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Tips for Winter Spine racing: What worked (and what didn’t)

Written by Fiona

January 26 2023

I have spoken to a successful participant in the Montane Winter Spine North Challenger to find out her tips for clothing, kit and gadgets.

It was Katy Boocock’s first-time in the event and she was one of 11 women to finish. In addition, 28 men finished the 2023 challenge. Some 30 people retired from the race.

The 160-mile Montane Winter Spine North Challenger, from Hardraw to Kirk Yetholm, is part of a series of races in January on England’s long-distance trail, the Pennine Way.

It also includes the Montane Winter Spine Challenger, the Montane Winter Spine Sprint and the biggie itself, the 268-mile Montane Winter Spine Race.

Read about the winner of the Winter Spine Race.

Damian Hall wins Montane Winter Spine Race 2023.

What Katy thought of the Spine North Challenger

Katy, 59, is very experienced in a wide range of outdoors activities, from orienteering and mountain marathons to mountain biking, skiing and ultra running. She is a brilliant navigator and both an excellent and cheerful team member, as well as being extremely capable at solo pursuits.

Even so, she spent many months planning and training for the Spine North Challenger. She planned long-distance and multi-day hikes and run-hikes in Scotland, making sure to include plenty of rough terrain.

As a result, she described the event as “vey achievable”. She added: “I was not competing to win or to set a fast time, so the aim was to simply keep going and finish before the cut-off times.

“I wanted to enjoy the event and I also wanted to challenge myself. I liked the idea of the extra level of a challenge by doing a long-distance race in winter conditions.

“I wasn’t out of my comfort zone during the race. I had spent time training and I was walking, not running, so it felt manageable. Yes, it’s a very long way but I was as prepared for that as I felt I could be.”

Katy slept for a total of only around four hours over the course of the Spine North Challenger. She finished in 96 hours, which is four full days.

She says: “I knew I would have very little sleep and so I didn’t expect it. I was very tired by the end but I was sure I would be fine. The main concerns were being too slow or going off-route so I wouldn’t make the cut-off times and picking up an injury that would stop me finishing.

“I thought that if I could just keep putting one foot in front of the other and also if I could take in enough food, then I would make it.”

On the day, Katy paired up with her friend Fran Britain. Although they already knew each other, they had not not planned to complete the race together.

Katy says: “We made the decision the night before the challenge that we would stay together if we could. We knew we would enjoy the event more if we had the companionship and support of each other.

“At different times, we were able to help each other. For example, we kept each other right with navigation with our various devices. Fran helped me with accessing some of my food when I couldn’t manage while wearing my gloves.

“I was also there to keep Fran motivated when she started to suffer some injuries. She was amazing the way she kept going despite being in pain.

“It was a much better challenge doing it together.”

While some competitors reported that the race conditions were very tough, Katy thought they were good. She says: “It was cold, very cold sometimes, and snowy, but it was dry and there was no wind when we were doing our challenge.

“The views were stunning at times, especially the sunrises and sunsets, and also the stars. I thought the conditions were great for a long-distance winter race.

“I was prepared for the cold and I was dressed to suit the weather. I was never cold.”

Katy revealed she found the route of the Pennine Way unexpected at times. She says: “I imagined the route to be much more well established and well-trodden. It was this for long sections, but there were parts that were on very rough ground or they skirted around fields without any obvious route.

“I am very used to walking and running on ground without paths but I think I expected that England’s famous walking trail would be more established than any we have in Scotland.

“It was still a rewarding challenge but I was surprised by how rough, or not particularly obvious, it was in places.”

Katy had high praise for the race organisers and volunteers. She says: “It was a fabulously well organised event and the volunteers were excellent. The check points were very good and there was plenty of food and hot drinks to keep us going throughout the race.”

Katy and Fran at the finish.

What Katy wore for the Spine North Challenger

Baselayers: Katy wore a merino wool mesh vest against her skin (similar to this mesh vest from Wiggle), then two long-sleeved baselayers (one from Findra and another Icebreaker).

