Tuesday, 13 February 2018

The price of ultrarunning/ the price of safety - Spine Challenger - it's not cheap!

In the lead-up to the Spine Challenger race, well pretty much for the whole year really, there was a lot of discussion on the race forum and other online groups about gear for the race.  Like in other group discussions, if you ask a question the responses will be split between those who are genuinely being helpful, those who are simply taking the mick and those who just have nothing positive or helpful to say to anyone about anything.  I once asked a gear question in another group a couple of years ago and regretted it almost instantly.

So, given that I was needing a great deal of advice about gear, I found myself relying on all the other Spine (and Challenger) newbies to ask the advice and I would just stalk the threads in the hope that something useful would come up from time to time.  It's not ideal but it saved me from getting the piss ripped out of me on a weekly basis, I'd had enough of that previously.

The thing about this race is that you are either already heavily equipped with the right kind of gear because you have come to it from a winter mountaineering type background, you are some sort of sponsored athlete or brand ambassador who gets loads of gear given at them for 'free', or you come at it from a standard trail running background (like myself) and whilst you might have a few bits and pieces, you realise that once you have parted ways with a hefty entry fee you then have the purse-emptying task of buying a shopping list full of expensive winter-mountain appropriate gear.  And given that you are going to have to part with a lot of money, you are hopeful that you are going to get good advice about what type of equipment/clothing is going to be good enough quality whilst not breaking the bank.

If you look at the difference in sizes and weights of packs carried by runners in the race, you will see a huge disparity, which can only have a knock-on effect on a competitor's speed during the race and therefore their finishing (or not finishing) time. You are pretty much told this on the race website! This caused many a drawn-out discussion in the online forums too - what's more important price, weight, or safety?

I remember way back when I was preparing for the Lakeland 100 there were many similar discussions about pack size, what shoes, what jackets, the lightest calories etc. Repeatedly there were people complaining about the mandatory kit list, asking why they had to carry this and that. It got really tiresome.  Mandatory kit lists are there for one good reason - safety - should the worst happen, can you keep yourself safe until help can arrive (bearing in mind there are hundreds of other competitors out on the trails who might also need help at the same time as you). Of course there are still those who will try and not carry everything (hoping they don't get caught) and there are those who whilst technically meeting the requirements, are pretty much taking the piss with regards to safety (of themselves and therefore putting others at risk) eg. taking a pair of ladies 30 denier dress tights as their "spare lower base layer" or a compass they got in a Christmas cracker that's barely the size of a £1 coin! It's ridiculous.

Remembering all those online debates back them whilst thinking about the Challenger kit-list made me laugh.  Half of those people complaining about the Lakeland 100 kit list would have been having complete hissy fits about the Challenger list.

The discussions were slightly different for the Spine and Challenger, but not completely devoid of the above issues.  But primarily it came down to what was most suitable for the conditions and cost.  For example, when it came to jackets, it was about how well the 'waterproof' or 'insulating layer' jacket had coped with Spine conditions as opposed to a regular winter outings, and then was it affordable?  For clothing in general it was a combination of performance and price.

With regards to the reminder of your equipment, i.e. the heavy part, weight was a constant source of discussion: weight vs. performance vs. cost. As someone who was probably one of the less experienced racers when it comes to winter mountain conditions I needed to buy (or borrow) about 90 % of the content of the mandatory kit list.  So from the horrifying moment that my race entry was accepted at the beginning of February I started scouring the January sales and online sales pages. Mother's day presents, birthday presents Christmas presents - everything was based around my kit list. Multiple times I had to dip into my savings.  I was watching every single penny, and watching every discount website waiting for things to come on sale (or hoping they would).  The gear didn't need to be 'this season' or the latest colour, it just needed to work, and work well enough. Winter conditions mean safety is key which means you can't turn up in any old sh*t, but quality brands tend to cost money, so it was all about learning which brands offered the best quality for the least money.

I experienced a lot of good and bad customer service during 2017.  Some companies were frankly appalling! And others were absolutely superb.  My online favourites - Alpkit, Sportpursuit and Tiso.  Real shops I went into - George Fisher, Pete Bland and Costwold Outdoors in Keswick (these three were also good online). And without my 'winter kit consultant' (ha ha) friend SJ I would never have found my backpack.

My most expensive piece of kit was my sleeping bag (£200).  It was also my heaviest at 865g.  I bought the lightest one I could afford that met the sub-zero requirements. It was the Alpkit Pipedream 400 which I learnt about in the Spine discussion groups. I still can't believe I spent that much money on a sleeping bag when all previous sleeping bags have come from Tesco at around £15!! No joke.  I haven't slept outdoors since Guide camp in my youth - that was quite some time ago.

