I was going to start this post with something like: ‘As the race season draws to a close…’ but I realised that these days that doesn’t really happen unless you’re a road runner… and that’s what cross country (XC) is for! Given that the year is ending though it did seem worthwhile to catch up with myself.
I find myself with two more fell races and two more ultras to go… oh, and an XC seasons to start – my first. I also find myself with a pulled hip flexor which is not a good thing. For the first time since joining Helsby and becoming a serious runner, I was in with a shout of winning the Helsby Fell champs – it’s no coincidence that Adair had been suffering with a calf issue early in the season. In truth I’ve thrown the title away by chasing the Lakeland 100. Jimmy took Moel-y-Gamlin after I’d gone for a last minute 50 mile recce of the L100 with Braddan (a great decision overall, I had an awesome time, but it didn’t help me with a long fell race the next day). To be honest, Jimmy was flying that day, but I’d have at least given him a run for his money.
The second must win was Nant-y-Moch; a cracking race I’ll return to every time it is on. I’d managed to gap Adair but lost it in a route error; Although I’d regained the lead and gapped him again, being in sight made it hard to get away from such a tenacious and excellent runner. In the end it came down to a final extended road section (due to a further mis-navigation) and it gave Adair the edge to bring it home. I was certainly feeling the after effects of my Lakeland 90 at that race too and I’m not good enough to manage speed over two such different distances!
Turning up to the Breidden Hills fell race the morning after a good few drinks at my Bob Graham dinner looked early on like it would be another bad combination as Adair had over 30 seconds on me before disappearing from view. I settled in to focus on beating another local runner Ian. Much to my surprise Adair appeared after a technical rocky section and I set about trying to pass him. It was easily the hardest fought race we’ve ever had, every time I tried to pass, Adair would put on a mini sprint – it served to underline just how important different gears are and I still only have one . I finally got ahead of Adair on the final descent and put 60 metres on him – sadly not enough to keep me safe on the final 500 metres of the race – a downhill fire road where I just didn’t have the speed to hold him off. Adair takes the title once again and very well deserved it was too.
The Cardington Cracker will be the final fell race for me this year – simply a cracker of a race, but not before the annual pilgrimage to Brecon for the Likeys Brecon Ultra – 46 raceable miles, assuming my hip flexor heals, it’ll be a great benchmark to see where I am at. The Tour de Helvellyn will be my final ultra race for 2013 – a great chance to catch up with Joe Faulkner and other DBR people – hopefully there will be a good amount of snow to spice things up too!
The big question for me is what to focus on in 2014. I was all but certain that training for a sub 3 hour marathon was the right thing to do, but I really lost my running mojo back in May after following a more regimented plan. I need to be honest with myself and either accept that I just like to run without the pressure and structure that a more scientific programme brings, or I need to find another way to get in sessions that focus on varying my speed.
“Group” speed sessions really work for me, so in the absence of that, races fit the bill, be that a park run or a XC race. It needs to be local so I’m not out of the house for ages or at inconvenient times of the day. It’s also the case that Laura loves the park run and we can’t both do it due to the boys – incredible as the Park run volunteers are, they don’t extend to babysitting! All this means that the treadmill will be getting a good pounding.
Truth be told, I like the routine of running my 10 miler each morning. Yes it means that I will continue to practice “single gear” running (the so called “junk miles”) but the alternative has proved to be lower weekly mileage, greater pressure and less enjoyment – also more bad stress and I’ve not been clearing my head as well; something I desperately need day in day out. Equally as I look at the yo-yo dieter trying to “give up” every vice at once and failing, I need to implant small changes and let them settle before adding another. Having recently gone back to the morning miles in order to get the routine back again, I have seen my mojo return. So as good as it is to run greater “quality”, if I don’t actually run as a result or if it feels like a strict chore then my running will ultimately suffer.
I regularly hear of people that find themselves “stuck in a rut” or bored running the same routine – for me I like the rhythm, I find this habitual action ironically is the fastest and most effective way to find myself on the path searching for freedom. I embrace that foggy mind-state when I step out the door and those early miles that somehow transform tired legs into free moving limbs and a refreshed consciousness. So whilst it goes against everything I read from the various experts, I’ve made peach with this and am happy in my belief that it is ok! It won’t stop me reading, evolving or chasing, I just won’t do it all at once nor, more importantly, beat myself up for not doing so.
As luck would have it I’ve found myself heading up to the lakes for a meeting every other week so it seems wrong not to make the most of that opportunity by going for a stroll or a run in the mountains. Last Thursday was the first and a quick loop from Patterdale up and along the Helvellyn ridge was magnificent. Combining this with the British Fell relay championships in Llandberis it has seen me pouring over the Paddy Buckley map again. I’ve also marked up my Southern Snowdonia map with the fearsome Meirionnydd Round – if nothing else, each leg makes for a fantastic day out (albeit logistically difficult).
Looking forward, I think 2014 could see me attempting a round in Snowdonia and maybe even a traverse of the Brecon Beacons although that would need to be on spec as I won’t get the chance to recce it too much. My experience on the Klets class of the SLMM has also fired up my desire to compete again in that class. If I had got the route right for day 1 I’m sure I’d have ended up significantly higher up the list.
In a totally separate world I’ve seen myself take over 2.5 minutes off my previous 5km PB (primarily because I hadn’t raced that distance for years) setting it at 18:54. Given that I was going to be happy to break 20 minutes I was really stoked. It would be great to race this distance regularly and if I consistently work on the treadmill each week the combination is bound to see improvement and that sub 3 hour marathon become a reality. The question is what I want most, the long days out tackling ‘rounds’ or to focus on speed endurance. The right answer is the latter whilst I still can as it will only get harder, so my head says this, but my heart is in the mountains and whilst the different goals are not mutually exclusive training wise, I can’t help but feel that I must ignore the “oughts” and the “shoulds” and follow my heart on this one.
Last weekend saw Llanberis become the meeting point for the most special breed of runner… the fell runner. Fell running is most certainly my favourite type of running, be it out there on my own tasting freedom and taking on the elements, or if it’s competing in this most eccentric of sports – in awe of how people tackle the mountains and in my element with the unique atmosphere before and after the race. Llanberis is a Mecca for fell running, but the best of the best arrived for the annual British Fell Relay championships and were treated to some typical Snodownian weather.
