Friday, 15 January 2016

Support Crew: The Spine MRT Challenge

Tim approaching Horton-in-Ribblesdale
having come over Pen y Ghent (in background)
and with 'just' 26km to go
I'm sure many of you are aware that my other half, Tim, has just run the The Spine Mountain Rescue Team Challenge to raise awareness for Glossop Mountain Rescue Team. The challenge is 108 miles along the Pennine Way from Edale to Hawes, starting at 7am on Saturday 9th January 2016. Donations are still being accepted so if after reading this you're compelled to put a few quid in the pot - thank you. Everyone's generosity is most appreciated by the team who are all 100% volunteers and receive no payment or help funding their 24/7/365 work.

So if Tim was running the challenge, what was my role? Well, I was the support crew. Me and our van loaded with pretty much all the kit Tim owns and enough food to supply many runners, followed and met up with Tim at (I think) 11 road crossings. I won't bore you with the finer details of where and when, Tim has a much better account of the whole thing from his perspective over on TestedToDestruction.

I did however learn a lot over the weekend. The main one being not to underestimate how hard sleep deprivation affects you, and for how long. I was grabbing the odd 10/15mins of shut eye where I could, but never managed to get a significant chunk of sleep. It took me until about yesterday (Thursday) following the race to just about feel normal.

The only time I got a decent chunk of sleep was when I got stuck in Malham at 5.30am because of the snow... frustrating as I really wanted to get to the next meeting point and sleep there before Tim started up Fountains Fell. But, the snow preventing me from driving was also a relief - I could lay my head on a pillow and zip up the sleeping bag. Sleep did not however come easy as I was feeling guilt being inside in relative warmth while Tim was battling the harsh elements outside, worrying if he was safe, and also keeping one eye on the tracker to ensure he was moving and therefore should be safe. I set multiple alarms so I wouldn't still be snuggled up at midday, and was driving out of Malham at first light.

that porridge tasted amazing in the van at Malham,
waiting for the gritters salt to defrost the roads
The key to being support for a runner is firstly to look after yourself. You are no good if you are hungry, wet or cold. The whole lack of sleep thing took me by surprise, and looking back I should have done a little less socialising with other supporters or mountain rescue chaps at the road crossings and made myself close my eyes. You live and learn though! However, having a few friendly faces to spend some time with while waiting at road crossings was brilliant - Jacquie and Jason at the Isle of Sky road took my mind off what was to come over the next 30-odd hours wonderfully. And the Glossop Mountain Rescue Team members at Cowling were entertaining as always as we waiting in the torrential rain and darkness by the roadside.

When your runner approaches a meet point you need to be ready to provide whatever they need....and you need to predict what those things may be. Some of the uncertainty of this is removed by chatting through the racing and nutrition strategy before, and checking the weather carefully to ensure additional layers or changes of clothes are close to hand.

One of the major challenges I faced was drying kit out, especially Tim's gloves. There was one point where I was literally sitting in the van in a t-shirt, sweating from the heaters being on full blast with newspaper stuffed gloves sitting on top of the dashboard heaters. The back of the van was like a laundry with things pegged up and draped over anything and everything. Thankfully Tim owns plenty of spare kit - base layers and buffs especially. The glove situation was more critical with (I think) only 3 main pairs to be worn or dried out. No-one could have predicted the incredible amounts of water that fell out of the sky. Every time I got out of the van I got drenched. I went through 2 sets of waterproofs and developed a system of drying them off with a towel as I jumped in the van, then finding somewhere to hang the towel!

food, drink and (out of sight) clothes ready to grab
Vehicle choice - I keep saying now I'll never support again without a camper van. And one with a toilet. With the volume of rain falling I reckon I spent several hours inside the van just holding on...waiting for a slight break in the downpour to nip out and go to the loo. Most of the road crossings are isolated and far from an indoor toilet and even with stops at places on the driving sections, you can't predict when you need to go!

Our van is great if the weather isn't horrendous. Getting from the drivers seat to the back has to be done outside - there's no way to climb over the seats. I did wonder at times if the car would have been a better choice. But to have a camper with easy access, one you can brew up in without fear of gassing yourself because you can't open the door or windows otherwise you'll drench the inside with floods of rain time!

