Sunday, 26 January 2014

The Spine Challenger 2014 - Part 3: Kit List

As promised, here is a relatively (maybe) brief run-down of the kit that I used in the Spine Challenger. Now, you might be wondering why you should take advice from somebody who DNF'd, but whilst I never managed the final few miles of the race, my kit choice allowed me to get through the distance that I did cover in comfort and with almost no ill after-effects. Of course, I say kit choice, but really I took what I could get, borrowing large amounts of gear from my brother-in-law Trevor. Luckily he is awesome, and that kit proved to be excellent! Right, here we go:


In My Pack

Backpack: Osprey Talon 33

This 33 L backpack is a relatively lightweight pack for a race like this. I wasn't sure at first that I would fit everything in there, but it is incredibly roomy with lots of additional pockets for secreting all of your gear. I put my roll mat, stove, sleeping bag, dry bag filled with spare clothes and dry bag filled with miscellaneous gear in the main compartment, my micro spikes in one side pouch, head torch in the other, mobile phone in one front waist pocket (for photo opportunities), lots of gels in the other front waist pocket, maps in the rear pouch and food in the top pouch. This kept everything nice and easy to find when I needed it.

I used the 3L bladder that came with it (although only used 2L at most), which has a very neat magnetic system for holding the feed tube across your body and out of the way. I used an insulating cover on the tube (stolen from my old-style Salomon running vest), and was sure to blow water back into the bladder to help prevent water in the tube freezing. The final weigh in came in at about 7.5 Kg without water, so I was probably carrying a maximum of 10 Kg. As the race went on, I ended up wearing more of the clothes from my pack, so it got a little lighter as well. All in all this was a pretty good weight, and I did very well to end up with such a light pack without having to spend the earth for some of the ├╝ber lightweight gear.

I was a little worried that I would suffer from chaffing issues, particularly as the race was in fact the first time that I had ever run with it (it was borrowed from my brother-in-law). But actually it was very comfy, and didn't ride up or rub at all. If I ever do anything similar to this race again, I'll probably buy myself this pack.

Saturday, 18 January 2014

The Spine Challenger 2014 - Part 2: In Soviet Russia, Spine Cracks You!


I woke to the sound of my alarm an hour later, feeling groggy and not at all well-rested. In hindsight, I wish I had slept a little more at this stage, but I wanted to just crack on. In general I was feeling good. My feet were blister-free, and my legs were surprisingly not utterly trashed from the hills of the previous day. I seem to do surprisingly well with hills considering that I live in one of the flattest areas of the country. The closest I get to hill training is running upstairs when my daughter starts to cry. I was glad to have gotten myself clean and dry, and felt ready and raring to go.

The next section was going to be longer than the first, with about 60 miles to CP2 at Hawes. This would be the finish for runners on the Challenger, but less than halfway for those on the full Spine Race. Race Director Scott Gilmour told me that the forecast for the next day was going to be wet, windy and cold, so I should be prepared with all of my best gear. I wasn't going to make the same mistake as I made at the start, and got suited up from the beginning with several layers including my warm Montane Fireball Smock. Toasty warm! There would be no faffing with clothing once I headed out, no siree.


So you can imagine my annoyance when half an hour later, heading back up the winding forest path to the road, I found myself sweltering like a whore in a butchers shop. It was about 1:30 am and was actually a really pleasant night. The sky was clear and the stars were out in force, and whilst there was a crisp chill in the air, it wasn't nearly chilly enough to necessitate 4 arctic condition layers of clothing. Sigh.

Wednesday, 15 January 2014

The Spine Challenger 2014 - Part 1: Where's a chiropractor when you need one?

I first heard of the Spine Race last January, when social networks were ablaze with stories of woe and suffering from the hardy soles taking part in this 268 mile jaunt along the Pennine Way. The route starts in Edale in the Peak Distract, and makes it's way north through the more interesting bumpy parts of the Yorkshire Dales, Lake District and southern Scotland. Being January, and being Britain, the weather is normally wet, cold and miserable. Add to that the fact that you have to be pretty much self-sufficient, with checkpoints spaced up to 60 miles apart, and this is one tough proposition. Sign me up!

