Saturday, 31 March 2018

#037 Paleolithic Lamp and the dawn of creativity

Reaching Back In Time

For some time I have been fascinated by the cultural revolution that occurred 6000 years ago, when millenia of hunter gathering was overtaken by new stone age farmers. The Neolithic spawned new ways of thinking and living together. It gave rise to a sophisticated cosmology, the evidence we can still see in standing stones, circles and rock cut pictograms.

But, around 40,000 years ago in the Upper Paleolithic, there was an earlier period of cultural change and transformation...

In a world where metal had yet to be smelted from rock, all tools, clothing and shelter had to be made from wood, antler, bone and stone. Our ancestors' ancient living skills continues to this day in the few hunter gatherer societies remaining on earth; the Hadzape and San are notable in East and Southern Africa, still clinging on to cultures largely unchanged in tens of thousands years. This is despite persecution, marginalisation and poor representation in political circles.

Ray Mears World Of Survival - TV Series
In the UK, ancient living skills have enjoyed a resurgence. Mostly due to the television programmes of Ray Mears, inviting millions of viewers to join him vicariously on Bushcraft journeys, which inspired people to reach out and rediscover ways of life almost lost to us.

The Dawn Of Creativity

In his book The Mind In The Cave, archaeologist David Lewis-Williams, discusses the development of human consciousness and what made our homo-sapiens ancestors decorate caves and rocky outcrops with images of bison, deer, horse and other species. He theorises that human brains' evolved a higher level of consciousness, gaining the ability to conceive abstract concepts such as the future and plan complex and cooperative activities such as hunting. This is what made humans fully modern. It is what differentiated us from other mammals and importantly other homo-species.

It offers an explanation as to why the Neanderthals, with a lower level of cognitive thought, might only be able to conceive of the present and short term future. It certainly fits with Neanderthals' apparent lack of elaborate funerary practice and functional but basic tools. The rise of the homo-sapiens in the upper paleolithic was accompanied by fine microlith tools, burials accompanied by grave goods and most probably, language.

This said, Neanderthals were a successful species, they existed for some 200,000 years and were adapted to their environment. But, in Darwinian terms, competition is a catalyst for change. Competition for resources, such as game, between the Neanderthals and early homo-sapiens could have accelerated the development of a higher level of consciousness and ability. We don't know whether this competition manifested itself in conflict, but we do know that as the range, and culture, of homo-sapiens expanded, the Neanderthal population ebbed away.

Lewis-Williams proposes that this higher consciousness and development of language had to go hand in hand. Such sophisticated concepts such burials with artefacts (indicating belief in some form of after life) and communication of corralling hunting techniques could only be done with the aid of language. Also, why would humans go to such extraordinary lengths as to journey deep into cave systems, far deeper than necessary for shelter, to paint images. A plausible explanation is that these were part of a shamanic, or spiritual experience, only possible in a brain which had evolved to be capable of such thought and abstract ideas.

The Paleolithic Lamp

To create deep cave art, such as that created in Lascaux and Chauvet, people must first have been able to see what they were doing. It's here that the archaeological record can help us. Found in the La Mouthe cave in the Dordogne was a stone lamp. It's a simple thing when viewed with 21st century eyes used to microchips and instant worldwide messaging. However, if we consider the dexterity required to craft the lamp and the ingenuity to visualise the outcome of it containing a burning wick fuelled by animal fat, then this is indeed a remarkable object. Especially so, given that the oldest paleolithic art dates to around 37,000 years ago.

However, on the underside is an etching of a ibex head with exaggerated curving horns. This image would not have been seen when the lamp was in use. Even if we consider is no more than an adornment, that someone thought to embellish the lamp further demonstrates a high level imaginative thought. More evidence of homo-sapiens ability to out-think, out-perform and out-complete the Neanderthals.

Re-Creating The Paleolithic Lamp

I selected a piece of Orcadian sandstone for this project. Firstly because it had already been naturally eroded by the sea to a shape which already offered a convenient hand hold in one corner. Secondly because sandstone is readily shaped and the 'well' would be more easily formed, compared with harder rock.

For the animal fat fuel, I used lard bought from my local village shop.