Road out of Malham at 8am Sunday morning
Whatever vehicle you do choose, if the event is in winter or if winter weather is a possibility then winter tyres are an absolute must. We have them on our van and I seriously reckon they saved me on the flooded roads (there's still plenty of floods around the Gargrave area) and especially on the road from Malham Tarn back down past the cove to the village in the 2" of snow I had to scarily contend with. If winter weather is likely, know how to drive in it. I had to engine break all the way down that road, cornering on the steep twisty road too every ounce of concentration to take the best lines (motorbike training coming in very handy there). It might sound like I was reckless going up the road in the first place but it was only raining lightly as I left Tim on the edge of the village and the last forecast I'd seen only a few hours prior hadn't shown snow coming. Within 20mins there was 2" on the floor and as Tim's blog explains, that was soon over a foot deep.

Driving routes - I knew quite a lot of the roads and routes I'd be driving but not all. I spent a bit of time at one early meeting point to write out clear driving directions for the dark overnight sections. This was incredibly useful as my brain fogged with the lack of sleep and driving stints were powered with shots of espresso. I also used the satmap thing on my phone; this proved so vital on the dark tiny lanes after I left Cowling, all the way up to Malham. Signal was a bit dodgy at times but I didn't make any nav errors thankfully. It was almost comforting to have a 'voice' speak to me, directing me to 'turn left in 300m'....for the left turn road to appear which would otherwise have easily been missed in the now familiar torrential downpours.

Hailstones like massive marbles on the
Horton-in-Ribblesdale to Hawes section
Tracker - this race is one of many that uses the Open Tracking gps trackers. What an amazing bit of kit. Tim basically carries a small device on his rucksack which sends a signal and all us armchair followers see his 'dot' move along the map. It isn't without fault - lack of signal and slow loading on my mobile phone was frustrating - but it really meant I knew (most of the time) when he was closing in on meet points. Vital to get the kettle on, me togged up in waterproofs and on the dark sections I could set the powerful torch on strobe mode so he'd know exactly where I was as he approached. If you're planning to do any long challenge then get a tracker - vital for support crew in my opinion. Open Tracking hire them out at minimal cost.

Back up plans - we'd discussed the what-ifs around whether I could reach various points and how Tim may need to be self-sufficient should I not be parked where we'd planned. Absolutely essential to go over various scenarios. Imagine if he'd have to pull out because of a puncture on the van that meant his food/clothes weren't delivered to him on time. Tim carried enough food and gear to do the whole thing without me were it necessary. No-one however could predict the volume of rain that meant the glove changes would literally save him and ensure he completed the race.

So what would I do differently? 

  • Campervan with toilet and winter tyres. Anything overnight requires a campervan. 
  • Sleep more.
  • Probably eat better myself. I wasn't hungry and had enough to eat, but a hot meal on Saturday evening would have been much better than constant snacking.
  • Book a room at the end of the challenge and stay over? The drive home was slow because I was so tired. It was however a relief to be looking after Tim in our own home. I'm not sure the journey home the following day would have been any better for him.
  • Have more *insert favorite food of the runners choice* (in Tim's case, tangfastics). We had loads, and loads of other foods Tim thought he would eat. But on long journeys such as he did you get to have one bit of food that worked...we had plenty of cold pizza which he was stomaching well but I was concerned the tangfastics would run out. All unpredictable as you never know what the runner is going to favour, so maybe knowing where you can buy certain things, or indeed where the nearest shops are on route and when they're open would be a good bit of info to have to hand.
  • Perhaps have two people support...then the whole lack of sleep thing can be removed and you can work in shifts. You'd also have company - some of the places I stopped were very isolated and while I didn't feel threatened, it would have helped the hours pass more pleasantly with someone to chat to.

Would I be support crew again?
1st prize in the Spine MRT Challenger category,
4th overall in the race, and he completed the
108 miles virtually non-stop in 32hrs 10mins
I'm awesomely proud of my bloke. 
Absolutely. In fact I'm already signed up for some of the mountain rescue chaps that are registering for this one next year! There is something extremely rewarding about ensuring a competitors needs are tended to. I've supported Tim and friends on a few long challenges previously, and also for some of my personal training clients. Being there for them with food, water, clothes etc gives me a buzz. I know what it feels like on a long run to see a friendly face and have a bit of nourishment thrown your way. It's priceless, and it makes me smile.

Don't forget you can still donate to Glossop Mountain Rescue Team - here's a link to their JustGiving page.