With the Spine Race sadly not going ahead next month as planned, and many using the start of a New Year to set new goals and challenges, we caught up with Montane Athlete Debbie Martin-Consani (2nd female 2020) to find out how she prepares for such a brutal undertaking:
What is it about the spine that made you want to do it?
Fear! The race terrified me. The fear of the unknown, the fear of
what was going to be thrown at me. The
fear of failure. It excited and petrified
me in equal measures. There’s no
challenge when success is inevitable.
I’m only motivated when I’m pushed outside my comfort zone.
How would you
describe the transition from ‘ordinary’ ultras into the spine, and how did you
I’ve been running ultras since 2008 and ever event – good or bad – I’ve learned a little bit more about myself and how to handle various situations. Resilience is something that has to be learned on the job.
Can you really TRULY prepare for a race like this?
You can prepare for how you handle the things thrown at you. As for what is thrown at you, no you can’t prepare for that. The great British winter can give you everything and anything. Last year, we had Storm Brendan, which hit on day two. Nobody wants to be up a hill in 80mph winds and it’s not a situation you’d put yourself in for ‘training’. Plus you can’t prepare for how you're handle situations when you’re sleep-deprived, exhausted and hallucinating.
If you had to sum up your spine prep philosophy in 1-3 words what
would they be and why?
Big pack training.
What are the 3 things in your preparation you think you got right?
I tried to get a few days out on the Pennine Way. That was a huge help. Knowing what’s coming up is a huge advantage and takes out some of the mental strain away during the event. The Pennine Way does have a bit of a bad rep, but I would say it’s uniquely challenging.
Training with a weighted pack. Usually, ultra/trail runners focus on fast and light, so it goes against the grain trying to fill your pack with unnecessary kit for training runs. It’s hugely beneficial though as it changes your gait and you need to learn to move up and down hills with additional weight. It was a big shock to my system, but I got used to it – almost. Can’t say I learned to love it though.
I spent an inordinate amount of time and money researching the best kit for all possibly conditions. Reading race reports and reviews. Visit the Spine Race group on Facebook at your peril. You will leave there many £££s lighter every time. I certainly bonded with my post man in the lead up to the event.
Was it difficult getting to a similar level of preparedness this year with all the disruption leading up to it/ do (or did?) you feel as well prepared last year?
My approach was always a bit half-baked, if I’m honest with myself. Unlike other races, the Spine’s unique character is that participants must endure. So really, nothing short of a global pandemic would stop it in its track. It took the view that it was on until it wasn’t. If there was a glimmer of hope that it was on, then I had to prepare to give it my best shot. Last year, I did a lot of weighted pack runs on my commutes to and from the office. Working-from-home meant I didn’t have the same ‘pack time’, but I did the best I could. Fortunately, I live close to the Kilpartick Hills (on the outskirts of Glasgow) which are almost as awful and boggy as the Pennine Way.
What is the main thing (if anything) you got wrong in hindsight –
was it something synonymous to the race or just a one-off problem?
I didn’t get it wrong as such, but the way my race unfolded I arrived in the checkpoints during the day. Daylight is precious when there’s 16 hours of darkness in winter. I’d skip sleep time or waste light faffing about with kit.
Also, like most races, I left things too late before addressing them. Let me gloves get too wet before changing them meant my hands got too cold and struggled to get into my pack. Or leaving it until battery ran out on a head torch and having to change in the dark. Or not eating/drinking enough until I was completely incoherent. I had to have a stern word with myself many time, but with the Montane Spine Race you have to learn on the job too.
What was your kit selection/approach? Multiple kit drops or the
Pack for all eventualities! Assume you’re going to get soaked and muddy, so I had a full change of clothes for all checkpoints. I probably only used about a quarter of what I packed though, but best to have too much than too little. Have a few shoe options and maybe one pair that are wider, not bigger. Feet tend to swell side-ways not in length.
Any standout kit (aside from the star-y leggings)?
the Montane Gecko VP 20+ pack is fantastic! You can tell it’s a firm favourite, as most Spine competitors seemed to use it. I’m not exactly a giant, so often struggle to find a pack that fits and doesn’t move around. Or make noises - I have noise issues. Perfect size for all the kit.
The Montane Fleet Waterproof Jacket was also invaluable It was designed with the Spine in mind and wore it for the majority of the race. Nothing gets through it.
You are renowned for being immensely mentally tough, is there any
particular way you manifest this in races or is it a case of getting to the
start line and seeing how it goes?
I think that’s just the Instagram filtered highlights. I wouldn’t say I’m tough, but I am stubborn and fairly resilient. I don’t race very often, but when I do its races that I really want to do. I focus solely on that race in training, so completion is the most important factor. Experience has taught me to ride out bad patches. Except in the Spine that bad patch could be Tuesday and that’s the best you’re going to feel. During last year’s race, after Storm Brendan everything else seemed pale in comparison. It would a good leveller when things got tough.
You finished 2nd female and 8th overall. What
motivated you to come back for a second helping? Unfinished business? The ‘call
of the wild’?
I’m still trying to work that out. I try not to repeat races, as it’s simply chasing a time or position which doesn’t put fire in my belly. With the Spine though, it’s hard to compare year-from-year as the conditions play such a huge part. We didn’t have much snow/ice, but the mud was quite something. I did say I would like to go back someday, but I didn’t think it would be so soon. Turns out it wasn’t to be that way anyway