The fell relays are always a highlight of the calendar. The format is simple, there are two solo legs (1 & 4), a longer paired leg (2) and a paired navigation leg (3). Each leg passes to the next unless the team takes too long, at which point those teams join the mass start – effectively restarting those legs as a competitive race again. Each leg time is added to the next to give the final time and a ranking.
Despite the October date, the previous two years have seen Helsby team members and supporters lazing around in the sun. We enjoyed 50-70mph winds and heavy squally showers. Most teams bring a base camp tent or gazebos – many became casualties over the weekend as the wind snapped poles and pulled out guy ropes. These conditions didn’t deter anybody and, if I’m honest, just made for a more memorable event.
Almost without exception, those assembled are seasoned and serious fell runners. Some teams feature a who’s who of the sport, whilst others are rather more modest in terms of ability. Helsby sits somewhere in the middle of that spectrum and had a number of relative newcomers in. Don’t get me wrong, we’re as competitive as the next team, but we don’t lose sight of enjoying the event and encouraging all abilities. I dare say the three newcomers will be toeing the line for Helsby in the future and will continue to improve on their impressive performances.
Leg 2 was just over 14KM in distance with 990m of ascent squeezed in. I ran it with Adair which made for a pretty even match-up. The transition stage included a steep slate incline which allowed me to pull my hip flexor straight out the gate – a painful start. I managed to ignore it until the stile at the base of Moel Cynghorion where the pain was significant enough for me to consider dropping out, but given it was a team race I dug in and tried to keep in touch with Adair on the monstrous (and rather monotonous) climb.
We’d made good progress and had overtaken quite a number of teams, but we weren’t ready for the strength of the wind at the top… no one was! It was the Fellsman all over again. I was running at such an angle that when a person tried to pass me I fell into them – the break they created in the wind meant it no longer held me up!
The route took us along a section of the Paddy Buckley between Moel Cynghorion and Moel Ellio. The wind was crazy, the rain horizontal and stung the skin. The wind blew so hard that it would frequently created a pocket with zero air in – the same effect that allows a moving drop top car not to get wet when driving through the rain. No matter how much I tried II simply couldn’t breathe without turning my head to the side. I spared a thought for my wife Laura who was running leg 2 for the Helsby Ladies team. At first it was concern for her, then I remembered that she’s hard as nails so I relaxed knowing she’d be ok. The route itself was great and with visibility the ridge would be absolutely stunning – it certainly stirred up my desire to run the Paddy Buckley.
Heading off the tops was a joy – a genuinely runnable gradient I could lean into and put my foot down. I tripped near the bottom, landed on my right thigh, sent with the slide long enough to pull my left foot around, dig my heel in and spring back up into a running stride all in one movement… at least that’s how if felt, whether it was quite as Starsky and Hutch-esq is another question.
The descent took chunks out of our competitors and had pulled in a few more teams. Sprinting into the transition area was fantastic, the wet purple slate providing a dramatic backdrop to the handover. All in all, fantastic organisation, awesome marshals and a great opportunity to catch up with friends.
So how did Laura’s third fell race go? She loved it! Even more so that the weather was so extreme. Just one of the reasons why I love her so much!
This post is not intentioned to be a kit review as such, more of a round up of the important elements for me and the kit that I reach for in different conditions
Salomon SLab 12 Skin pack: This has been reviewed to death and always comes out with evangelistic praise for it. There is good reason. The numerous reviews also mean that I won’t bother giving an in-depth one here. Packs have moved on now and the downsides of this packs (if I’m being exceptionally picky) are the position on the back – don’t get me wrong, it’s very comfortable and you won’t really know it is there, but on a hot race it does cover a lot of surface area when compared to the Ultimate Direction packs which sit higher and have a smaller footprint. It’s also pretty heavy as a bag which is largely created by the materials rather than the design. I’ve little doubt that Salomon will redesign this bag/ bring out the next generation, but with this pack they very much got it right. A lightweight version would be a big step forward though… not that one notices the weight particularly with this pack. Overall the pack is exceptional and I would buy another one tomorrow, or at least one of the numerous packs that have emerged based upon the same design principles. If I were buying new now I’d seriously look at the Ultimate direction packs, but when you have to run with a pack this has to be near or on the top of the list.
Race belts Vs Bum bags: Race belt, race belt, race belt. I reviewed the Nathan Trail mix 4 and I regularly use it on fell races and long distance trail races where I can get all the kit on it. The key difference for me is the lack of pull on the stomach. Yes when full of kit it can bounce a little excessively, but so does a bum bag; the one guarantee I have with a bum bag is that it will ride up above the hip bone and Pelvis and then it is pulling on my stomach which is uncomfortable and slows me down as I can’t breathe properly or efficiently engage my core.
If you’ve not tried a race belt before I thoroughly recommend them and would be the first in the queue for a Nathan belt.
Hydration/ Bottles: Personally I like the idea of bladders but I see them as totally impractical for running. The draw backs are easy to spot:
You have no idea how much is left in them/ how much you have drunk
They are a nightmare to fill from a stream
Filling up en route at an aid station or stream is very slow and frustrating as you have to get it out of the pack, fill it and then manage to stuff it back into the pack where the rest of your kit has happily morphed into the space it left.
With the exception of the Inov8 horizontal bladder I find the water in the wrong place and sloshes
You can only have one drink type at a time – I like to run with both water and a sports drink
They are a pain to clean
In short, stick to using them for walking if at all.
To me a bottle needs to be absolutely leak proof (how many bottles actually are!) easy to squeeze, have a good flow and be easy to carry – essentially I’m looking for something that won’t let me down and won’t soak my pack/ spray me in the face/ dribble on my hand as I run. I’m a big fan of Nathan bottles. They flow well, are robust and are my “go to” bottle. The large 600ml bottle I have fits in the front of my SLab pack The handheld strap on the Quick draw plus (the old version I have – the new version looks much better) does tend to come undone as I move, and I’ve just not got around to pimping it with Velcro, but it remains comfortable at all times and is very suitable to non-mountain or American style groomed mountain trails.
I’ve tried just for experimentation purposes and confirmed that handhelds are not suitable to technical terrain and the sort of rough open fell land that we run in the UK…. or maybe I just don’t have the coordination? I’ve also got an Ultraspire handheld which is excellent, but again if I’m hyper critical the nozzle doesn’t always close correctly, or at least it requires a bit of concentration/ check that it is, so it loses out to the Nathan in my view. Well made kit though and I use it regularly.