The wick I selected Soft Rush Juncus effusus. This is a common moorland species of tall rush (to 130cm) which is densely tufted and grows straight up. They form dense stands, the  stems are smooth cylinders that contain a continuous foam-like pith.

It is the pith which is required to make the wick. I took three pieces of different ages, from fresh growth to a dying stem. The outer stem of the greener shoots was much easier to peel back and retain a continuous length of pith. I then set the pith in the lard and smeared some lard on the pith to prime it.

The lit result was very pleasing...


Most often Bushcraft is promoted as a set of skills. In itself, these skills provide a marvellous journey of discovery for the practicioner. What the Paleolithic Lamp experiment demonstrates is that enjoyment can be taken further by imagining not just how, but why our ancestors did what they did.

From here we can reach back in time to find endless possibilities of inspiration...
Link to Ancient Stones Crafted In Hayfield

Stu Westfield
Ranger Expeditions
Hayfield, Peak District

Sunday, 11 March 2018

#036 Legends Assemble

The Belgian Ardennes, a region of rolling hills, rough terrain, ridges and steep sided valleys cut by swift flowing rivers. Much of the area is covered by seemingly impenetrable forest.

For those with an eye on their history books or the landmark television series Band Of Brothers, the Ardennes are steeped in legends. The Belgae tribes were a thorn in the side of Caesar's Roman ambitions, Napoleon III was defeated during the Franco-Prussian war in the nearby Battle Of Sedan and of course the Ardennes winter nearly did for the 101st Airborne in the Battle Of The Bulge.

In modern day Belgium access to the countryside is largely via GR (Grand Randonne), Regional or local Promenade Routes, usually marked with coloured symbols.

With this in mind, Tim de Vriendt and Stef Schuermans, Race Directors of Legends Trails have done a superb job in negotiating local and regional by-laws which would have put off lesser event organisers. They have threaded a 250km course which gives a full flavour of the Ardennes and offers a challenge worthy of the legions which have trod, strived and crawled through its tough terrain.

The Legends Trails, now in its third successful year. Each edition has been different, the weather, the strategies and superb racing stories, from the winners to the endeavors of the Lantern Rouge to beat the cut-off time. Tim and Stef have built a quality race with generous home cooked food, enthusiastic volunteers, a specialist medical team and a dedicated HQ team, organising logistics and taking care of safety matters. Each participant is also equipped with a tracker from Legend's Tracking.

Website: Legends Event Tracking Services

In 2017 we saw the first two British finishers, Ryan Wood and Allan Rumbles. Perhaps it is no coincidence that both are also finishers of The Spine Race. Is the Legends Trails a tougher race than The Spine Challenger? Almost certainly yes. But is it as tough a proposition as the Full Spine. What we can say is that while the distance is shorter, the Ardennes terrain offers little opportunity to settle into a rhythm. It is relentless. If we let the numbers speak, then in 2018 there were 29 finishers from 70 starters.

For 2019 Allan has set up the British Legends Trail Team facebook group. Supported by Tim and Stef, the aim is to share this modern ultra classic with UK Ultra runners.

Facebook Group: British Legends Trails Team

Flights to Brussels from Manchester can be booked in advance from around £40 each way (plus checked in luggage). With a number of options from the airport to the area of the start. Plus there's the additional benefit of you being surrounded by these lovely national treasures...

In the past year I've helped several friends from Belgium and the Netherlands in their race skills training build up to their Spine Challenger and Spine Races. All have found their 'Complete Racer' training very useful in helping them race more efficiently. As the race models are similar, Spine finishers should also carry a useful skills set into The Legends.

2020 will be the 5th anniversary of the Legends Trail. To celebrate this there will be a 500km edition, an event to truly test the mettle of any ultra runner. So be it 2019 or 2020, Legends Assemble!

Legends Trails Website

Stu Westfield
Legends Trails Safety Team Leader

Friday, 26 January 2018

#035 Cheetah Story

"I never knew of a morning in Africa when I woke up and was not happy"
                                                                                             - Earnest Hemmingway

My earliest recollection of a wildlife documentary was a cheetah, filmed in slow motion, as it chased a Thompson's gazelle. Kinetic energy rippled down the flanks of the cat, pads momentarily touching the savanna, flicking up clouds of red dust, tail steering like a rudder as the gazelle jinked left and right, throwing off the momentum of its pursuant.