One for James Adams there
As the race approached, I realised that I was woefully underprepared. I hadn't even looked at what I needed to get for my kit (apparently shorts and t-shirt weren't going to cut it), had done no form of recce of any description, hadn't tried running yet with the sort of heavy pack I was going to need for all of the required gear, and hadn't really run any long distances at all due to an injury earlier in the year. I wasn't really relishing the idea of being away from my family for a week either, so decided to split the difference and do the easy version instead - the Spine Challenger.

Sorry - "easy" version.

The Spine Challenger is 108 miles, and is essentially identical in all things (required kit, start time, support on the course), except that you finish at the second checkpoint in Hawes.

Wednesday, 8 January 2014

2013 Review (or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Run)

Well that was 2013. From a personal perspective it has been an amazing year, with the birth of my gorgeous baby girl in February being the absolute highlight of my life so far. Watching her grow over the last 10 months has been incredible, and she is now a little person with her own (incredibly cheeky) personality. I can't wait to see what else she has in store for us over the years to come!

But from a running perspective? Meh.

It's been okay, but not the year I was hoping for. My training through last winter was great, and I came into 2013 feeling stronger and faster than ever before. My diet (by which I mean "what I was eating in general", and not that I was only eating a stick a stick of celery every day) was pretty good, so I was in pretty good shape.

But obviously with a baby on the way, this was interrupted somewhat to concentrate on the more important aspects of my life. That being said, I was still able to get a fair bit of running in, which is largely due to having such an amazing and understanding wife, and also due to being an early morning runner and getting a lot of miles in through commuting.

Since we didn't really know what to expect from the first few months of parenthood, my first race wasn't until the Viking Way at Easter. As it happens, the first few months were relatively easy, other than a severe lack of sleep. Obviously this affected how much I was able to get out for long runs, but since a lot of my running is done as commuting to work this was unaffected.

I hit the start line feeling pretty good, with a good finish in my sights. It started well, with Mark Cockbain telling me off for getting to the Aid Stations too quickly for them. Unfortunately some issues with navigation left me making some serious cock ups resulting in finishing second despite being over 2 hours ahead at one point. C'est la vie. You live and learn. That being said the race itself went brilliantly for me, and in particular was the furthest I had ever run. I recovered quickly and was back running a couple of days later which was a great sign for my conditioning.

Thursday, 2 January 2014

Hoax email and website on "how to avoid cancer"

This is nothing to do with running, but I feel like the following is worth highlighting.

I was a bit disappointed yesterday to see this blog post being posted around Facebook from some of my friends. The blog purports to discuss new research from Johns Hopkins that essentially says that eating healthily and exercising is an effective alternative treatment for cancer than chemotherapy and radiotherapy. To quote:
"AFTER YEARS OF TELLING PEOPLE CHEMOTHERAPY IS THE ONLY WAY TO TRY AND ELIMINATE CANCER, JOHNS HOPKINS IS FINALLY STARTING TO TELL YOU THERE IS AN ALTERNATIVE WAY…"
There then follows a point by point description of why cutting out sugar, milk and meat from your diet and exercising can replace nasty cancer treatments like surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy. 

Now believe me - I hate cancer. Like many of you out there, it has touched my life on a personal level, so much so that I actually moved fields while studying for my PhD to enter into the field of cancer genetics to try and help find a solution. And that is why articles like this really piss me off.

To be clear - this article IS A HOAX.

It is not just wrong advice. It is dangerous advice. Your first point of call, and the advice that should trump all others, is that from a medical professional. However, it is inevitably an incredibly difficult time, and of course anything that you can do to help is obviously encouraged. Complementary treatments are used by many people. But these should always be in addition to and never instead of medical treatment. 

One thing to remember is that a lot of research and testing has gone into chemotherapy drugs and the like, whereas alternative medicines have essentially zero regulation, and sometimes no credible research either. Research that is published in some back-woods journal that nobody has heard of might cut it in a relatively underfunded field like sports science, but I'm afraid that in this field any radical conclusions had better be based on research in a high impact journal.