Kahtoola microspikes: I could spend hours talking about how fantastic these are. A total game changer for running. Personally I see the invention/ evolution of super bright head torches and these Microspikes being responsible for the biggest step change in my running enjoyment. They enable me to enjoy and feel safe in places that would have simply been inaccessible to me previously. Three of my most enjoyable days out have been made possible by these – a run around Helvellyn in Alpine conditions (a day I can’t quite believe I haven’t blogged), a trip around the Peris Horseshoe in similar conditions and another day I can’t quite believe I haven’t blogged whilst in the Alps – poor weather lead to a run of epic proportions around a ski resort. The looks on people’s faces when I stopped off in a mountain hut for a waffle in my shorts and trainers was easily worth the run alone!
The spikes are essentially sit between snow chains for a car and crampons. They are totally flexible are on the feet in seconds and give total confidence on hard pack snow and ice. What more do you need to know! They bring a child like element back to the soul and can’t fail to put a grin that stretches from ear to ear. Sure they don’t allow you to float over snow that hasn’t got a sufficient crust, but a water proof coat doesn’t enable you to walk on water either. If you ever want to walk or run in the hills in winter/ wintry conditions then these are an essential piece of kit for both safety and enjoyment. I would not live without a pair.
Compression clothing: Do I like the idea behind compression clothing and buy into the concept? Yes – for the legs. Do I find it comfortable? Yes. Do I believe all the marketing hype behind compression clothing? No. Does it cost a lot more than the alternative? No. Given the choice would I buy it again? Yes.
I’ve not tried many brands yet, but I do like the Skins range and they are certainly better designed than the under armour and Nike pro ranges. I find the shorts significantly reduce chaffing (although I also use tape – see below) and I do feel like my muscles are held in place/ don’t travel quite as far and thus it makes sense to me that I would experience less internal damage. Then again, our body is an incredible thing that repairs itself to a stronger position so are we doing ourselves any favours by using compression kit? Who knows. It does stop the chaffing and it doesn’t catch on anything and that is enough for me. The leggings are terrific and I have also found that wearing a compression top eliminates any rubbing from a back pack or vest. In ultra running these things are important as they are the things that will force you to stop.
I’m not so convinced by calf guards. Maybe I haven’t found the right pair yet, but I don’t believe them to make a huge difference. Many people swear by them, I can take them or leave them… one thing they will do for you is give you a ridiculous knee only tan. It’s not a good look.
Kinesio Tape: Essential injury prevention/ support tool or emperor’s new clothes? One thing is for sure that the marketing has been successful for this stuff. The colourful tape has moved from fashion statement to evangelical praise by many. I’ll reserve judgement until I am unlucky enough to get an injury that can be treated by the use of tape. Whether it is placebo or based in physiological science the tape works for many and I’m not going to knock that.
Personally I use it to avoid chaffing. The tape is supposed to have the same elasticity as human skin which means it moves at one with the body and doesn’t pull or rub as a result. Placing it over areas that chaff eliminates the problem for me. As this is a family show I won’t go into the areas I tape, but I definitely recommend some shaving before hand.
The primary downside with this tape is that it can be monstrously expensive, however I found this tape to work very well and the pre-cut strips also make it very easy to use. 6 rolls for £21 I don’t think I’ll need to buy anymore in my lifetime!
Poles: I’ll come right out and say it, I’m not a fan of poles. I’ve tried and failed with them. I still reserve judgement over their use in the Alps as I suspect the paths may lend themselves to a different experience, but in the UK for me it’s a no. I bought a pair in advance of the Lakeland 100 and they are mighty fine I have to say, lightweight, fold nicely to enable running in-between sections where you want to use them, although I’d want to pack them away if I’m not looking to use them for any real length of time.
I buy into the idea that the tap-tap-tap will increase or at least maintain my walking speed, I buy into the idea that it will remind me to keep my back straight rather than destroy my lower back as I’m hunched over, but I just can’t get away from the fact that I find them a pain in the backside. They get stuck in gaps and placing them can be a minefield as a result. I tried them again on Snowdon the other week as I knew I wouldn’t be running up. They were a pain again. I’ll take them to Europe but they won’t see the light of day in the UK again.
However, I do really rate the product, so if poles are your thing then the Mountain King Trail Blaze poles are excellent. They snap down into 4 sections and are exceptionally light. They are designed much like a tent pole and are assembled in seconds. I did have a comedy exchange regarding these on face book once; I’ll paraphrase:
Neil: <Posts that he’s a convert>
Me: I’m open to the idea and have some trail blaze poles, but what has converted you, what do you feel you get out of them?
Neil: <Answers intelligently>
Ian Corless: Chris, your poles are s***.
Me: err, thanks Ian
All this really serves to highlight is that people have pretty strong opinions on the subject and you need to try them out for yourself. I’ve heard people suggest they aren’t strong enough but I haven’t had any problems and often I see the same people using them in a way that would be a struggle for any pole. If you’re going to use them then it’s worth watching some youtube videos on Nordic walking and practicing the technique. One thing I would change is the aggressive Velcro strap – I’d replace it with some 3mm bungee cord; but I “pimp” and adjust most of my kit so no big criticism.
Socks: I’m lucky in that I never get blisters, or at least it is exceptionally rare for me to do so. As a result innovation like the Injinji socks (a glove-like sock rather than a traditional mitten-like sock) are just another way for me to spend money I don’t need to. The principle problem I face when out in the fells is cold feet. I do feel the cold very easily. Running with feet so numb that you think you just have stumps left is problematic in so many ways; it leave you open to excessive damage and soreness at best and injury at worst.
I turned to seal skins as a way to combat this. It’s not because I believed they would keep my feet bone dry (they don’t!) but they do keep them a lot warmer than normal socks. For this reason alone I recommend them…. but it’s a cautious recommendation. They do feel very strange, and I’d argue you have to wear an under-sock, but this is easy to get over as once in the shoe the foot doesn’t move too much (or at least mine don’t!). They are expensive and I don’t feel they last very long so they don’t represent the greatest value for money, but then again when you’re out there and your feet are numb, you’d usually be prepare to pay a decent sum for that not to be the case.
I’ve not tried the much heralded Drymax socks and would certainly like to give them a comparison maybe one for the Christmas list. As you can tell, when it comes to socks I’m not really that bothered as my feet are generally pretty hardy to the elements… except the cold!