Over the years, in the course of my work as an expedition leader I have led several expeditions to eastern and southern Africa. During this time there has been a disturbing trend in the worldwide cheetah population and big cats in general.

Cheetah are now extinct in 20 countries where they formerly roamed. By January 2017 there were only 7100 left in the wild, a dramatic reduction of 90% from what there numbers were 100 years ago. Cheetah are classified as vulnerable on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. With the rapidity of de-population this iconic species could be on the brink of irretrievable extinction before science has time to classify it as such.

The last time I saw a cheetah in the wild was in 2008, in Lewa Downs conservancy in Kenya. It was one of my most treasured and special wildlife moments. 

I watched as a coalition of three adult male cheetah harassed a female with sub-adult cub to see of she was in condition to breed. These were the biggest, toughest looking cheetah I had ever seen. They were the famous Lewa brothers, powerful, impressive and confident. An attitude they took to their selection of prey, bringing down unlikely and unheard of species such as ostrich and fully grown zebra. They even had the ability to overpower grown lions.

A year later, wildlife camera man Simon King captured incredible footage of these behaviours for the BBC series 'Life'

(warning: scenes of natural predator and prey behaviour)
Cheetah hunt: BBC 'Life'

The bothers' strength was defined by their coalition. The death of the eldest, after a fight with a pride of lion, sealed their fate. The last of the brothers, seen to be listless as if mourning the loss of his sibling, was confirmed on Monday 30th April 2012 when a surveillance officer found the carcass. Their reign had lasted 14 years, a remarkable tenure. It is of course the natural cycle, but it was none the less a sad day for anyone who had enjoyed their magnificent and larger than life escapades.

Another series made by Simon, was Cheetahs Fast Track To Freedom (2004) told the story of Toki and Sambu, two three month old orphaned cheetah cubs and attempts to raise and habituate them to a wild environment. The documentary shows with heart breaking  clarity just how difficult this is. 
Cheetah Fast Track To Freedom

The follow up programme Tokis Tale (2007) leaves us only partially satisfied that the release to the wild had to be within a fenced (albeit very large) enclosure due to Toki apparently seeking out human company and not faring well in confrontations with other wild cheetah.

The main threats to cheetah come from habitat loss and fragmentation. IUCN state:

Because cheetah occur in low densities, conservation of viable populations requires large scale land management planning; most existing projected areas are not large enough to ensure the long term survival of cheetahs.

Conflict with farmers, especially in southern Africa, leads to cheetah being trapped and shot as vermin for largely perceived threat rather than the relatively little damage they cause. Loss of wild ungulate population will exacerbate this situation as well as depriving cheetah of food in areas where agriculture expansion is encroaching into cheetah home ranges.

But perhaps the most distressing cause of cheetah decline is the illegal trade live cubs smuggled to the middle-east market as exotic pets to be paraded as status symbols and fashion accessories. Of the crates and crates of cheetah cubs smuggled out of Africa, only one in six survives the journey. Most of the rest will die prematurely of malnutrition or be discarded if they reach maturity and their behaviour becomes unmanageable.

As the Simon King documentary shows, it is virtually impossible for these animals to be reintroduced to the wild. 

Despite unprecedented levels of funding for scientific research and analysis, more global awareness than ever thanks to the internet, big words from celebrities, personalities and some politicians: Cheetah are sliding inexorably and quickly into extinction. 

At what point will decisive, meaningful and effective action be taken, in addition to the efforts of a few dedicated individuals which are amounting to a sticking plaster over a heamorrhaging wound?    

Humans have a unique talent in destroying what they love. I now wonder if the cheetah brothers I saw in 2008 will be the last I shall ever see outside of captivity?

Stu Westfield
Ranger Expeditions
Expedition Leader - Africa Specialist

#034 Rousay - The Egypt Of The North

Within sight of mainland Orkney and just a twenty minute ferry away, lies the small island of Rousay. With area of just under nineteen square miles, it has such an incredible density of important archaeological sites it has become known at 'the Egypt of the north'. There are no fewer than 15 chambered cairns on the island.

