The 2017 Montane Spine Race kicks off this Sunday 15 January, and current conditions and the ongoing weather forecast suggest that his could be the toughest yet running of the self-styled 'Britain's Most Brutal Race'.
A quick recap if you haven't come across the Spine before. Essentially it's a winter race along the course of the 268-mile Pennine Way which follows the spine - geddit - of England from Edale in the Peak District to Kirk Yetholm in the Scottish borders.
From 11 entrants in 2012 to 260 this year...
The race was first run in 2012 when there were just 11 competitors with only three finishing the event and has grown year on year into its current incarnation where 260 competitors are scheduled to take part across three different events with main sponsorship from outdoors brand Montane.
In addition to the main Spine Race which starts on Sunday morning, there are also shorter Spine Challenger events covering the 108 miles between Edale and Hawes in the Yorkshire Dales. One is a general entry event just like big brother, the other, the Spine MRT Challenge is restricted to members of mountain rescue teams.
When Does It Start?
This year, the shorter Spine Challenger events are set to start on Saturday 14 January with the standard race starting at 08.00 and the MRT Challenger some four hours later at 12.00.
The main Spine Race is scheduled to start at 08.00 on Sunday 15 January. The good news is that all racers are equipped with a GPS Tracker and, once the event has started, you can follow their progress live at live.thespinerace.com/spinerace17/ - be warned though, it can become addictive...
Why Is The Spine Race So Tough?
Let's face it, racing up the length of the Pennine Way is going to be hard in any conditions, but in winter things can be particularly brutal. Potential hazards include blizzards, snow drifts, rain and mud underfoot, fog, wind and anything else winter can throw at you.
Add in cumulative fatigue, extreme sleep deprivation, injury potential, long hours of darkness and, despite the route being a mostly way-marked trail, it's going to be as tough as it gets. Just finishing is an amazing achievement, let alone winning.
'The Spine Race was born not just to test ultra-racing skills, but expedition skills. We wanted to take things to a whole new level'
There are five manned checkpoints en route where competitors can rest-up, resupply from pre-packed duffles and get medical attention, but in between those, they have to be self-sufficient.
Racers carry between 5 and 10kg of mandatory equipment including bivi kit, stove and other survival gear, all carefully chosen for a balance of functionality and lightness.
Savvy racers will adapt their kit choice to cope with the savage conditions, some, for example will stash oversized shoes their re-supply duffles to cope with their feet swelling during the race.
Some competitors will team up with others along the route, but the real hardcore racers are confident and competent enough to go it alone even at night in the worst possible conditions.
There is a safety net of sorts. The event safety team assesses conditions and, in some circumstances will hold competitors back until they improve, modify cut-offs for safety reasons or, if necessary, divert the race.
In a nut-shell, say the organisers, 'the race was born not just to test ultra-racing skills, but expedition skills. We wanted to take things to a whole new level. All the usual rules go out of the window and it comes down to survival. The Montane Spine Race is unique'.
Who To Watch Out For?
Two obvious names for your tracker viewing pleasure are Czeck ultra specialist Pavel Paloncy who has completed the race in 2014, 2015 and 2016 winning the first two and narrowly finishing runner-up last year.
Also back is the 2016 winner, Irishman Eoin Keith, who set a record-breaking time of 95 hours and 17 minutes in the process. The women's record of 153 hours and 17 minutes was set in 2014 by Debbie Brupbacher.
The Challenge marks both date from 2014, 29 hours and 1 minute men's by Marcus Scotty and 30 hours and 18 minutes for the women's race by Beth Pascall. The MRT record set last year is 32 hours and 10 minutes by occasional Outdoors Magic contributor Tim Budd. Women's time for the MRT Challenge 47 hours and 30 minutes by Nicky Tour.
Good luck to everyone taking part, there's a nice dusting of snow here in the Peak District!