Down equipment: For me it’s PHD all the way. Yes it’s not cheap, but I believe you get what you pay for. If it’s fast light and warm you want then PHD is the Rolls Royce. I own a lot of down kit, some of which was purchased from major brands such as Mountain Hardware, others were made by a tiny shop in Kathmandu, I’ve got cheap Chinese copy gear and I’ve got PHD. I remember the first time I tried on my PHD Minimus pull over and thinking; “Wow! This is a different league!”
Don’t get me wrong, the £15 sleeping bags I got from the man in the tiny shop are excellent and I’ll never see better value for money, but when I’m not in Nepal there is now only one place I would look for a sleeping bag. The cheap Chinese copy gear is pretty poor, the down quality is substandard and there is a huge difference in the quality of down you can get, so beware. Down kit is expensive and is not right for every occasion. Get it right though and spend the money to do so, going cheap with down is an expensive mistake.
Jackets & waterproofs: I use two types of jacket out on the fells. Pertex shells for wind and warmth; full waterproofs. I am a huge fan of Montane in this respect. Their kit is extremely well made, it’s certainly fits into the fast and light ethos. Often possible to pick up extremely cheaply at certain times of the year so keep a look out. I picked up my first Montane jacket from field and trek for just £22. It is one of the most used items of kit I have. I find Pertex to be a simply phenomenal product range, although I was highly dubious about jackets made from their Quantum material simply because they are so expensive. I then tried one on. I was amazed and it will now feature on my Christmas list. Mountain Hardware have their Ghost whisperer jacket, Salomon have their shell and Montane have theirs too… I’ll happily have any of them! J
Until recently I’ve struggled on the waterproof front. I think part of this is due to the suggestion that a waterproof will keep you dry – frankly it won’t. Thus it’s about the right balance between, weight, dryness, pack-ability, running specific features. I’ve used several running specific jackets including the OMM Kamleika, Berghaus Vapour Storm (free with the Dragon’s Back as pre commercial testers) and the Montane Minimus Smock. For me it’s all about the Minimus. Incredibly light (143g), astonishing overall dryness (the breathability/ waterproof trade off) and supreme pack-ability. The Minimus represents exceptional value for money, my only question is how durable it will be and given the summer we’ve just had I can’t tell just yet. Both the OMM and the Berghaus leave me wet underneath – in general as long as I am still moving they also leave me nice and warm, but if I’m shifting out there then they both get very clammy and the Minimus then beats them by a country mile. As running jackets go they are all good, well cut jackets – the Berghaus in particular as the cuffs are outstanding… they genuinely stay in place without fuss. The Minimus smock does have a porthole hood which I thought would be annoying without a cap, but I actually find it quite comforting and prefer to run as is rather than adding the cap. There’s nowt as queer as folk.
Trousers wise I’m not a big fan, I’m happy just getting my legs wet so I have gone for the lightest ones I could find – again, it’s the Montane Minimus (125g). They pack to nothing, have decent enough zips in the legs to put on in foul weather and they have well thought out Velcro straps to ensure they aren’t in your way. It does seem daft to spend so much money on something you never really intend to wear, but when I have been out and it’s been cold/ wet enough for them they have not let me down.
Hats: Very important piece of kit, but whilst running it’s all about warmth Vs packability. I use a Gore bike skull cap – yes I look ridiculous but this style of item hits the sweetspot for my criteria above.
Brands: My go to brands are:
Primarily shoes, but their clothing and packs are generally very good, can experience construction issues, but their returns policy is excellent so you can buy with confidence… just leave the socks well alone as they last a week if you’re lucky
Fast and light specialist. Whilst they are not cheap, pound for pound I see good value for money. The best down kit. Fact.
Compression clothing, I just don’t rate their calf guards
Outstanding jackets/ body covering and gloves
Fast and light principles – cut for running
Outstanding design – genuine innovators, but not just for the sake of it
Outstanding aftersales/ guarentees
The Apple of running gear – expensive but excellent design with the drawback of evangelical and sometime pious following (thankfully not as pious as Apple users)
Not cheap, but excellent quality, beam and aftersales. Superb products. Can’t go wrong with their headtorches
Impressive extras within the box, great lamps and top quality construction
Again, not cheap but some very good gear and thus good value for money. Be selective, try it on and pick the winners – the hat for me is a no brainer for both cycling in winter and running.
Generally very good kit, not so focused on running specific activity though
My favourite hydration mechanism and some terrific, well thought out packs and race belts too
It’s easy to get hung up on the cost of the brands above and there are alternatives out there. I do believe that the brands above represent good – outstanding value for money though – you certainly get what you pay for in mountain/ running kit and spending once on the right piece of kit is better than spending several times on the wrong. If using for Ultras then the right kit is just essential. The difference in psychology at the start line when you see somebody with a pack twice the size of yours is huge. The wrong kit will rub and/ or niggle at best and contribute to injury at worst.
It’s that time of year again, the time where I face a choice of serious injury, heading to the roads or simply putting on my headtorch and getting out on the trails. It’s an easy choice. Since the advent of the ultra powerful head torch I have been a very happy man. Like Microspikes when the snow comes, a lightweight powerful head torch is a total game changer; it removes limits that were previously there and introduces a bucket load of fun in the process. Some of my most memorable and favourite runs have been with the head torch on. My trail run never gets boring as the light casts different shadows and you have to fully concentrate.
I’ve been asked a few times and have also answered a number of questions on forums when people have asked which torch to buy so I thought I would share a few things I’ve discovered on my head torch journey.
There are a surprising number of permutations when it comes to head torch design and as the purchaser you need to have a good idea as to what you want otherwise you can spend a lot more to get features you simply don’t need/ won’t use or you can go the other way and end up buying two head torches, the one you thought was right and then the one that was right – an expensive mistake.
For me the purpose broadly fits into one of three categories:
Emergency/ mandatory kit
Occasional training use
Extending the season/ night ultras/ mountain challenges
Category 1 is really all about size and weight. Examples of usage would be a mountain marathon or an ultra where you really expect to be back before it goes dark. It’s difficult to beat the Petzl e-lite. I’ve used this on events from mountain marathon to Transvulcania (where I knew I’d only need light for an hour and that there would be lots of other people around during that hour).
Category 2 tends to be about budget. In this scenario you want a good enough torch, but you’re unlikely to get a great deal of value out of the more advanced features. In this scenario I believe the Alpkit Gamma at £15 is extremely difficult to beat. You can spend 4 times this and not get a drastically better torch.
Category 3 is where all the elements detailed below come in. Your budget and decisions in each element below will have a drastic impact on your running enjoyment, speed, injuries, season and finish line position. I’ll give feedback at the end as to the torches I’ve used and what I would be looking at if I was starting afresh, but first let’s crack into the elements you need to consider.