All along the south edge of the island is a string of Neolithic passage and chambered tombs. Many are sited on an ancient geological terrace over looking the waters of Eynhallow Sound. They bask in the glowing etherial light of the winter sun as it tracks low across mainland Orkney and behind the rugged hills of Hoy. None of this would have would have been accidental. Archaeological evidence shows the minds of our Neolithic ancestors where highly attuned to natural cycles and the passing of the seasons.

In our "Journeys Into The Stone Ageseries of short films we discuss the sophisticated cosmology of the Neolithic and how this displaced the Mesolithic hunter gatherers. 

Neolithic Orkney - Part 1
Neolithic Orkney - Part 2
The Neolithic Revolution in Ancient Guernsey
Stone Age Revolutions on the Isle Of Mull

Taversoe Tuick Chambered Cairn
This two storied tomb, dating from 3000BC, is one of only two known Neolithic tombs with two stories. The tomb is built on a hill so each storey can be accessed from ground level.
The lower tomb was originally entered by a long passage from the downhill side, leading to a chamber divided into four shelved compartments. 
The upper tomb was separate from the lower and different in design. Entered from uphill along a shorter passage into a chamber composed of two rounded compartments. 
The hatch between the two levels did not exist in pre-history. Archaeological excavations revealed several skeletons in lower level. In the upper chamber there were three cists which have since been removed, containing the cremated bone from a child and at least two adults. There were also many grave goods.

Blackhammer Chambered Cairn
Also dating from around 3000BC, the Blackhammer cairn is just a kilometer away. It is divided into seven compartments, or stalls and is over seven metres in length. 
Archaeological investigations revealed two skeletons and animal bone, including birds, with evidence of burning and that the tomb was deliberately blocked when it went out of use.
The original three metre passage entrance to the chamber has been replaced by a sliding door with steps down into the once corbel roofed chamber.

Knowe Of Yarso Stalled Cairn
The Knowe Of Yarso tomb is divided into four compartments and is entered through its original passage. It incorporates decorative slanting stonework, also seen in Blackhammer, which is reminiscent of markings on local Unstan Ware pottery. (We visit the Unstan Tomb on Mainland Orkney, in Neolithic Orkney Part 2 )

The 1930 excavation revealed 29 human skeletons with skulls set along base of walls. At least 36 deer skeletons were also discovered. To be interred in this way suggests the deer, or what they represented to the Neolithic community, were totemistic, like the dog skeletons at Cuween Hill tomb and the many bones of white tail sea eagles found inside the Isbister Carin on South Ronaldsay, also known as the Tomb Of The Eagles.
It is very possible that the eagles were part of a excarnation ritual, like a Tibetan sky funeral, before the deceased bones were stored within the tomb. At Wideford Hill the dogs may have served the same purpose. Or their remains kept among human bones may have served a more esoteric purpose. In the case of the dogs, the guardians of the houses of the living now keeping watch over the house of the dead.
Of course, deer are a herbivore species, so the excarnation explanation fails in this case.  The purpose of interring their bones in The Knowe of Yarso could have represented a spiritual function or offering. Rousay is not a large island and would only have supported a limited herd of deer. 
Our Neolithic ancestors living there would have to manage their harvesting of this resource. Indeed, a hard winter with high natural mortality and subsequent low numbers of calves may have had severe consequences for the Rousay tribes, giving rise to treating the bones of dead deer with the same reverence as those of humans. 

It is possible that the agricultural activities of the small Neolithic farming communities also interfered with the deers' natural behaviour of descending from high ground to lower pastures in late autumn for the annual rut.

Midhowe Stalled Cairn
At 23 metres, this is the longest stalled cairn in Orkney. It is divided into 12 compartments, many with stone benches and is sited unusually low, right down on the coast. But, given its magnificent size, this decision would have made the tomb's construction much easier as it is next to the sea front, where shelves of flagstone are exposed. The flagstone would have been readily cleaved away, giving building materials within just a few metres of the tomb site. 
1930's excavations revealed 25 skeletons including two children, some still on the stone benches where they had apparently been laid to rest. Gave goods – pottery and animal bones. The tomb had been back filled with rubble when it went out of use.
A modern structure has been built over the tomb to preserve it from the Atlantic elements.

