One Small Step: Winning the Spine Race 2017 Montane Spine Race winner Tom Hollins explains what goes into winning ‘Britain’s most brutal race’.

Even the most remarkable journeys begin with the smallest of steps. In an ongoing series Avaunt looks at the preparation, training and planning involved in some of the greatest challenges.

Earlier this year Tom Hollins won the 2017 Montane Spine Race – a 268 mile non-stop run across the entire Pennine Way in winter, often described as Britain’s most brutal race. Hollins was the only competitor this year to finish the race in less than 100 hours, clocking a time of 99:25:36. Having already taken Avaunt through how it felt to cross the finish line in first place, here Hollins discusses his preparation – the training, nutrition and strategy – that ensured success.


I don’t actually believe in training. Whenever I used to train in the past I was purely focused on the times or the distances, and I found it incredibly difficult. Instead I just enjoy getting out, being in the outdoors.

I also have a busy job and five children, so what ‘training’ I did had to fit around that. I can usually go out for a run on a Saturday, but the distance would depend on whatever else I was doing. Then I tend to do a long run near home on a Monday, but because I have to pick up the kids from school that’s almost never longer than 20 miles.

Spine Race muddy trail

My usual week will be 20 to 30 miles of running, and about the same cycling to work, because that’s all I can fit in. Every now and again I’ll get a Saturday where I can go for eight, nine or ten hours, but other than running events, I’ll only have the time to do that three or four times a year.


I had to carry the all my food and during the race I ate every half hour, alternating between something with fat and something with complex carbohydrates. I never ate anything with simple sugars because they just upset your stomach, so energy gels are right out.

Gels are completely inappropriate anyway because they give you a sugar high that makes you want to run fast and then that’s it – you need a constant and consistent source of energy when you’re running these distances.

If you feel hungry it’s too late, and if you get to a stage where you are nauseous then it’s way too late. If I’m slowing down after eating, then I know that I’ve probably eaten slightly too much and if I start feeling hungry, then I’ve eaten slightly too little. I know when I have eaten perfectly for the pace I’m running because I keep going continuously.


I had the advantage of living in the UK, so I knew my route beforehand and I programmed it electronically, so even when I became hallucinatory I didn’t have to use a map and compass. With my Garmin wristwatch I had a constant source of navigation on my wrist – if you move off what you programmed the route to be, it vibrates to tell you. That happened a couple of times but I corrected it almost immediately.

Spine Race snow trail

Obviously I knew that if my electronics failed I would have to stop and sleep in order to have the mental ability to navigate properly. That’s a really important part of the course, especially when you’re moving at night time. Apart from that I was sleeping a lot in the earlier part of the race to make sure I was fresh for later on. This was quite surprising to the other competitors, but seemed quite logical to me.

I also never moved so fast that I couldn’t eat high calorie foods. Early on in the race I was constantly eating cheese pasties and cheese tortellini – really high calorie foods – and you can’t stomach those unless you’re moving slower than the maximum pace, but you maintain a huge amount of energy for later on. Lots of people said that when they finished the Spine they lost a massive amount of weight, but I suspect that when I go home later and weigh myself I’ll be be exactly the same as when I started.

The 2018 Montane Spine Race takes place next year from 14th to 21st January and is open for entry now.

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