Ultrarunner Damian Hall discusses how to take on the brutal Spine Race – covering training, challenges and even hallucinations.
The Spine Race is a 268-mile ultramarathon along the Pennine Way, UK, that starts in Edale, England, and usually finishes in Kirk Yetholm, Scotland.
To make matters worse, the race takes place in January and competitors are given seven days to reach the finishing line.
And inov-8 ambassador Hall, who has completed it twice and was forced to retire from a potentially winning position after 180 miles in 2022 due to a groin injury, reveals all on preparation, the challenges you face along the Pennine Way and why someone should enter ‘Britain’s most brutal race’.
What are the biggest challenges?
I suppose the headlines which get out are that people suffer the start of trench foot and water bottles would freeze occasionally, that did kind of happen to me for a few hours. You are probably not going to get frostbite, but you know it’s cold and miserable and mostly dark.
I think the number one thing that you battle with is sleep deprivation, I suppose if you are trying to push it a bit and even if you are at the back of the field – you are still not going to get much sleep compared to how long you are out on your feet. I think it’s that sleep deprivation that gets you in the second half, so sleep deprivation, weather and all that darkness. You really are like a zombie by the end – probably very hungry and feeling very sorry for yourself.
In terms of geographically, there is one section between Alston and Greenhead, which is not horrendous, it is just unspectacular and fiddly and annoying really, it is flat, muddy fields and farms and a bit frustrating.
Why should you enter Spine Race?
I think that is something that everyone needs to ask themselves beforehand – consider your why. What is going to pick you up at three or four in the morning when you just want to lie down in that peat bog forever instead of moving forward. The first time I did it, my motivation was that I didn’t really know if I could do this, it’s such a huge undertaking so I had a real sense of can I? Asking myself the question: ‘Can I do this?’
The second time in a way was harder motivationally because I knew I could do it. I was much more motivated by finishing on the podium so when that looked like a threat, partly other competitors being close to me, and partly I was getting increasingly injured and had been encouraged by one of the medics to consider stopping and that was coming into my mind as it was uncomfortable.
I only wanted to be top three, or I wasn’t that interested, so that was a good lesson to me in that you have to be quite careful to know your motivation.
How do you train for Spine Race?
I think you could easily overdo it out of worry. I am not actually training that differently to how I would for a 100-mile race, and I do think making the mistake of putting a heavy bag on and doing lots and lots of long runs – there is some benefit there but you actually may well damage your running economy there and slow yourself down.
What I have been doing and getting my clients to do is kind of marathon training – decent volume and having those speed sessions and as you get closer to the race – you do more specific training and that is probably when you do the longer runs and put a pack on, but we want to be nice, fast and strong before that – so the pack doesn’t halve our speed.
If you have not done something like this before, I would say do more night running and runs in boggy terrain if it’s available to you.
What are the good parts?
I must say there are some really wonderful aspects to it, and I think camaraderie with the other runners is high because it is quite a unique event – you are all undertaking this challenge together – often not knowing if it is possible for you.
It’s often more the relationship with the staff and the volunteers which can be quite profound. When you are emotionally raw and wrecked and people show little moments of kindness, even just offering a little cup of tea or popping a little blood blister, they are kind things and even just saying kind things.
There is famously a farm on the course which offers breakfasts and drinks to everyone in the race – they are nothing to do with the race at all, but they just want to show some kindness. There are just wonderful moments of human nature and kindness and that is what makes it such a life-affirming experience.
Why did you decide to run Spine Race?
It has always been a fascination to me when I first heard of the idea of it – I was quite new to the sport and I was just blown away.
I had already hiked the Pennine Way, and I just thought to run it, but to then run it in winter just seemed utter madness so I was fascinated to follow it.
I remember seeing it on Twitter, just occasional Tweets – so and so had arrived at this checkpoint and then you would go to work all day, have dinner, check Twitter and it would say so and so has arrived at this checkpoint and you would just think: ‘Wow!’ and that went on for days and I was just blown away by that and I was just really curious to know what that’s like, is it as awful as you would imagine? What is that experience like? And could I do it?
How was your first attempt?
So, I jumped in on the Spine on its third year and it was my fifth ultra-marathon, so it was a bit of a leap of faith, but the experience just blew me away really and as soon as you get into this Spine bubble you really miss it when it’s gone, when you’ve done it you really miss it. You had this strong sense of mission and building to something for months and months, so as soon as I could, I signed up for the next year again! I sometimes say it is a race for people who hate themselves.
Is it true you hallucinated?
Yes, during that first year, and I didn’t realise I was. It was the very final night and I had skipped a whole night of sleep and I was in the Cheviots and I thought someone was setting off red, Chinese lanterns nearby to sort of guide me in and I remember seeing these red globes in the sky and thought I would follow them and shouted ‘thanks’ at one point.
I do remember shouting: ‘Are you real?’ But even at the end I spoke to another runner and asked: ‘Did you see the lanterns?’ I still hadn’t twigged that it was a total hallucination. And then there were rocks changing shapes – it sounds sinister, but it never felt sinister. When I finished the race, I did think that the race director was having a nosebleed and said: ‘Look at your nose!’ but there was nothing there at all. So yeah, it can mess you up a bit.