I wonder if subsequent Neolithic tribes built and populated each cairn with the dead in chronological sequence. So when a tomb was back-filled and put out of use, the next one was build further along the coast line, but keeping the significance of facing the sea channel and movement of the sun, especially in winter as it remained low in the southern sky during the short days either side of the solstice. 

Significant events, such as local exhaustion or near extinction of the red deer population, for instance, could have precipitated a shift in cultural emphasis and the building of a new tomb in the Knowe Of Yarso case.

Or were there several co-existing communities? Each conforming to a general code of funerary practice but with particular cultural identities and idiosyncrasies, which we see in the masonry style and grave goods found in each tomb. These artisan flourishes and expressions of behaviour define the individual and their sense of belonging, it is a fundamentally enduring aspect of the human condition.

Stu Westfield
Ranger Expeditions

Wednesday, 10 January 2018

#033 Experimental Bushcraft: The Paleolithic Horse

Exhibited at Creswell Crags visitor centre is a small fragment of rib bone (species unknown) on to which the image of a horse has been engraved. The artist had certainly studied his subject with anatomical awareness. This object is a remarkable and rare surviving example of upper paleolithic art. The highly polished nature of the bone suggests it had been handled many times, perhaps as a personal possession.

The significance of the image would have been highly relevant to its hunter gatherer owner, quite possibly a totemic or lucky talisman. At some point it was left at the back of the western chamber of the Robin Hood Cave at Creswell Crags. There it lay for 12,500 years until its discovery in 1876.
A series of grooves and vertical lines have scored across the flank of the horse. It has been speculated that these may represent spears. However, in later Neolithic times archaeological evidence shows a practice of putting objects, such as pottery, and spiritual places such as tombs beyond use by smashing or infilling.

Hence, the scored lines could equally be a precursor of this type of behaviour, essentially marking the end of the totem’s usefulness. Once can imagine this being done during a lean period of hunting, consigned to a spiritual repository within the cave, or simply discarded.

I set out to recreate the paleolithic horse at the same scale as the original. It just over 7 centimetres in length. Not having a convenient animal rib bone, I used a fragment of naturally cast antler which had been bleached from several months of being kept outdoors.

For this first attempt, I was keen to capture the likeness of the image so I used a metal tool. Our paleolithic ancestors would have used finely flaked flint.

Whilst carving two factors readily came to mind. In slightly subdued tungsten light I found etching the detail extremely hard on the eyes. Half way through, I resorted to using a magnifying glass. The inferences I drew from this was that the paleolithic artist had good eyesight, making him (or her) more likely to be young. Eyesight generally deteriorates with age and certainly, someone in their forties, as I am, would be considered to be long lived in the stone ages. But also as a diurnal species, human eyes have evolved to be most efficient in daylight hours. To carve in this scale and detail just by firelight in a cave would have been a strain on the eyes.

All this suggests an impression of our paleolithic ancestor sitting at the cave entrance in the afternoon, scratching with the fine edge of a microlith flint, absorbed in thoughts of the hunt and with moving images of his quarry guiding his hand.

Cresswell Crags remained in use, possibly seasonally, for several thousand years. As well as habitation, it is also a natural kill zone where animals could be funnelled and dispatched with greater ease than in an open area.

On a quiet midweek, Creswell Crags and the caves hewn into the limestone rock is a superb place to re-imagine these scenes of daily life over ten thousand years ago, when Britain was just emerging from the last great ice age. A few weeks later, I was guiding a group of clients on a walk in the White Peak. Our route took us through several limestone dales and the similarity of the natural features sprang out.

With such a relatively close distance to Creswell Crags with a similar climate and environment I could not dismiss the image of wolf, bear, giant deer and hyaena also roaming in the heart of the Peak District, followed by bands of nomadic hunter gatherers.

Stu Westfield
Ranger Expeditions

Sunday, 9 July 2017

#032 Spine Flare - A Different Perspective

In the six years I have worked on the Spine Race, there has been a generous helping of inspirational stories and racers going one step beyond on their personal trail of adventure.

