A quick interview with Montane Athlete Jayson Cavill about his spellbinding performance at this years’ Montane Spine Race touching on; tactics, kit, and – most imporantly – the spirit of racing.
What was the thought process behind deciding to chase Kelly down?
This didn’t really kick in until after the second night. Until then the focus had been getting as far along the course as possible and making sure I was in a position to even finish. Balancing this with moving well enough to stay in contention should things develop later in the race was a fine line: it wasn’t until I left Middleton CP3 140 miles in that I had any thoughts of chasing anyone. We had all slept for the first time at Middleton, I took just under 4 hours while the others all took 2 or less. They were now 3 or more hours ahead of me and it was this next leg past High cup Nick and into Dufton that would tell me if there was a race to be had or not. If I could gain time on the front 3 here, then it was on.
I knew I had had a really good sleep and felt this would be enough for at least one more night of no sleep. As it happened I had a really good leg up to Dufton and made about an hour up on the front 3 in 20 miles. I was feeling absolutely fantastic and really having to hold myself back and keep calm, there was a big climb up to Cross fell coming so I needed to harness my energy for that.
There was a decent amount of snow over Cross fell and even though I was 2 hours behind the front 3 now their tracks were completely covered over. This was quite disheartening but I knew I was climbing well so just kept pushing on. Running down off the top of Cross fell in the snow was fantastic, the ground was so soft and forgiving. I had a quick pit stop in Greg’s hut for amazing noodles and coffee.
Coming into Alston I was feeling brilliant and really having to hold myself back from running too much. I was way too wired to stop and sleep. Hearing that Eugenie and Eoin were both still sleeping here and John was now only 2 hours ahead (when I left Alston) I knew I needed to keep doing what I was doing and chip away. I felt I was moving faster than John and the others but I also knew every time someone had got close to John he was strong enough to dig in and pull away again.
The section after this was very tricky both for navigating and wet muddy terrain. It would be easy to lose time so I felt it was more a case of damage limitation and working through the night. I had mixed reports about how far ahead John was from various people which threw me a bit, but I just kept focussed on my own game.
What were the tactical considerations etc…
Up until later on in the race it was more about looking after myself, doing my own thing and going with the flow a bit. I didn’t have a sleep plan as I knew I would only really sleep when I felt I needed it, but I also knew when I did sleep it was likely to be more efficient and effective to do it in one block rather than break it up. Leaving Hawes after 115 miles was the first time I decided on any specific tactics.
I planned to use the next section as a bit of a break and walk as much as possible, letting my feet and shins have a bit of respite. I had accepted that I may lose a bit of time over the next 37 miles but felt it would set me up better for the second half of the race. The weather had also decided to turn bad so I felt trying to push in that would be a little counterproductive. This worked well and I finished that section with Eugenie and not too far behind John or Eoin.
Later when coming into Bellingham – the final checkpoint – was the critical part and decision for me. I had been gradually gaining on John and felt I was climbing well so the Cheviots ahead would suit me, though I was also aware he would do everything to stay ahead if I did by any chance catch him. I didn’t really think I would be able to close more than an hour gap without something drastic happening to John which I didn’t want to gamble on.
So I had a big decision to make. Do I stop and sleep here, rest up enough for my feet to settle a bit and try to secure second place ahead of the experienced Eoin (Eugenie had stopped by now)? or take the risk and push on through putting pressure on John as soon as I could? I was suffering in lots of ways; although not feeling as sleepy, my feet were now very sore and my shins were making grumbling noises. I felt I could still endure this for another 14 hours without the respite, although this sounds like a long time now by then my perception of time felt quite different and it was more about ‘day and night’ than counting miles or minutes. It was such a tough decision: I really wanted to finish, and taking a break would give me a much better chance of this. It fundamentally came down to me asking myself if I would ever be happy with second or would I always question myself and ask ‘what if’?
In the end the racer in me won over and I decided to roll the dice and set out not long after John left the last checkpoint, to stay in reach and make a final push over the Cheviots.
What strategies (mental, physical and emotional) did you use to maintain such a ferocious pace?
I think back on some very basic things at points and other times use questions to check in on myself.
Simply counting 1 to 100 over and over again when I was trying to disconnect from pain. Singing or making songs or lyrics up in my head when I was trying to stay awake on the move.
When I was on my own for a while and a decent chunk behind the leaders, I found using three questions I heard about for testing and ensuring motivation really helped me. They were along the lines of:
1: what do I physically need to do in order to win?
2: Do I believe that I can do this?
3: Will these steps lead to the outcome? Are these actions worth the outcome, is the discomfort and next however many hours’ of discomfort worth it? I found once I had a clear picture of these answers I was in a very good place and seemed to pick up well.
In addition, I was also really enjoying myself. I feel being in this position, able to do this event feeling fit and healthy is an absolute privilege. We choose to do this after all so I always felt grateful for the chance and really enjoyed everyone’s support around the event, this seemed to give me a continuous lift and boost.
