I didn't make it all the way to Kirk Yetholm – but that wasn't the fault of my kit, much of which I tested over multiple weekends ahead of the race.
Before running in an event like this I always trawl race reports and blogs looking for tips on what worked for previous competitors, so with that in mind, here's what I took in terms of basic running clothes, warm gear, a head torch, GPS, tent, sleeping bag, roll mat, cooking system, crampons, rucksack and footwear …
Layering is key for a winter race. For my base running layer I wore CompressSport compression trail shorts, calf-guards and trail t-shirt to minimise chafing (a sore point for some – one runner was rubbed so raw that he was driven straight from the finish line to accident and emergency).
On top, an X-Bionic Energizer Mk2 long-sleeved shirt did a good job wicking away moisture and was warm enough, so that I only needed to wear a windshell (Inov8 Race Elite 105) over that during daylight.
While a few brave Spiners opted for shorts, I went for Montane Trail tights, which were comfortable in most conditions. I switched to X-Bionic Energizer Mk2 leggings at night when the temperature dropped.
The wet and windy weather – and 16 hours of darkness – meant that I ran much of the race wearing full waterproofs as a third/fourth layer. There's plenty of choice on the market, but OMM's Kamleika jacket and trousers have served me well.
Temperatures dropped well below zero on the first night, so I added a Montane Powerstretch Pro pullover under my waterproof jacket as a fifth top layer.
I'd heard of past Spine racers wearing six or seven layers towards the end of the event, so I carried a Montane Fireball smock in case I needed to stop in the open or found myself moving so slowly that hypothermia became a concern. Being synthetic the lightweight Primaloft filling stays warm when wet – a necessity in Britain.
A pair of Montane Prism Primaloft insulated trousers gave me the confidence to cope with the worst weather Cross Fell and the Cheviots could throw at me.
Race organisers recommend carrying mitts, as they are warmer than gloves. Montane's Resolute mitts were toasty whatever the weather, and lobster-claw inners (pictured left) mean it's possible to fiddle with rucksack straps, GPS units or other gear without baring your skin.
For a spare base layer I carried Lowe Alpine's DryFlo long-sleeved top and leggings. They're designed more for walking than running – but they're a lot cheaper than a lot of technical running gear, and I figured that by day three I wouldn't be running much anyway.
With up to 16 hours a day spent racing in the dark, a powerful but long-lasting head torch is essential for the Spine. I swapped my Petzl Nao (super-bright with up to 315 lumens – but with too short a battery life), for a Petzl Myo RXP on the recommendation of experienced past Spiners. The Myo offers a range of constant settings up to 140 lumens (with a 205 lumen boost button), takes AA lithium batteries (they're lighter than alkaline batteries and perform better in cold conditions), and lasts far longer than the Nao. I raced 20 hours in the dark on one and a half sets of batteries.
For an emergency light I carried a Petzl eLITE. It's about half the size of a golfball and weighs just 27g. I wouldn't want to try to navigate off technical terrain with this – but it's just the job while you replace the batteries in your main head torch.
A GPS unit is compulsory for the Spine Race and Challenger. An experienced polar racer recommended the Garmin series 62 GPS to me because it's sturdy, and large buttons mean you can operate it without taking off your gloves. The 62's big antenna made it far more accurate at pinpointing my position than I was used to getting with a GPS watch or a smartphone – and the downloadable route provided by race organisers meant I got a reassuring beep every time I passed a waypoint. With 1:50,000 OS mapping I never had to stop to try to work out where I was – even at night – and the lithium batteries lasted 24 hours at a time.
Of course, GPSs can go wrong – so the compulsory kit list also includes maps and a compass. The Harvey's 1:40,000 series covers the whole Pennine Way in three maps (rather than eight OS maps). I also printed off a few potential troublespots in 1:25,000 from Bing, which offers completely free OS mapping in 1:25,000 and 1:50,000 (as well as London A to Z maps).
You can sleep at the five Spine Race checkpoints. But because the first one (Hebden Bridge) comes after 45 miles, which you cover at your fastest on fresh legs, and the second one is another 60 miles away at Hawes, many runners try to even out the first two days by camping or bivvying out somewhere between the two.
I never used my Force Ten Helium Carbon 100 tent in anger during the race – being a metropolitan Guardian softie I opted for a motorhome – but it was super-light and always gave me a comfortable night's sleep, whether it was for wild camping in the autumn or winter recce weekends.
With carbon fibre poles, lightweight nylon and titanium pegs (I replaced these with heavier duty rock pegs fearing frozen ground), it weighs in at a mere 920g.
Spiners can leave a kitbag with race organisers, who move it up the checkpoints for you as you progress. If you swap your tent into your kitbag to save weight, you need to carry a bivvy bag.
There's a limit to how much new gear you can get – so I opted for a Marmot Plasma 40 goose down sleeping bag (which I'm planning to use on the Gobi March in China later this year). The Plasma 40 is comfort-rated to 4C – so I supplemented that with a silk liner, which gave me the extra 5-10C I needed to bring the bag within race rules.
Down bags are a lot lighter than synthetics – but lose their insulating capabilities when wet. The Plasma 40 is lined with Pertex Quantum fabric, though, which keeps the down dry in damp conditions. The goose down filling means it weighs in at 570g and packs down to about the size of a large grapefruit – that's half the weight and size of what many other runners were carrying.
Therm-a-rest's NeoAir XLite inflatable sleeping mat is ultra-light at 350g – this compares with 500g-600g for a standard inflatable mat. It also packs to the size of a water bottle – a packed XLite is pictured right, with a standard Prolite mat packed on the left. Thermarest also make a NeoAir XTherm winter mat, which is warmer, tougher and a bit heavier - but I was keen to save weight.
Stove and pan
A great tip from three-time Spine finisher Gary Morrison: a compact gas stove, such as this Vango model, can be carried in its plastic case (to stop sharp edges ripping fabric). Then an Esbit titanium 750ml pot, or similar, can fit a 100ml four-season gas canister, and a few sachets of coffee/hot chocolate/sugar, inside. Some racers burn off half the gas to save further weight – but you might regret that if you get stuck.
I wish I had these Hillsound ultra trail crampons on the Polar Circle marathon a few years back. They might weigh more than Yaktrax – but the grip is many times better.
I squeezed that lot into an OMM Classic 25 rucksack, which I like because I find it sits snugly on my back, and its two side pockets fit 5-600ml water bottles – my hydration system of choice.
An OMM waistpouch gave me another 3 litres of storage for GPS, spare batteries, a head torch, compass and snacks – and allowed access to these without the need to stop and take off the rucksack.
A top tip from ultrarunner Andy Mouncey saw me fitting well-cushioned Superfeet footbeds inside my fast, grippy Inov 8 Roclite 315s – giving my feet better protection in my trail ultra shoes of choice.
For day two (and beyond, I'd hoped …) I switched to my other stalwarts: a pair of Salomon XA Pro 3D Ultra 2s – one size too big, of course, to cope with my swelling feet.
Keeping your feet as dry as possible is one of the keys to success on a race like the Spine – and at the pre-race briefings, the medical team warned that trench foot was not just possible, but likely.
Rather than run in Goretex shoes, I followed the advice of a few experienced Spiners and combined shoes which "flushed through" nicely, with waterproof socks. The combination of waterproof Seal Skinzs over Injinji toe socks worked brilliantly for me – although I spoke to a few runners who complained it hadn't worked for them – so I'd try it first before you use it in a race.