There was a certain inevitability that I would one day line up on the other side of the start line in Edale. The announcement of the summer Flare seemed like the ideal opportunity. My friend, Don Tennant (who, with Sarah, runs the Peak Centre where I work as a freelance instructor) was persuasive "Why not do the summer race, you get to see where you're going, enjoy the scenery and if you do the Flare you'll not be wrecked for work the week after".

In essence he was right, the vagaries of the Great British weather regularly give outdoor leaders a beasting. We don't always have to seek out the most extreme option to find worthwhile adventure and personal achievement. The weather would ultimately play a few wild cards, to spice things up.

Picture credit (purchased)


Most folks on the Spine know me in my role as the Safety Team Coordinator, Official Spine Training provider and expedition leader. But, I'm no stranger to wearing a number. Back in the day I was a regular cycling time trial racer. I never set the world on fire but did achieve none-too-shabby results (10 miles - 22m30sec / 25 miles - 59min 01sec / 50 miles - 2h10min / 100miles 4h58min).

I also ran several marathons. The one I'm most proud of is the Safaricom, held on red dust trails inside Lewa Downs wildlife conservancy in Kenya, to raise money for the Tusk Trust African wildlife charity. At the time it was the only marathon inside a big game reserve. In my year, 2008, the start was delayed while the safety helicopter and rangers ushered away a pride of lions from the course. Running with the Kenyans, in the shadow of Mt.Kenya was magical, I was the 7th non-African finisher.

Safaricom, in the shadow of Mt.Kenya


If there was one word which describes the key to finishing the Spine it is conditioning. Whether you're in the summer or winter race the ability to cover distance and spend time on feet is essential. Toughening is something I've experienced in long winter training miles on the bike as well as guiding trekking groups. Professions which do these things as part of a active daily work routine, such as builders, farmers, doctors, veterinarians, outdoor leaders would seem to do well compared to more sedentary jobs for Spine Race conditioning.

One way and another, during the build up to the Flare, dedicated training time was at a premium for both Don and myself. We would be reliant upon the hill fitness which we had plenty from our work. This itself helped us formulate our strategy. More than being fixated by finishing position, we were more interested in finishing in as good condition as possible, having executed a plan to the best of our ability.

We worked on a sustainable and consistent pace of 5km/h with a +/- 1km/h. This delivered reasonable rest times (important for brain rest as well as physical) as well as a healthy contingency in case things went wrong. We certainly did not want to be surfing cut-offs which adds an additional dimension of mental energy wastage. Although we did calculate location vs time targets, we rarely referred to these. Instead, regular checks of average pace was practically more useful. This also gave a 'heads up' focus keeping track of terrain and route finding. Our forecast finishing time was between 50 and 55 hours, against a 60 hour race time limit.

The result was that Don and I finished together at Hardraw, a couple of miles north of Hawes in 52 hours 22 minutes. Certainly we were tired and in places sore. There was immense satisfaction that we had 'left it all out there on the trail', non the less enjoying the moment of completion.

Stu & Don at the finish


Compared to the winter Spine, there was a reduced list of compulsory kit for racers on the Fusion and Flare, with other items at the discretion of the racer. This made it important for an individual racer to take ownership of their strategy, make themselves aware of weather changes and adjust what they wore / carried accordingly.

For me and Don, the coldest extreme of weather occurred in the early hours of Sunday. The moors were clad in a thick wind driven mist, which penetrated layers. We sought refuge in Top Withens Bothy, where Don admitted to being very cold. We took time to get out of the elements, change our base layers, have a hot brew and warm up a ration pack meal.

The other extreme was on the Cam Road. The heat on Monday morning was relentless and intense. I was frequently taking sips of water and soaking my cap in the thin streams of run off crossing the trail. At its worst my eyes seemed to shimmer, giving me concern about heat illness, although this could also have been due to tiredness and lack of sleep. We found a slither of shade beside a stone wall which offered some relief where we rested for 10 minutes but moved onward as we were worried about falling asleep for several hours.

