – your own body could become your worst enemy with tiredness, fatigue, sleep deprivation, exposure and the general pains of wear and tear playing havoc with your performance. To finish you must be prepared and willing to push yourself harder than ever before.

Ok, that was more like it. Throw in the fact that only 25% of starters typically get to the finish, and you have something that sounds really preposterous.

I turn 40 this year, and what better way to celebrate such a significant milestone than by putting myself through the most gruelling ordeal I could find, and pay cash for it too.

After months of fretting and feverish planning I toed the muddy line in Edale with 67 other athletes (I’m calling myself that now!) on Saturday the 9th of January, and gently trotted off into the unknown.

4 hours shy of 7 days later, I touched the wall of the pub that marks the end of the Pennine Way, in Scotland.

I was physically exhausted, had found places in my mind I didn’t know existed, and was sobbing like a child.

I’d done it.

That was nearly two months ago, and so far at least, I have no desire to up the ante on this one.

Mind you, I met someone who went there and back, so there’s a thought…

[Full report here]

SDW50 – A View From The Stables

pre race

Spring is threatening to show its face in the UK, and as such marks the start of my offices Ultra Squad racing season for 2016.

We’ve got three horses saddled up and ready to hit the trails of the South Downs Way early tomorrow morning.

50 miles of well-marked national trail, in a decently sized field. Hosted by Centurion Running, the SDW 50 is quickly becoming very popular, with all places selling out ridiculously fast.

For a bit of fun, here is a bit of pre-race commentary along with some ranking predictions from a horse’s mouth.


To avoid getting too carried away, the focus is on each animals relative ranking in their gender category from their publically available data on Statistik DUV

A score of 1 translates to a win, score of 0.5 is firmly mid-pack, and a score of 0 gets the last finisher prize.

By supplementing this sparse data set with rumours and observations, I will give my guesses for where our horses will finish in Saturdays race.

First up, TurboHarris

Looking at historical results, it’s clear that Turbo has a preference for long, hot, sandy races, placing highly in the 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2015 Marathon Des Sable races.

The usually soggy and slippery routes in the UK seem to have slowed the pace somewhat, though having said that, racing a staggering total distance of 556 miles last year didn’t seem to do any harm to the final race, with a 0.3 placing, up 15% from the NDW just a few months earlier.

Turbo doesn’t disclose her training data, but has been quietly putting in some serious training mileage this year, narrowly missing out on completing the whole February “Run Till You Drop” challenge. However the poker faced investment banker has been heard muttering phrases like “this is a pure training race”, and “oh gosh I’m so unfit”.

Take these with a pinch of salt, just look at the raw data:

Race Stats

2012 – 156m

    0.58 (45/107) in MdS (Apr, 156m)

2013 – 261m

    0.66 (48/143) in MdS (Apr, 156m)

    0.23 (17/22) in NDW (May, 50m)

    0.44 (1105/1957) in Comrades (up) (Jun, 54m)

2014 – 252m

    0.83 (22/128) in MdS (Apr, 152m)

    0.08 (22/24) in TP (May, 100m)

2015 – 556m

    0.78 (40/185) in MdS (Apr, 156m)

    0.42 (14/24) in TP (May, 100m)

    0.29 (24/34) in SDW (Jun, 100m)

    0.15 (22/26) in NDW (Aug, 100m)

    0.30 (21/30) in Autumn (Oct, 100m)

Verdict? The SDW doesn’t play to Turbos strengths, being too short and lacking any sand or sun, but don’t be fooled by the self-deprecation, the monikor is no accident and expect a rank of at least 0.4, that translates into a placing of 63/105.

Next out of the stable, RaketeGnodtke

Rakete is something of a wild card here, with only a smattering of races to his name, but a serious uptick in placement since arriving in the ultra-scene in 2014.

The only horse to have completed this race before (though all are familiar with the route, from non-public races and the SDW 100), should give a small advantage too.

The word in the stables is that this creature has almost convinced it’s peers (and itself) that not only is it lame, but has a hoof stress fracture. No vet has been contacted yet though, so the jury is out as to whether this falls into the psyche category too – nobody is showing their cards.

The Rocket will be riding tandem with his brother on Saturday, on his inaugural 50 mile race, just to further complicate the data.

Race Stats

2014 – 150m

    0.12 (226/258) in SDW (Apr, 50m)

    0.18 (80/97) in NDW (Aug, 100m)

2015 – 100m

    0.43 (90/158) in TP (May, 100m)

Verdict? The beast has potential, but with a lack of 2016 training and a potentially dodgy hoof, I’m going with a conservative rank of 0.25, a placing of 267/357

Lastly, and most leastly, Latimeistro

This horse was showing incredible potential this time last year, taking a number 3 spot in a 12 hour race.

It all went south after that, with a spate of injuries, gluttony and lethargia all conspiring to massively restrict training.

The spine race came and went, a decent placing but it was a slog over a long and cold 7 days (and nights).

Training mileage has picked up in the last month, though a torn glute set things back recently.

The course plays to the nags strengths, wet and cold are predicted, though the field size is large enough to overshadow any half-hearted efforts.

Race Stats

2012 – 50m

    0.76 (10/42) in DtD (Oct, 50m)

2013 – 112m

    0.43 (656/1159) in CCC (Aug, 62m)

    0.72 (17/60) in DtD (Oct, 50m)

2014 – 362m

    0.72 (5/18) in Spine Challenger (Jan, 108m)

    0.76 (12/51) in GUCR (May, 145m)

    0.53 (16/34) in Tooting 24h (Sep, 109m)

2015 – 79m

    0.79 (3/14) in Crawley 12h (Apr, 79m)

2016 – 268m

    0.71 (12/42) in Spine (Jan, 268m)

Verdict? Poker face firmly in place, but the inside view is that if the legs don’t fall off then a rank of 0.7 is attainable, 107/357.


Past performance is no indication of future performance, various endogenic factors can severely affect an animals ability to race (donuts, Netflix and red wine, for example). None of this is serious and everything should be completely ignored.