Jackets: She topped the baselayers with a Buffalo insulated shirt jacket and a Paramo waterproof jacket when needed. When heading over the higher hills, she also wore a Karrimor microfleece with Pertex outer (she has owned this for more than 20 years!).

Legs: Tesco fleeced-lined running tights, OMM waterproof shorts and, when needed, Rab waterproof over-trousers. Katy says: “I chose leg cover that was easy to get up and down so there was no need to undo or tie waistbands. This was helpful when I needed to go to the loo, for example.”

Gloves: Extremities Thinny Touch Gloves (£9 from Amazon or Tiso) at all times. Katy topped these with insulated Buffalo mitts. She says: “The Thinny gloves were excellent because I could use my smartphone while keeping them on.”

Socks and footwear: Katy changed her socks and footwear throughout the challenge. She wore Injinini merino wool toe socks, such as these, as base socks at all times. She changed them for dry socks at each CP.

Stage 1: On top of the base socks, Katy wore Salomon merino socks. Her shoe choice was La Sportiva Blizzards, which have a Gore-Tex waterproof membrane and built-in gaiters. Katy explains: “I wanted trail shoes with grip but also waterproofing. These shoes also have metal studs for the ice and snow.”

Stage 2: Change of base socks, plus Sealskinz waterproof socks, similar to these or Dexshell waterproof running socks. Katy also swapped to inov-8 Roclite Pro G 400 Gore-Tex hiking boots.

She says: “I knew my feet would swell with all the miles, so I planned to have different footwear that was slightly bigger each time I got to a CP. I made sure I kept my feet as dry as possible.”

Stage 3: Dry base socks and 360Dry long waterproof merino socks. Katy swapped to her husband’s Hoka Speedgoat running shoes. She says: “Peter has size nine feet and these are longer than my normal shoes and also the inov-8 boots. Wearing larger shoes also allowed me to add two layers of socks.”

Katy believes she was lucky to escape with “only a few blisters”. She says: “I think I was fortunate to suffer only a few blisters on my feet. I treated these by popping them with a needle and dressing them.

“They were sore but I think it could have been much worse. I knew my feet would swell the longer I was on my feet and that they could get wet, so my strategy was to change my socks and footwear at each checkpoint.”

Headtorch: Katy took a couple of headtorches with her. In the end, she used a Silva headtorch with a rechargeable battery pack (similar to this Silva headtorch) for the full race.

Rucksack: Katy carried all the race kit in an OMM 35l pack. She also had an OMM chest pod, so she had easy access to food, small devices and bits of kit. She says: “The chest pod was brilliant. I wanted to make it easy to get to my food. I knew that if I had to take off the pack and rummage for food, I might not eat so frequently, but I knew I needed to keep on top of the eating.”

Katy prepared lots of small items of food that required only a couple of bites each. She made parkin, stollen, peanut butter balls and cheese and chutney scones. She also packed Babybels and left other food in her CP bags.

One top tip from Katy was that she took an insulated flask filled with hot spiced ginger drink. She says: “When water froze in bottles, I still had a hot drink. This was so good, especially when it was very cold.”

See full required kit list for Winter Spine competitors.

Fran and Katy finish the challenge.

What didn’t work for Katy?

Katy reveals that she was happy with all her preparation and how she planned her clothing and kit. The only fail was her Garmin Fenix watch. She bought a second-hand reconditioned watch. The battery lasted well and the navigation was great to start with but then it suddenly switched to “snap to road”.

Katy says: “The snap to road function meant it was then impossible to use the watch for following the route. I had a hand-held Garmin GPS unit with me, as well as a phone with the route uploaded, plus map and compass, so I still had access to navigation. Fran’s watch was also working well.

“However, it was annoying to have the watch fail just when I needed it. It is much easier following the route from a GPX file on a watch than other devices. The company that sold me the watch took it back and refunded me after the race.”

Other important items included power banks for recharging watches and phones while on the move. There were also charge points at the CPs.

See Spine Race for more details about all the races.

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