This particular article is based on a hoax email that has been doing the rounds, and Johns Hopkins have released a press release specifically to combat the false claims made in this article. This rebuttal is very clear and succinct, so if you want a full run-down on everything that is wrong with this article (almost every single one of the "facts" is incorrect), then please read it. 

But I found myself making my own list of corrections for one of my friends when he was genuinely interested to find out what was wrong. I have copied and pasted my post below, which was written in haste to just cover some of the basic points to clearly show why you should not trust this information. There are probably some errors here, but I haven't bothered to correct it because I feel like there is a good lesson to be learnt here:

Please do not take medical advice from a blog!!!

First of all their interpretation of what a cancer cell is is very naive. Cells show mutations all the time, due to mistakes in the DNA replication machinery, or brought on by environmental factors like UV radiation, smoking, etc. But the body has an amazing system in place to check for errors and either correct them or remove them. If something happens that prevents these checkpoints from working correctly, cells can grow unchecked which leads to tumours. What we call "cancer" typically is a tumour which has also developed the ability to spread to other sites in the body by a process known as metastasis, where cells break away into the blood stream or lymphatic system. This is why it is so difficult to fight because they are not localised to one place, so chemotherapy is used to attack the cells throughout the blood/lymph system. So this idea that "cancer cells occur 6-10 times in your life" is erroneous. Mutations occur millions of times but generally don't do anything. This article follows the very basic idea that cancer is a thing. Cancer is a catch-all term for many, many diseases that result in uncontrolled proliferation of cells. 


The immune system is not really involved in fighting cancer - it's nothing to do with how strong it is. Cancer cells are not detected by the immune system because they are not invading cells. That's kind of the point - they bypass the intrinsic checkpoints so the body can't detect that there is a problem. 

Whilst diet is a risk factor for cancer, and obviously eating healthily is a good idea, there's no evidence that "when a person has cancer it indicates multiple nutritional deficiencies". 

Whilst it's true that chemo and radiotherapy can also damage healthy cells (that's why you feel terrible and have issues like hair falling out), they are actually incredibly specific in their action. But improving recognition of the malignant cells in one of many areas of research in the field. 

I've never heard of surgery causing cancer to spread - I believe that this is entirely untrue. 

The idea that cancer cells respond in any way to the foods that you eat is ridiculous. What you eat can act as a risk factor to whether you get cancer in the first place, but the micro-environment of the cells themselves is not dependent on how much sugar you put into your body. 

Addendum: Whilst the idea of generally eating healthier having an effect on the micro-environment for cancer growth (as seems to be the point of the email) is largely bunk, a few studies that do show how diet can be used as effective cancer treatments have been brought to my attention by Andrew Jordan in the comments below. Whilst these are much more extreme dietary changes than simply not eating cakes, they are very interesting. A couple of examples are the works of Valter Longo et al who show that fasting can lead to cellular changes that protect them from the damaging effects of chemotherapy, and the work of Adrienne Scheck et al who show that switching to a ketogenic diet (almost cutting out carbs entirely and increasing fat intake so that ketones are utilised instead) can be used to treat some neurological conditions (e.g. epilepsy and brain cancers) since ketones are not metabolised as efficiently as carbs in the aberrant cells. 

Cancer does not "feed on mucus". 

It's "Johns Hopkins", not John Hopkins. 

It's "dimensions" not dimmentions. 

Again, exercise is good for you, but not because it makes you breathe more. You can breathe as much as you like but you're not going to create an oxygenated environment that will prevent growth of cancer cells. 

Believe me, I hate cancer as much as the next person, and it was my mother being diagnosed with breast cancer that made me focus my research on cancer research. I now work in one of the top epigenetics labs in the world trying to do what I can to help in the fight against cancer. But articles like this are not just unhelpful, they are downright dangerous. This is very very bad advice, that will unfortunately be taken at face value by some people.