Whilst I imagine that many of the 'fast and light' competitors (on the Challenger?) would have gone for a more lightweight emergency bivi bag (weighing as little as 100g), I opted for safety and took the weightier (664g) option of the Rab Storm Bivi. When I speak of safety, I speak of it in my own context.  Given that I'm less experienced, it was important for me to feel safe with the equipment that I was carrying and that I would be confident that if something went very wrong I would be able keep myself safe until help arrived. A 100g bivi bag would not have made me feel safe.  Clearly non of us plan on something going wrong, but inevitably they do, and we need to be as best prepared as we can.  It is our responsibility as competitors to keep ourselves safe.  It is not the responsibility of the Safety Team - they are our BACK-UP.

I started buying things for my race in February in the sales, and I bought my last items in one week before the race (not that I was cutting it fine or anything). That final item was actually a new head-torch.  Not the best planning but I had increasingly lost confidence in my Petzl Nao as it had failed me on numerous occasions (perhaps it was just too fiddly or just wasn't a good 'fit' for me).  Again I was stalking the forums and decided to buy a Black Diamond head-torch. It needed standard sized batteries and they were super easy to change.  And having adjusted the settings on the computer I knew the light would last through the 16 hour night on 1 set of batteries no problem - this was of key importance to me.

One key piece of kit was the GPS unit. But luckily I didn't have to shell out £200-£500 on a new unit as my lovely friend SG let me borrow hers - a Garmin Oregon. Not only did she lend it to me for the race but for the three months prior to the race for me to practice with too! She's an absolute gem of a friend. I have never used one before - always been a map and compass person - but there's no doubt I am saving up to buy one in the future.  What a fantastic bit of kit! It gives you a (perhaps misplaced) sense of comfort knowing that you have that extra layer of 'navigation power' for when conditions are not conducive to manual navigation (hoping that it works!).

Entering the Montane Spine Challenger and Spine Race is expensive.  The entry fee alone would put most people off, including myself (which is did for some time)! But I decided I wanted to do a big extreme race before I was no longer capable of such things. I wanted to do something super special and a once-in-a-lifetime experience.  That was another reason to finish the race - I couldn't afford to pay the entry fee again.  Often people say 'there's always next year' if you're thinking of a DNS or mid-race contemplating a DNF, but that's just not the case. Yes, if you're an elite or sponsored runner and don't have to pay entry fees etc. but for your average runner then it's not such an easy prospect.  It's a bit different to paying £7 for your local hill race.

So was it worth it? For me, yes. Most definitely.  It was an extremely challenging, and at times horrific and brutal experience, but my goodness I wouldn't have changed it for the world. Well, except my stupid non-waterproof supposedly waterproof socks! Ha. It was everything I signed up for and then some. Pushing myself like that meant I had to dig deeper and find new strengths I didn't know I had.  And the people involved in the race - they were some of the finest humans I have met on my running adventures. The people make the Montane Spine Challenger.

The Hart family had a tough 2017, and the look on my husband's face as I arrived at the finish, and the enormous hugs and non-stop questions I got from my kids when I got home - PRICELESS!  In our 'running lives' we were due a win, and we got one. It was freakin magic!  And now I have lots of cool gear that we can have lots of future adventures with.

Keep adventuring...


Stevie wired said...

Well said, sat here chuckling away, happy adventures Vicky.

Stevie wired said...

Made me chuckle, happy adventures Vicky.

Kev HP said...

Great article

John Kynaston said...

Another great article and one that I'm sure will many others who are facing similar decisions.

Gary Morrison said...

Great article Vicky, honestly written from a real perspective of the commitment needed for such events. Now you have the kit, there's no stopping you.

Mrs D said...

I love this. I love the honesty and the truthfulness that this stuff isn't easy and that quite honestly, at times, it hurts. But that it's all worthwhile. One day a 100 mile will cross my path but I'm not sure I have the gumption necessary to do the Spine. Yet.

Jason Hughes said...

Just learnt how running can also be an expensive sport. Great article Vicky. I'm writing an article on my website about the women runners I follow on the internet. Will ping you when I finish it! Hope you'll take the time to read! :)

Cornelia Ardelean said...

I didn't start running with a particular race in mind also. But this year found myself training or a half marathon with SportMe running app. Hope all will go smoothly, thanks.

Jason Hughes said...

Hey Vicky!

Here's the article as promised. Thank you for being an inspiration. I hope the article delivers new visitors to your site!

(P.S. I've designed a badge that you can share on your website and social media. I designed and created it myself, just like all the art on my website! To share the badge, all you have to do is copy and paste the link provided on the article.)

Here's the article:

Jason Hughes

Vicky said...

Thanks for this Jason. It’s hard to think of myself as inspiring but thank you. Hopefully I can inspire people to reach outside of their comfort zone.