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 über 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.
Sleeping Bag: Mountain Equipment Dreamcatcher 500
The sleeping bag had to meet minimum requirements (-20 C extreme rating), and luckily Trevor's fit the bill. I did not anticipate ever getting it out on the course, but would need to use it to bed down at checkpoints. And of course, if there was some sort of emergency I may need it on the course - but luckily that never came up. I never got the chance to test how warm it kept me at -20 C (thank goodness), but when I slept in it at CP1 it was bloody warm. I actually woke up sweating which wasn't ideal. Importantly, it packed down quite small and wasn't too heavy (about 1.2 Kg). It just got stuffed at the bottom of the pack where I didn't have to think about it. One thing is that it got damp on the final night due to the heavy rain, so that by the time I got to sleeping at Hawes it was pretty damp in places. In hindsight, it would have been a good idea to place it inside the bivvy to keep it dry before putting it in the stuff bag. This would also save any faffing if it was needed in an emergency situation.
Roll Mat: Thermarest Prolite
We had to use a roll mat, and once again Trevor came through brilliantly. The Thermarest Prolite is a lightweight (620 g) self-inflating mattress that works well to prevent heat loss when sleeping out in the elements. As it happens, I couldn't tell you how good it was, because I never used it. It just sat in the bottom of my bag out of the way where I wouldn't have to touch it. However, I have been told that it is pretty comfy, and is very easy to set up quickly as it doesn't require any inflating.
Microspikes: Kahtoola Microspikes
Another piece of essential safety kit that never made it out of my bag, these are essentially a set of metal spikes that wrap around your shoes to give extra traction in icy and snowy conditions. The conditions were never severe enough to necessitate putting these on, but I have used them previously when receing a couple of sections of the Bob Graham Round in the winter. They are very sturdy and hold on to the shoe well. I find these to be much sturdier than Yaktrax, but Yaktrax are probably more suited for road and light trail than for more arduous terrain.
Headtorch: Petzl Nao
I usually use the Petzl Tikka 2 head torch, which is lightweight, has pretty good battery life, and throws out enough light to see by. I don't normally like running with too much light, as I like the feeling of having only a small area of the world to focus in during night running. However, navigation-wise, this is not always that helpful, so I decided to have a go at using a brighter torch for this race. I had heard good things about the Petzl Nao, so decided to give it a go. The beauty of this torch is that it is highly customisable. You can plug it into your computer and set up your own programs balancing the power of the two beams (focussed and diffuse) with battery life. I set up three programs - one with a high powered focussed beam, one with a high powered diffuse beam, and one with the lowest power possible that theoretically would last 19 hours. As it happens, this "low power" setting was easily enough to run by, and I had comments on how bright the torch was when I used this setting. You can imagine their surprise when I turned it up to the higher setting and lit up the whole valley. And this setting was still only actually 50 % of the maximum possible power, so I dread to think what it will be like at maximum. I used the torch over 2 nights, and was still going into the following week with no charging. It has a battery pack which can be charged via USB, or you can install batteries as a backup. I will do a full review of this head torch sometime soon I imagine, once I have used it a bit more.
Another item borrowed from Trevor, and another item that sat in the bottom of my bag without being touched. It's quite bulky compared to some stove systems, but I think that given the choice I would still use this one. There are much lighter options available, but the simple all-in-one ease of use would make this a much more viable option if needed in an emergency (which is the only reason to have it really). If you're convinced that you will never use it (which, to be fair, I was in this race) then you might want to go for a lighter version. But otherwise I think that this is a great option.
Eye Protection: Oakley High Definition Optics
I took these as they were part of the essential kit, but never used them. I toyed with putting them on when the freezing rain came on the first day, but figured it would be even harder to see, even with the lightly tinted lenses installed.
GPS: Garmin Oregon 550
This was another cheeky one, this time stolen from Mimi Anderson about 2 days before the race. She kindly loaded it up with all of the maps that I needed, and even put new batteries in for me. What a marvellous lady she is! I only used it a couple of times really, but it was very useful for confirming that I was going the right way on a few occasions. It was only small (about 5x10 cm), weighed less than 200 g with batteries, and fit neatly in one of the little holsters on my shoulder strap for quick and easy access. Unfortunately this model has been discontinued, but any more recent model will have the same basic functions that I used. We were given pre-generated course files for the route, which generally worked well, although sometimes the resolution was pretty low, missing some important twists and turns in the course. But as an emergency backup it worked great. I only turned it on when I needed it to avoid running the batteries down, and it loaded and found the route pretty quickly.
Bivvy: Sol Emergency Bivvy
I was in two minds whether or not to take a tent or a bivvy. Realistically I was not planning on camping out along the route, particularly for the Challenger, so I decided to just use the bivvy and leave the tent at home. The bivvy that I had was just a light emergency one, which probably wouldn't be the best option if I did actually need to camp out on the course. If I was doing the full version I might opt for a more substantial one that would work better as a shelter. As it happens, it never left my pack.
Compass - Yep, it points North. I didn't really need to use the compass, as it was mainly following paths rather than any actual orienteering. But it was best to have a proper orienteering one just in case I needed to do any proper navigation.
Neck Gaiter: A gaiter. For your neck. Useful in very snowy conditions I imagine, although I never used it.
Multi-tool - A small multi-tool with pliers, knife, and a few other attachments. Useful if I had to reshoe a horse along the way I guess.
Whistle - A little very loud metal thing that goes phweeeee! 'Nuff said.