Depending upon your budget there can either be a lot or a little to think about. If you are unsure of whether you’ll like running this way and thus don’t want to make what can be a hefty investment then it’s a very easy choice. For £15 the Alpkit Gamma http://www.alpkit.com/shop/cart.php?target=product&product_id=16345&category_id=288 is pretty much impossible to beat in my view. I’ve used one on a Bob Graham support and was very impressed – for the money it had an excellent beam spread, brightness, comfort and isn’t too bad on the weight side.
Budget is the biggest stumbling block. Many people think a head torch seems like a good idea but aren’t sure if they would like it and simply aren’t expecting a torch to cost so much. In that case see above and buy the alpkit, in the £30 or less category it’s the winner – if you do decide it’s for you but want something better then at least it is an excellent back up.
If your budget extends further then hopefully my musings below will at least pull out the things you need to think about. When it comes to something like a head torch though, cheap is not always the best value. If your head torch isn’t quite bright enough then you will spend your time frustrated, potentially injured and will end up spending the money on the head torch you really wanted.
Many torches will quote lumens these days or lux, but it’s the overall picture that you need. Where possible try it out in the shop or read reviews. You need to consider the brightness, but also the spread of the beam, distance and the focus. The way light is measured means that two torches with the same lumen rating can produce radically different results. For a serious running head torch I wouldn’t really consider less than 140 lumens and would really be looking for something closer to the 300+ mark. You’d only need to use full power when moving at real speed on technical terrain, but there will different light settings on the torch to allow a sufficient light and longer battery life. Not bright enough though and it will slow you down significantly and invite injury.
Too many lumens without control can also be just as big a problem. This is why Petzl brought out the Nao with its clever reactive lighting so if one is out and wants to read a map then one can see it as opposed to having to adjust down the light – a problem they had with the ‘ultra’ model. Some models now can be customised by connecting with your PC and adjusting the settings… is this an important feature or just something you will never actually use? You need to answer these questions and many more before you settle on a torch – if you don’t you could be spending for features you just won’t use.
Below are a number of stated lumen ratings for some of the more popular torches, this is by no means an exhaustive list.
As you can see they vary greatly, as does the price and many other aspects of the torch, so let’s look at another consideration…
For me this is the key element to balance with the cost and the brightness. Like the time-cost-quality triangle we live to in work, head torches for me are a balance between cost, brightness and weight. At ~12.5% of your body weight, your head is heavy enough, you don’t need a head torch weighing you down and you simply won’t use it if it is heavy. However low weight always comes with a compromise and in general that means battery life… but it doesn’t have to.
There are ways to reduce the weight on the head without compromising on the battery life. I’ll talk about why that is in the next section, but sticking to the weight question it’s less about how heavy it is and more about where the weight is placed. It’s easy to try a head torch on and think the weight is fine, but once you’ve run with it for 30 minutes you may very well change your tune.
Personally I look to minimise the weight on my head, thus I always look for a torch that either comes with or can be converted to have a belt kit. In general a belt kit will simply be a longer wire and a clip, but some do actually come with elasticated belts to put on; e.g., The Silva range generally takes this approach and on the X-Trail torch I have it works very well. Put simply I won’t buy a head torch for serious running without a belt kit, but if you are only ever going to pop out for a 30-45 minute run or are on a particularly tight budget then it might not be necessary for you.
The belt kit issue brings me onto fixings in general. A number of the torches on the market come with multiple fixings out of the box (e.g., Hope & Silva products) and others you can buy them separately (e.g., Petzl) these will allow you to multiply the use of your torch. The most obvious applications are a bike mount and a helmet mount. If you wish to use your torch for multiple applications then this is certainly something you should look further into. So now you’re not just looking where the battery is mounted, but also what else you can mount your torch to.
A second aspect of the fixings is how it attaches to your head – comfort is really key in this respect. If you have to pull it tight to stop it bouncing then forget it. Pressure on your temples/ generally around your head will only lead to a headache. If it doesn’t have a strap over the top of the head then beware, unless it is very light then it will bounce. The Petzl Nao fixings use string which if I’m honest I just don’t like; without the optional top strap I find it uncomfortable, but the 10mm strap across the top removes a great deal of the pressure.
When it comes to fixings it the small things that make the big differences. All the elasticated straps on the Silva torches have a silicone gripper on them which just keeps them in place. Simple, easy, minimal weight addition… what’s not to like.
Battery life & Flexibility
Battery life is really vital – understatement? But at the same time you’ve really got to think about your application. No point in paying for super long battery life is you’re only ever going to run up to 90 minutes on a morning training session. Those of you looking to use it for an ultra you need to think about what happens when it runs out. Batteries are heavy to carry and thus so are spares. Remember most Ultras stipulate spare batteries on their mandatory kit list. So check out the battery situation before you buy any torch.
Spare rechargeable batteries can also be incredibly expensive. The Petzl Nao is pretty clever in this respect as removing the rechargeable battery results in two pins popping out so you can put AAA batteries in it. Since I carry spare AAA batteries for my GPS (Foretrex 401) anyway this means I’m sorted for the “spare batteries” required kit.
You can often find aftermarket/ unofficial batteries, but don’t buy them unless there are a lot of reviews saying they work well – differing voltages/ battery quality can damage equipment and sometime you won’t get all the features; e.g., an typical aftermarket battery for the Nao will not display how charged it is, but to be honest I don’t really care about that as in training I’m never too far from my home that I can’t get back on part beam and if I’m going out for an ultra I’d make sure that I’ve got it fully charged.
Where you place the battery will have a huge impact on the life. The biggest battery killer is the cold. Anybody that has taken their camera out with them skiing and wondered why the fully charged battery won’t even switch on the camera will know what I’m talking about here. Think about when you are going to use the torch – realistically it is in the winter so it’s going to be cold. If the battery is on your head then it is fully exposed to the cold. Using a belt kit can drastically improve the life of your battery by keeping it in an insulated pocket or next to your body under your clothes. Can you tell I’m a fan of the belt kit yet?
Odds and ends
Other aspects to consider are:
How waterproof it is – something you’d expect to come as standard and to be fair it does on the good brands; e.g. Petzl. Check for an IP rating explanation of the IP code can be found here:
Ease of use – think big gloved hands trying to operate it; small fiddly controls are not a bonus!