You have a reputation for blistering speed, but typically on shorter ultras, how did preparation differ from, say, your winning Lakeland 50 campaign last year?
I felt the Spine was much more about a long continuous journey. The time you spend out on the route is so much longer than a 50 mile ultra, so is quite different in terms of dynamics and mental approach. With that in mind I wanted to be more comfortable spending long chunks of time outside and often covering distance much more slowly, getting into a mindset of being less focussed on covering miles and more about just being outside playing around in the hills.
So mainly a different approach in mindset which led to less intensive training with more of a focus on volume, with lots of time through October and November out hiking and climbing in Snowdonia. I even completed my Mountain Leader course and assessment during this time as a way of helping this. It also proved a valued distraction from becoming too focussed on the Spine through the early parts of Autumn and Winter. Then in December I started very specific training for the Spine, moving at what would be race pace (or slightly faster) with a heavier pack, just to fine-tune my body and mind to the rhythm and movement along with the very specific strength needed.
How did kit selection differ, and were there any stand-out items?
Kit selection was mostly based on the extensive list provided, though having been through it the previous year I refined a few things to make my pack more comfortable and also to maximise the amount of kit I could access without removing my pack. One of the reasons I opted for the 15l pack was the large side pockets which allowed me to shove in big pieces of kit (e.g. gloves and waterproof trousers) without needing to stop.
My base layer, the Dragon Pull-On, was a constant throughout. I had a couple of other layers here and there, but this was on pretty much the whole time and worked really well at balancing heat and cooling. The Fleet Jacket was also brilliant when the weather came in coming up to Tan hill. We had ridiculous sideways rain and wind, but I felt comfy and warm in my own little cocoon.
I do suffer from cold hands quite easily so I was keen to make sure I didn’t suffer, I used the Via Groove Glove as a base when it wasn’t too cold, supplemented with the Minimus waterproof mitts, then when it turned cold or really wet I had a pair of Tundra Gloves which were fantastic, toasty warm and remained completely dry throughout storm what’s-her-face, I also had a pair of thick Endurance Pro GTX Mittswhich were a bit overkill but just kept everything even more protected, I don’t think I ever felt cold throughout the whole race. I think this really helped me to stay positive and enjoy the bad weather.
First time Spine-rs typically call the first night ‘the worst night until the others happen’ – did you agree? –
Yes, in some ways it is tough – you are a long way from the finish and have spent a long day out already, though there are a lot of nice sections in the first night and you are still reasonably mentally fresh. For me, I actually felt better after the second night, the 4 hours sleep really refreshed me and my legs felt so much stronger than they did on the first day. Once through the first night though you do seem to get in more of a groove and routine.
What were the race highlights?
So so many! The section from Middleton to Alston, with all types of weather and snow on cross fell. Aside from a little human contact at key points, I was alone and in a very tranquil place mentally, it was a big part of what I wanted from the experience.
Balanced with long periods of alone time I also really like and appreciated how so many people came out to spectate at varying times of the day and night at the ‘unofficial checkpoints’ which were there for the entirety of the event. One example being the farm about 5 miles before the last checkpoint, about 36 miles into a long stretch of Hadrian’s wall, forest and bog. A lady – who apparently does this every year for the whole race – came out and ushered me into a warm stable where she had soup and snacks waiting. It was completely unexpected and so welcome at this point. I quickly threw some soup down and tried to resist the lure of comfy chairs and sheepskin throws.
I was completely touched by how kind she was and how much she loved the event, doing it for no other reason than to help and support all of the people who every year passed her farm. It really summed up how this event is so special to people and embraced by local people along the way
How did preparation for this year’s race differ to last years?
I spent much less time doing specific training for the Spine. Last year I recced most of the course in the months leading up to it; this year I didn’t go on the Pennine way once. I felt training closer to home with less travelling and driving around would be more productive and beneficial to recovery, it would also give me more time to do shorter but more frequent specific sessions.
I felt I peaked 6 weeks too early last year and then just kept going out for longer and longer with a few days of 10-12 hours and back to backs which may have added a bit too much fatigue. This year my longest run/walk was 7 hours but I was doing those more consistently and recovering from them quickly, then feeling stronger every time I went out. I felt slightly undertrained but very fresh this year. I think this helped me to adapt to the race and was likely why I felt so strong later on.
What is your recuperation (short and long term) looking like?
Very gentle at the moment. I had no idea how I would feel following this so have given myself plenty of space and time to recover without feeling like I need to get out and run or train for another event.
I am working through some rehab and massage: I need to get to the bottom of my foot and shin issues too as we are not 100% sure if it is tendonitis or something else. Fortunately, it only seems to rear its head after 100 miles so I can at least train normally when I do feel ok to run again, until then lots of cycling and gym/resistance work to help stimulate recovery.
Has your result altered or informed your plans for 2020?
Yes for sure. I don’t currently have any race plans at all and am still looking at options, though this has certainly made me want to do more events of a similar ilk, at least involving sleep deprivation and being nice and long. Maybe more experience of 100 mile races. 20 or so hours doesn’t seem like that long to be out for now!