Medical kit - Pretty simple, containing paracetemol, loratadine, loperamide, plasters, some alcohol wipes, and my epilepsy medication.
Waterproof matches: At one point, these were the only part of the required kit that I owned. Difficult to use a stove without them.
I love this jacket. It's incredibly light, so packs down nice and small when I shove it in my pack in races. I tend not to ever actually wear it if I can help it, and it has to be a proper deluge for me to pull the thing out. As it happens, running in the mountains in England in January, that's exactly what we got. I wore the jacket for pretty much the entire race, always using it is my outer-most layer. It has a large front pocket which was good for holding vast quantities of food which saved me having to delve into the bag. Of course, I probably should have been a bit more careful at the end when I put it through the wash - those melted Babybels are never coming out! It's nice and comfortable, but is perhaps not quite as waterproof as other jackets. For the longer version, a more substantial jacket may be preferable, but for me this worked perfectly.
As with the jacket above, these are incredibly light and pack down very small. They're also quite expensive, but you get what you pay for. They pack down to about the size and weight of an apple, which again is useful if you just want them to sit out of the way in your pack. But they're also very good quality when you actually need to stay dry, and I ended up wearing these throughout most of the race (to my great shame).
This was a late decision when I realised that I didn't really have any clothing with any insulation. This was recommended to me by the ever happy to help Martin over at Likeys, and worked a treat. Martin was kind enough to sit and have a long chat with me about what equipment I could and could not get away with for this race, and I'm very thankful to him for his suggestions. As with the Minimus, this jacket is very lightweight for the amount of warmth that you get, and whilst it was again quite expensive I would say that this was probably my best purchase. I wore this under my Minimus jacket at the start when moving slowly helping my friend off Kinder Scout, and then later during the night-time section. I was lovely and toasty warm throughout!
These work well as a warm base layer, and are quite tight if compression is your thing. Whether or not the compression has any benefits to running, they work brilliantly to help prevent chaffing by keeping skin-on-skin contact to a minimum. I still got some problems, ahem, cheek to cheek, but this was likely not helped by the short getting damp from the start of the race. Generally they work brilliantly when running long distances to prevent issues.
This was another last minute buy thanks to Martin, and was a nice warm but thin base layer, with the added benefit of windproof material across the front. The trick to staying warm on this race was layers, so having lightweight layers was a good plan. It was very comfy and fit perfectly, and I had no rubbing or rucking up of the fabric which I have had with other items of clothing.
This was a thicker base layer which I kept in my pack in case of emergencies. It is lovely and warm, despite not being too thick, and fits very nicely. I ended up putting this on on the final night when the rain came, and the layering meant that if anything I was probably far too warm!
Oh man, what have I become?! Tights?! TIGHTS! I hate wearing tights. I run and cycle in shorts whenever I can. Maybe it's due to my extremely hairy legs, but I just get too warm in trousers. I get very funny looks from people at work as I am still wondering around in shorts and a t-shirt in winter. I think it might be my northern blood. However, it was strongly recommended to me by Martin that I might want to consider some warm leggings to avoid dying of hypothermia. Hmph. Fine! So I bought these ones under extreme duress. And God help me; I wore them. I started in shorts, but the heavy snow storm that hit us from the start made me think I should probably wear these to avoid any issues later in the race. I was toasty warm throughout, there was no chaffing, and they generally did the job that you would expect stretchy warm pants to do. But I'll be damned if I'm wearing them again...
I decided to take two pairs of gloves with me, following recommendations from people that ran last year. Martin recommended these for me and they were perfect as a kind of base layer. They fit very nicely, and kept my hands quite warm. They got wet very quickly which was unfortunate, but did a good job of keeping my fingers warm when I put the other pair over the top despite being damp.
I took these to wear as an extra pair in case it got particularly cold over night, and I'm very glad that I did. Even with two pairs on, my hands got cold when I was moving slowly overnight. It didn't help that my base layer gloves had gotten wet early on in the race, but generally I was very comfortable and still maintained good dexterity.
I had originally not planned to wear this, instead relying on a warm merino wool hat to keep my head warm. But when the rain came on the second night, I decided that some form of waterproofing might be useful. I wasn't a fan of the Sherlock Holmes deerstalker style, but it certainly kept my ears nice and warm. One issue is that it was difficult to hear what was going on, and the brim of the hat got in the way of my line of sight. I don't like feeling encumbered like that, so I only used it when the rain was really bad. It was blooming' warm though, and I kept having to take it off to cool down again.
I love these socks, and use them exclusively now. They seem to work great at keeping my feet free from rubbing, and I very rarely get blisters with these (even on some of the more muddy, challenging and long events that I have done). They are only light, but kept my feet perfectly warm even with running through freezing cold water for two days. I changed my socks at CP1 as a treat, and by the end I had absolutely nothing to show other for my troubles other than muddy feet. Very pleased to not have ended up with any kind of blisters after such a technical route.
I normally wear Salomon Speedcross for most of my running (I even use an old pair with no grip left as my road shoe), but decided to have a little change for this race. The Fellraisers are very similar to the Speedcross, but with a lower profile (similar to the Salomon Sense Mantra which I also use) and a more aggressive outsole. The deep tread on this shoe worked perfectly on some of the more slippery sections of the route, and I managed to avoid going over at all (despite a few close calls). The fit is very similar to the Speedcross, so the fact that I did not test them before the race didn't matter too much, and I was generally very impressed with this first outing. I'll do a proper review once I have had a bit more time to test them out fully.