The build quality, durability and the guarantee offered – of a torch is also essential. Naturally it is difficult to tell this from looking or even just touching it, so look for the duration of the guarantee and Google reviews of the torch to see if there is a consistent complaint about the quality or their customer service – naturally there is a bias towards people going on and venting about how hard done by they have been
My first proper running head torch was the MYO XP Belt. It failed after I’d owned it for ~2 years although I’d not used it much. I had no receipt as it had been bought as a present for me. I contacted Petzl and turned out I was covered by a 3 year guarantee and they would use the manufactured date stamped on the torch so I didn’t need the receipt. The torch no longer existed so I was offered the more expensive and next one up… but it didn’t have a belt kit. In the end I was able to take it to a retailer (Cotswold) and get the money off a new Nao. I was a very happy man and couldn’t fault the outstanding service. So you may pay a little more, but you get what you pay for when the manufacturer is prepared to back the quality of their kit like that.
Personal experience/ recommendations
If I were buying again I would continue to stick to the primary brands that have a track record with head torches. Petzl’s record is difficult to doubt, and Silva have a long standing reputation too. That said there are some outstanding torches on the market from other brands, I just haven’t any experience of them. I can’t give a full run down of the torches on the market as I’ve not tried them all (happy to do so if somebody wants to send them to me for free ). The ones I have used in anger though are as follows:
Out of the box I was very impressed. Originally retailing at £100 I got it free with a subscription to outdoor fitness – what a deal! The torch itself came with a helmet mount, bike mount and head mount. It also came with a belt kit (battery pack on an elasticated silicone gripped belt). The torch itself packs 145 lumens and a 75m beam. It’s rated to IPX6 which is more than enough for the British weather and accidental drops! It claims a max 30 hour battery life and that is accurate.
The beam is good, it’s comfortable, the belt battery pack works well (although my wife complains that it would ride up whilst she was wearing it, I’ve not had any issues). I’ve been spoilt a little by using more powerful torches so I do prefer a little more light, but for a regular training torch and back up for a primary head torch it’s pretty damn good. The added extras provided (fixings, etc) save the user a lot of money if you want all these things – personally I’ve not used them but I like the option . I wouldn’t pay £100 for it as technology has moved on, but it has given me huge confidence in the Silva brand as it’s a very well thought out and well built head torch. The link above has it for less than £63 which makes it an option if that’s as far as the budget goes.
Petzl MYO XP Belt
My first real running head torch. Very similar to the X-Trail although it didn’t come with the additional fixings and the lumen rating was a mere 85. It was £45 though which made it very good value for money and certainly fitting into category 2 well. Again, for me it now doesn’t pack enough punch and technology has moved on but if you can pick it up as a bargain on ebay it’s a very good category 2 torch.
Petzl MYO RXP
The step on from the XP saw a big change in power at 140 lumens. It’s light enough to use, but it doesn’t come with a belt kit and you can’t buy one for it either as far as I’m aware. For this reason it’s not one that I’d buy. For me it is worth the extra money to get the right torch and I personally don’t see this as a serious contender for a category 3 torch. A quick Google shows you can pick it up for ~£60 so it’s a pretty good value torch if the belt kit is not something you need or want and you’re going to use it primarily as a category 2 torch.
A great torch. A little too clever for its own good, but it provides plenty of light and excellent beam spread and a very well designed robust piece of kit. The big draw of the Nao is the “reactive lighting” function. Essentially it has a light sensor which will reduce the power of the beam automatically to suit conditions – this saves the battery and ensures certain activities; e.g., reading a map, are possible without fiddling with the settings.
The Nao allows you to plug it into your PC and adjust the brightness outputs – I’ve never actually done this as I find the factory settings are idea, but if I were going on a particular event then I might choose to reset the lower setting to enable me to manage the battery life better. On the torch itself you can override the reactive lighting if you wish; this is handy when running with other people as otherwise their lights can affect your beam. It’s also important when running on the road as you suddenly disappear to the driver as their headlights switch off your torch… like I say, it is a little too clever for its own good.
The build quality is superb and the battery housing is very well designed (as mentioned above). It’s an IPX4 rated torch, but I’m reasonably confident that is an understatement and I’ve used it in pretty foul conditions without any issues.
On balance though, I do think it’s a little expensive all things considered. Having to spend an additional £20 for the belt kit extension pack means it loses out a bit on value for money. I’m also not a huge fan of the head fixings with the string. Using the belt kit makes a big difference, but I also use the head strap otherwise I find too much pressure on my temples. These grumbles aside it is an excellent piece of kit.
So what would I look at if I were buying right now?
Well, I’m probably going to miss a host of great torches and I’d welcome people to add comments about torches from LED Lenser, Hope and other makes that they use. The reason why I’ll probably miss them is because once I find something I am happy with I stop looking so I don’t end up tempted to change something that already does the job I need it to do. That said I have been so impressed with the overall package from Silva I would look very closely at the Runner. A whopping 550 lumens is a very attractive draw. If they have packed in all the elements of the X-Trail but with the increased beam then it’ll be a front runner in the ~£100 bracket: £99 here:
Whatever you choose I’m confident that you won’t regret getting into running with a head torch. The trail never looks the same and it’s great to ensure focus is maintained. I often catch myself with a huge involuntary grin on my face and have been known to let out a “whoop”… just don’t tell anyone
Let us make no bones about it, the Peris horseshoe is a beast. 2600m (8500ft) of climb is squeezed into a mere 29KM (17.5 miles) and six splendid peaks: Elidir Fawr, Y Garn, Glyder Fawr, Lliwedd, Yr Wyddfa (Snowdon) and Moel Cynghorion. Full details and .GPX files can be found here: http://home.fellrunningroutes.org.uk/routes-information/PerisHorseshoe
Those looking for a stern challenge can take on the half Peris which starts in Llanberris and after a short flat race to the quarry entrance it is up, up, up to Elidir Fawr, a short descent and fantastic run-able track around to the short climb to Y Garn, then another relatively short descent takes you to the base of Glyder Fawr. Summit there and the red spot path is all that stands between you and the finish at Pen-y-Pass.
Those attempting the full horseshoe must continue on from Pen-y-Pass (assuming completion in the half in under 2 hours 45 minutes) to take on Lliwedd, Snowdon and Moel Cynghorion. Lliwedd is another brutal climb to sit in perfect contrast with the beautiful surroundings. From the peak with the right visibility, you are treated to a view of the insane climb and terrain that is in store. The ground is very technical and no words need to be exchanged for you to know that every competitor is asking why they have to descend so far before commencing the final assault on Snowdon.