I had some romantic Victorian images of Roman legions marching along the Cam road and treading in their footsteps. By the time I had descended, I realised the reason why the Romans built a road along such an exposed godforsaken set of hills was because if the Briton tribes could be bothered to attack them, they'd be bloody knackered before they could fight.

By far the best weather related quote of the Spine Fusion must go to racer Nick Reed:

"Because this is in the 'summer' it didn't make it easy. I went for Wainwright's Country Walks and got The Revenant"


The only kit items I bought for the Flare was a new pair of shorts and and Hoka Tor Speed 2 trail shoes. I also invested in several RTE and dry ration packs which I had previously tested and enjoyed the taste (ref  blog  #018 Hill Food On Test ). Racing on a budget, I used existing hill kit for everything else.

The shorts I didn't get to use. The weather forecast was not good enough for me to wear or carry them for the majority of the race. The only time I wish I had them was in the rising heat on the Cam Road, along with my thin Egyptian cotton scarf for a neck covering against the beating sun. On leaving Horton-in-Ribblesdale, there were thick clouds of midges, bursting like chaff from each hummock of grass as we walked by. They seemed worse where the sheep were grazing, which was most fields. Don was very glad he had brought a face net.

The choice of Hoka Tor Speed 2 was based on several factors. I wanted a trainer-boot hybrid with ankle cuff which would help keep the grit and wet out. Although I was initially sceptical about Hokas, the trail versions have been used successfully by several Spiners with reports that the supportive design and cushioning helped fend off impact soreness. The Speed 2 also has a Vibram Mega Grip tread which had good reviews. I ordered a full size bigger than normal to account for that they tend to come in a bit narrow.

Pre-race testing on routes up to 30 miles over similar terrain to the Pennine Way revealed I was right to go a size larger. The Speed 2 felt comfortable out of the box. Arguably the cushioning is at the expense of responsiveness, however this seemed like a reasonable trade off for the mostly non-technical grit, peat trails and pace we were intending for the Flare.

For most of Day 1, I moved well in the Hokas. But, during the last few hours my small toes felt increasingly sore. At a road head checkpoint I applied Kinesio tape and changed my socks. At CP1, I cleaned, dried and aired my feet. After a couple of hours sleep, I spoke with one of the Exile Medics. She suggested different taping ideas and did a great job in preparing my feet for the next long stage. I learnt a lot about taping technique from watching her work as well as appreciating that good taping cannot be hurried. I used the time to neck several cups of tea and some food.

Stu with feet expertly taped by Exile Medics

For Day 2, I ditched the Hokas in favour of the wider toe box of my Salomon Wings, especially as I now had a extra layer of tape on some toes. I have used these for a couple of seasons (ref blog  #017 Spine Race Footwear On Test Part 2 ). Initially I was impressed with these hybrids, but the grip lugs deteriorated too quickly and I was disappointed with the grip in wet conditions).

I took advantage of the opportunity to retape (again done expertly by Exile Medics) at Malham Tarn CP1.5 as well as a change of socks. In retrospect, I wish I had carried more changes of socks...for every 4 hours instead of just half day changes. I was travelling well and smoothly on the second stage until the clinker and boulder strewn descent from Pen-Y-Ghent down to Horton-in-Ribblesdale. That section alone left me very footsore, craving for the cushioning of the Hokas Speed 2 but with the toe box width of the Salomon Wings.

And so there lies the conundrum. Why would Hoka manufacture shoes with such a narrow width? They must have been made on a last to suit an Asian demographic. Also if no allowance is made for a Gore Tex liner to the shoe width, then this will make the fit even tighter for a given size. I have encountered similar issues with clothing in the past, where an Asian size large will be the equivalent of a European medium. If the brand quality assurance does not specify or perform first article inspection then Continental size discrepancies will be more likely, such are the problems of globalised manufacturing.


Overall, I was pleased with my choices of RTE meals for real food eating on the move. I did have chemical heater pouches but was disappointed when all bar one failed to generate any heat. Cold savoury RTE meals were still preferable to sweet or insubstantial snacks. The occasions when Don and I paused for a proper brew up and re-hydrated high calorie meal were well worth the time not moving as we both felt much more energised and satisfied afterwards.

