Friday, 2 January 2015

The Montane Spine Race 2015...'What's the worst that could happen ?' The Mental Approach

So it's just over a week to go until the 4th running of The Montane Spine Race.

This year it's bigger than ever with more competitors in both classes, a greater following in the running / adventure world and social media, and the presence of Summit Fever, who will be making the Official Montane Spine Race adventure film.

All exciting stuff !

For me I'll be on the Start line for a 4th time, but this time it will be the 'Challenger' Start line.
The reasons:
My darling wife Victoria has picked up the pieces of me for the last 3 years at the Finish line of the Spine race, taken me to hospital when needed, and missed out on her annual work Ceilidh dance and party. So I owe it to her to be in a fit condition to attend and dance.
I've completed The Spine Race 3 times, I've seen the event from a competitors perspective, and I want to bring that experience into The Spine Race Support Team.

But I still want to run ! So Challenger for me, then quick snooze at Hawes and back up to help out.

There has been a lot of information given out on blogs and social media about equipment, navigation, pace, tactics etc etc etc.
But from what I've witnessed on the race the BIGGEST factor is what is going on in your head...
It's the Mental side of things.

I've seen runners of all abilities and backgrounds, 'firm' race favourites, strong fast runners, yet unable to deal with the mental side of the event.

So here is my little insight into my mental state with regards to how I've completed the 268 mile
Spine Race 3 times......


Life is basically one big risk assessment. We make decisions minute by minute, hour by hour every day on the risks around us, and how we prioritise and deal with them. Some of us are more adept at this than others.

In my working career I have been involved in Commercial diving, instructing diving, cave/mine diving, ice diving etc. This has exposed me to substantial hazards and risk, and I have developed the ability to stay focussed, calm and to make right decisions.
Along with commercial diving activities I currently design, develop and deliver bespoke emergency training for military, search & rescue and civilian aircrews - basically how to escape from a ditching / crashing aircraft, and underwater escape. So in other words, the absolute worst case scenario.
So what does this have to do with The Montane Spine Race ?
In diving activities, and on some of  The Spine races, I am often heard to say, albeit sometimes jokingly...
 'What's the worst that could happen?'
By this I mean, realistically what is the worst ?
'Death' is the answer, it can't get any worse than that. So if I'm breathing that's a good thing, I'm still alive !
This really comes from training and twitchy moments, in mine and ice diving....

On a training dive a number of years ago, in a flooded Scottish mine system, the dive team member in front of me momentarily lost buoyancy control, kicked up a load of silt and detached the line, ( the line being the only guide back to the entrance of the mine system).
So there I was static, hovering above the floor of a fully flooded mine shaft, in 5 degrees Celsius of water. I could not see my hand in front of my face, the umbilical HID (High Intensity Discharge) torch I had on my wrist, one of 4 torches, could not cut through the Bovril like consistency of the water. My right leg was stuck, the loose 3mm line had enveloped my right leg and trapped me. I was now on my tod. The two other divers were ahead of me somewhere in the system. However I realised that within a few minutes they would become aware I was not with them (unless the team member ahead of me had had a panic attack and the other diver was dealing with that). Basically I was on my own.
So this is the conversation I had with myself.... 
'Am I still breathing?'
'Yes. Good I still have air. I'm not dead yet.'
'How much air?'
'Still well within the rule of thirds' (1/3rd gas in, 1/3rd gas out, 1/3rd emergency gas supply for other team member).
'Time is on my side for now.'
'Is my breathing under control?'
'Yes, it just keeps getting better!'
'Can I move forward?'
'Can I reverse?'
'Can I move upwards?'
'Am I stuck?'
'Is my breathing under control?'
'Do I have visibility?'
'Can I feel the line on my right leg with my gloved hand?'  I slide my hand down my right leg carefully feeling for where the line has trapped me.
Yes I've found it.
'It just keeps getting better!'
I pull the line gently outwards to try to open it away from my leg, it works.
I move forward but I'm still stuck.
'Can I cut the line ?. Absolutely not ! Probable death for me and the other two.'
'Do I have plenty of gas?'
'Yes, good'
I had three more attempts, carefully pulling the line, twisting my right fin and finally I cleared the entangled loose line.
I was then met by the two other divers, who'd retraced the route, one looking suitably chastened behind his face mask. We then followed the complete line and made a safe exit.
From this, what I'm saying to Spine race competitors is...
When you're mentally and physically tired, when your body is hurting, ask yourself, "how bad is it really?" before you throw in the towel.
Are you still breathing? Yes? Well, good. Can you move forward? Yes? So, you can move, you can generate heat, you can keep moving forward to the finish, the next checkpoint, your support, the next tea shop etc.
Can I feed myself? Yes? Good. That means you can keep fuelled, stay alive, keep moving forward, keep mentally focussed and be able to make appropriate decisions.