The steepness of the ascent results in plenty of scrambling and just when you thought the summit would never arrive, it’s there. Number passed to the marshals and the race is on down the Ranger path before breaking off to add Moel Cynghorion just because it is there it would seem. I have no idea what the gradient is that follows, what I can say is that it is but a few degrees of the realms of possibility and simply destroys your quads (4 days on and I am still struggling to walk without pain). Boggy ground and a small stream crossing are all that stand between you and the short climb to Maesgwm and the final run into Victoria woods.
Jeff McQueen and I travelled down together – I’d never beaten Jeff in a race and his running CV includes 10 Comrades finishes and a top 5 finish at the Lakeland 100… no slouch! Fantastic comany and great to catch up. We started out and in the initial scrum to get up Elidir Fawr Jeff surged ahead. By the time I reached the summit Jeff was long gone and invisible to me due to sweat in my eyes, needing to look where I place my feet and… sheer distance ahead really! I hoped I’d be able to get close and potentially challenge him on the second half, but I was just concentrating on my own race.
Climbing Elidir Fawr - Excellent photography by Simon Murray
I’d worn my fantastic race belt but I’d drunk the wrong bottle on the way up so the rear bottle jumped out as I started hammering down the descent. As I went to retrieve it Nicky Spinks whizzed past asking if I was ok. I took the opportunity to readjust the belt length and get the full bottle in the front pouch before chasing after Nicky. Whilst my general speed is relatively slow at the minute I was making good ground around to Y Garn. As I hit the climb I’d overtaken Nicky again and was momentarily sidetracked by a clearing in the visibility. Y Garn is my favourite peak in the UK, with clear visibility the views are unrivalled as they take in Snowdon, Llanberis, the Glyders and the Carneddau.
Kit malfunction aside, I was happy with how I was going – pacing was good and I was cracking on to Glyder Fawr without losing places and maybe even sneaking a couple on the climb up to the summit. Just before the summit I was shocked to see Jeff who had slowed significantly. I passed him just before the summit and began down my Nemesis… the red spot path! I have never got this damn thing right and I’m not super quick on technical descents but I tried to hold my place as others breathed down my neck.
It didn’t last long, Nicky passed me and slowly started to build a sizeable gap by the bottom. It seemed for the first time I was actually sticking to the path… but as a group streamed out from a clear track to my left I realised that whilst I had certainly come down the red spot path it had not been the fastest route as I’d lost several places… one day I’ll work it out!
Arriving at Pen-y-Pass I got my bottles ready for refill only to find they had run out of water! Disaster! I was already gasping – luckily Wayne came to the rescue with his mobile support services and was able to spare me half a bottle (~150ml) of water; serious lifesaver. I set about making up the time I had lost by being a little slow on the descent and overtook a number of people including Nicky by the time I’d reached the base of Lliewdd. As I refuelled on the way up Nicky overtook me – roughly 1/3rd of the way up and I managed to stick with her step for step for a further third or so. I was then treated to a master class in climbing as my strength drained it appeared that Nicky was just getting stronger and stronger. Suffice to say, this was the end of my battle with Nicky; I never saw her again!
I was really struggling with mild dehydration by the summit of Snowdon and I’d felt my recent lethargy return. If I’m honest I don’t think I’ve got the L100 out of my legs yet and my running mojo has been missing for a little while (May-ish) which hasn’t helped my training. No excuses though, just aspects to work on and it’s nice to know I’ve got room for improvement that I can target for next year.
The end is near! Photo by Simon Murray
I hit the summit and spent a minute or so filling bottles and downing water to bring my balance back; the race was on! I slowly made my way through the field, moving from 75th I took 11 places before the finish. 64th against many of the finest fell runners in the country and a time of 4 hours and 20 minutes. I was pretty chuffed overall!
So what did I learn this time? Well, I learned that to do well in a race like this with a stella field (winning time was Rob Jebb in 3:12:29 – frankly astonishing!) then I need to target it as a specific race – knowing I can run long and manage the mountains is a big difference from racing long in the mountains. I’ve simply got to increase my basic speed and my experience of feeling on the edge of effort. Aerobically I felt I could have done more but my leg strength wasn’t there. To give myself fair crack of the whip I think that running long races where I’d expect to continue for two, four or maybe more times the duration has taken some of that away and it’s easy on those longer races to tell yourself to ease back on a climb. Thus my plan is two fold:
1) Continue to adjust my training plan to ensure I have a mixture of focused quality sessions to work on:
Speed (Overall base pace & pace management)
Stretching (Yes, I think it’s about time)
2) Gym and Mental preparation
Functional strength/ pre-fatiguing muscle groups to simulate the feeling of a long run without the consequence of the impact
Focus for pace management, controlling the central governor and learning from others
The big question for me is whether gym work will provide me with genuine functional leg strength that translates to the hills… it’s something I think I should try, but I’ll be looking out for thoughts/ experience from others that have done this too. I’m also planning to put in two sessions a couple of days per week – the second of which would be a recovery run focused on skill and leaving me wanting more at the end of each session.
Whilst I look at my race diary and laugh at my inability to say no – I am supporting a 52 mile run including an ascent of Snowdon on the weekend, I have several fell races left, cross country season is about to start, I have 3 ultras (40, 46 and 50 miles) in the Brecon Beacons and I couldn’t resist another crack at the Tour de Helvellyn to cap off the year. That aside, I have dropped out from the Spine which would have put me out of action for several months and I have made a decision to start training for a “fast” marathon – Fast for me is a sub 3 hour marathon. I’m convinced I’ll be far more competitive in my ultras if I can nail a fast marathon, the focus required to maintain the pace, the pace itself, the training required; it should all contribute to putting me in a new category. I will also continue to get out in the mountains regularly either walking or running and use cross country and fell races to work on my speed and race focus/ mentality. I will also need to work on saying no to long fun sounding races too!
Back to the day, Jeff made it in just before the five hour target we’d set ourselves. I think Jeff would be the first to admit he struggled on the day – speaking after he’d finished it reminded me of the way I’d felt after my first attempt of the Welsh 1000m peaks race. That day I got taught a stern lesson in the harsh realities of racing in Northern Snowdonia – I guess all that beauty comes at a price, but if it were easy we would value it less. For Jeff, starting out too quickly and the wrong shoes (Hokas) had made the course harder than it already was.