The only time we stopped at anywhere commercial on the course was at The Dalesman, Gargrave for several mugs of much appreciated of Earl Grey tea. We just made it in time before closing, the owners were very happy to serve us and chat late in the working day.

Old cycle racing habits resurfaced during the traverse of the Cam Road. I craved a slug of flat coke. I wish I had carried some for such an eventuality. This was duly sorted on the way through Hawes. The sugar and caffeine felt like an injection of nitrous oxide into my engine. A welcome sharpener for the finishing 'run' into Hardraw.


Doing the Flare as a racer and an outdoor leader there is a certain amount of 'cocks on blocks' regarding professional reputation. Over 110 miles we only made one navigation error, for which I take responsibility. Unfortunately the error occurred at the point where racers deviate away from the Pennine Way on the approach to Checkpoint 1, Hebden Bridge. I cover this area in my Spine training courses and briefing as a navigation black spot for where racers traditionally going wrong. I have even reccied the route with a client.

However, with a tired mind focused on food and sleep, I forgot about crossing the first B-Road (to turn right at the second B-Road, the Slack road). Instead, I turned right at the first B-Road. I realised my mistake when the road started down some zig-zags. At that point I thought, oh bugger there's a whole bunch of folks laughing at this on the tracker!

We corrected our mistake, cutting across some minor paths, up an additional incline to bring us out at the point on the Slack Road near where we turn for the checkpoint. The error had cost us about 30 minutes and we had gained no advantage over our fellow competitors.

There was quite a bit of mostly good humoured banter about our off-piste excursion. The best of which was a hand written sign for CP1, outside CP2, specially put up for us by safety team friends Pete Gabriel and Al Pepper.

It was very special that both Al and Pete were there to present our finishers medals and t-shirts, as I had the pleasure of giving Al his finishers medal in the Winter Challenger just 6 months previously and Pete has been a stalwart of the Spine Team for many years.

Al presenting Flare medal


After finishing the Flare, Sarah drove us back south to Edale. Tom Jones, looking lean and fit from his recent adventures in Corsica, was there to greet us. It was a hot, sunny day, although sitting on the sofa Don and I both kept our jackets on, perhaps we were a little more depleted than we cared to admit.

I returned to safety team duties the following day. Then mid-week another blast of rough weather hit the race. During the night we were notified by HQ of a racer at Windy Gyle up on the Cheviots who had changed direction, as if returning to the Lamb Hill hut. Shortly afterwards, he triggered the SOS button on his tracker. Race Director, Phil drove us (Pat and myself from safety, Rhiannon from Exiles) to a road head access point and we made for a direct line up to Mozie Law where we anticipated meeting the racer.

The weather offered up heavy rain, gusting wind and low visibility fog. Indeed one racer reported the conditions as being among the worst he had experienced on The Cheviots. It was mid-summer, yet I too thought it more like winter, just without the snow. In the meantime, the racer had reversed direction  again, now heading away from us and pressed the SOS again. HQ kept us updated with location information as well at Mountain Rescue had been called for assistance. The racer made the sound decision to descend Cock Law Foot where MR met him and brought him to a place of warmth and safety where Exile Medics could continue to monitor him. There being no need to follow, we retraced and returned to the 4x4. The racer was an experienced alpinist who felt he had set out prepared yet, having experienced it, readily recognised the drenching and chilling potential of weather in the UK hills compared to the higher and drier Alps.

A quieter moment on the Spine Safety Team

It was a great pleasure to see the Spine from a racer's perspective. At every road head checkpoint we were greeted by encouragement and enthusiasm from the on-course safety teams. There was a warm welcome from the volunteers at each main checkpoint, with sweet tea, hot food and the superb Exile Medics. What most racers see is just a part of the energy, dedication and commitment from the whole Spine team and Race Directors during the race and in the months building up to it. Lets not forget the drop-bag transport team, ensuring that racers' bags (some of which are well in excess of 20kg) are carried to the correct location and unloaded in time for their arrival. Off-site is the HQ team, looking after coordination and communications. Then, at as many places as they can be, the video and photography folks capture many fine images to cherish once the racing is done.

Al doing the presenting honours.

Stu Westfield

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