When I first toed the start line of the Spine Race in 2012 I knew at that point I would finish. There was no question, mentally, of not finishing the race.
In the months leading up to the race I had already developed clear pictures in my mind of finishing the Spine race. I had images of me crossing the finish and running to meet my wife Vicky. I had images of friends, family and work colleagues congratulating me on completing the 268 mile race.
Visualisation is a key element in successfully completing any challenge.
In 2012 I was also doing the Spine race in aid of Help for Heroes. My paltry few days of suffering was nothing compared to what these war heroes have to face, so that was a great motivator.
2012 was a tough year, it was The Spine race 1st edition, never tried before.
A few forums felt completing the full Pennine Way in winter within seven days was impossible. A small group of competitors set off from Edale, into the relative unknown, seventeen in total.  There was no Checkpoint 1.5, it was a full slog from CP1 to CP2, we also went into Horton that 1st year - there was no shortcut from Pen-Y-Ghent to Hawes. Eventually just three of us, Steve Thompson, Mark Caldwell and myself crossed the finish line - all inside seven days. I would say that mental strength got all three of us over the finish line. Being able to stay focussed, respond to situations, make the right judgements and decisions, along with determination and stubbornness was the key to success.

After completing the Spine race 2012 I came back and did it again in 2013. This was mentally tougher. I'd already done it, I also knew how battered I was likely to be by the finish, yet the overwhelming adventure and camaraderie brought me back to it.
2014 was the toughest finish for me, mainly due to going over my right ankle on Day 1. So I had to make a decision, bow out knowing I'd already done it twice or deal with the pain and get stuck into another great Spine race. Easy choice, man-up, suck up the pain, treat it as normal, dis-own my sore ankle and get on with it, and enjoy another great adventure.
That's another mental barrier - pain management. How do you deal with it?
Pain is your brain informing you that there is some physical damage and you should pay heed to it.
I look at pain this way; If I carry on will I suffer long term damage or ill health ? Will this then impact on my life, family, work, responsibilities etc ? If not, then I embrace the pain.

How I manage pain is not for everyone, I am certainly not advising you in anyway.
I suffered very bad feet in 2012, I was given excellent care by the Spine race medical team, Exile Medics, but there was still substantial pain. However I realised that this was only short term pain, the sooner I get to the finish the sooner it will be over. I treated the pain as normal, I mentally disowned my feet and therefore could not feel any pain once up and running.  In 2014 I used the same tactic for my right ankle, and made it across the finish line for a third time.
Another mental tactic I use is breaking the race into small sections, don't think of the whole, think only of the parts, sometimes down to the next 100 metres depending on how you're feeling. Deal with the here and now, not what's coming miles up the route. Reward yourself for small triumphs, being able to get up the next hill, successfully navigating your way to the next summit on Crossfell in zero viz, have a jelly baby, kit kat etc.
Keep eating, religiously. I eat every 15 to 20 minutes on The Spine race. Eating keeps me mentally focused, keeps the furnace inside me burning, keeps me moving and prevents me getting cold. Because I'm fuelled, my mind is clear, I can respond to situations and make appropriate decisions.

Mentally, camaraderie can be good and bad. Good in the sense that a friendly soul travelling some of the way with you can give you a boost, make the miles disappear, and it's someone to share the adventure and experience with.

This is good when you are of an even match in pace and abilities.
The problems can arise when another competitor is going slower. This will in turn slow you down, leaving you more susceptible to potential hypothermia.  Your focus on someone else can lead to you not adequately managing yourself, which could lead to your own demise in the race. This is especially true in the later stages of the Spine race, when your body is already suffering the effects of a multi-day race.
This is why it is important to be self reliant and able to stay mentally focussed on the task in hand.
Another problem a lot of competitors have on The Spine race is making a mistake and beating themselves up over it. Accept it, you will make mistakes, you'll cock up your navigation, you'll follow someone up the wrong path, you'll leave something behind in a checkpoint, etc..
Shit happens, deal with it, it's not the end of the world, go back to the earlier points...
'Am I still breathing?
'Can I still move forward ?'
Well all good then.
One last thing...
Above all else..
YOU signed up for this. You made a conscious decision to take part. You have put in the training hours.
It's a great adventure, go out there and embrace The Spine race, immerse yourself in the environment and enjoy the camaraderie.
You are more than capable of crossing that Finish line, believe in yourself.
Have fun and I'll see you on Saturday 10th January 2015.
Pictures taken by:
John Bamber
Scott Gilmour
Stu Westfield
Richard Lendon
Peter Lewis




1 comment:

  1. Good advice (and a good read as well!) from the person best qualified to give it!

    Well done Gary, see you at Edale.