Despite the sincerely arduous nature of the race I will most definitely be back; I hope Jeff will be too. The only thing missing for me was getting to see the top runners blasting across the mountain, but then I’d not have been able to race, so it was a small price to pay. I’ve got a glaring target for this race now though as I think that if I came into the race fresh and on form I think a sub 4 hour time would be possible… now that would really be something!
Running long inevitably requires kit… maybe that’s why many of us do it The key with ultra marathon kit is getting it right for you personally so what I put up here won’t necessarily be right for anybody else reading this, however there are some clear winners brand wise when it comes to kit (IMHO).
I thought I’d pull together a series of posts which are not true kit reviews where I would go into the minute detail, rather just a list of what I use and a brief summary as to why. First up is footwear.
My General philosophy regarding shoes
Crikey, does every man and their dog have an opinion about shoes! Barefoot, minimalist, cushioned, neutral, supportive, lightweight, maximal, etc. Every bandwagon the marketing people can get us on I guess! My general principles for now are that I like minimalist shoes. The more natural the shoe feels the better, this means light and a sensible level of disconnect between the floor and me.
Minimalist differs from barefoot and standard trainers in that it has a differential greater than zero (barefoot) and less than 12mm (standard trainers have a differential or drop of 12mm this is the difference in height that your heel is than your forefoot). Without going into great detail here about what that means, I believe that a heel strike is inefficient and causes injury, we should run with a fore or mid-foot strike, then as our heel descends it stretches the achillies which fires that energy back at us (propelling us forward). If you put 12mm of foam under your heel you will minimise that energy return (as the achillies won’t be allowed to stretch fully) and also encourage a heel strike as there is no pain there when you hit your heel on the floor. I want as much energy return as possible please, so 6mm or less is my target.
One of the most frustrating things about shoe manufacturer’s websites is that they rarely state the drop for a shoe – the three most important elements for me when researching are: Drop, weight and a picture of the sole. Try for yourself and see how many shoe sites do this… you then have to question who they are really trying to sell to and do they understand their market – fashion or specialist
General rule/ Expectation setting
If a piece of equipment is exceptionally light then in general it means you’ll get less ware out of it…. you’ll also pay more for it… but toeing the line knowing you’ve carrying the lightest weight has not only a physical advantage, but a huge psychological one too. With regards to footwear, I’ve read somewhere that an extra 100g in shoe weight is the equivalent of 0.5kg on your backpack – this will be due to the same physics that results in the biggest gains on the bike coming from the wheels. Can I back up the statistic above, no, but it makes sense so I’m sticking to it ok!
Kit I Trust – Footwear
In the fells…
… it has to be Inov8 for me. Yes I know plenty of people have issues with the quality of the construction and the quality can be hit and miss, but if I’m honest I’ve rarely had any issue plus if it is a manufacturing defect they are very good at replacing kit. Their shoes are very light, so some of the accelerated ware issues are down to this, some are because few of us get to run fells only, there is usually some sort of tarmac or hard path somewhere, so this does wear down the sole of the shoe quicker. My weapons of choice are:
X-Talon 212 (I’ve not worn this pair out yet after 4 years, so not tried the lighter ones yet)
Mudclaw 333 (I ran the DBR in these and have run a number of ultras, they are now worn out on the sole, so I will be getting a new lighter pair – put simply, nothing is better when it is muddy. Nothing).
Notable mention: I’m yet to have enough road testing under my belt, but I think the Addidas Addizero XT4s are going to become a regular choice in the fells too. Especially during the winter where I think they will take my microspikes better than either of the above.
Long distance trail/ door to trail shoes…
… for many years I’ve chosen the Mizuno Wave Harrier 3s. They feel pretty minimal and last a long time. I must have run 1500 miles in my first pair before I changed them. I currently have an in use pair and a second pair in the box as I tend to look out for deals on the web. I usually manage to pay ~£50 for them which is pretty damn good if you ask me.
The Wave Harriers are my everyday training shoe and I’ve run long races in them too; e.g., Hardmoors 55 without any issue at all. I also notice a lot of people wearing them. However, a new pretender to the throne has arrived and I like them so much I’ve just bought two additional pairs (@ £40 per pair delivered I couldn’t resist!) The Addidas XT4. It’s got a 4mm drop so plenty of action for my Achilles and it fits with my shoe philosophy, the most incredible grip, it’s light, incredible grip, they feel fast, incredible grip and actually double as a fell shoe. There feels like enough cushioning to ensure you take the rocky paths in your stride, the most incredible grip… oh, and did I mention the grip? Worn by the Brownlee boys these are no leisure/ fashion trainers (despite the garish colours). A definite hundred mile trail shoe and since they are Addidas they will be easy to pick up on offer due to the volume that are out on the market. Pick up last season’s colours for £40-50 a pair – try them, if you don’t like them I’ll be very surprised. Do test your shoe size first though as they come up small. (I’m a 9-9.5 inov8 and a 10 in the Addidas.
On the mill/ road…
… it’s the Inov8 road X 233. Hmm, surprised me too given that they are not a road shoe company and thus their investment in understanding it over the years has been tiny compared to a firm like Asics. That said, they fit like a glove, are nice and light and just feel fast. They have a 6mm drop so they are reasonably minimalist. I use these for the road and treadmill and it’s fair to say that I love them although I don’t run much road.
Before these I’ve had various cushioned beasts and to be honest I would far rather run a marathon in these than any of the over cushioned shoes out there. I like to think that they also encourage me to be a little lighter on my feet too – more work to do on that front though. When I come to replace them I’ll certainly be checking out the road addizero range too from Addidas given how superb the XT4s are.
I cannot recommend kahtoola microspikes enough. These have totally revolutionised winter running for me. Snow on the mountains? Who cares! In hard pack conditions these bite and give rock solid dependable grip. One of my favourite ever running experiences was running the Helvellyn ridge in alpine weather conditions. Micro Spikes + blues skies + hardpack + Helvellyn ridge = the widest grin imaginable, zero stress, connection with nature, connection with childhood giddy excitement at the prospect of every down hill and a comedy sun tan. Perfect.
Naturally there is no solution to that snow thickness which breaks just as you push off, but microspikes have made it feasible and relatively safe to run very narrow mountain ridges in the snow. An item of kit that no mountain runner should be without. Yes they are that good!
… 9 times out of 10 I am a fan of the double knot. Simple, effective. However when it gets cold there is nothing worse than coming in from a day, soaked to the skin, desperate to get warm and not having the dexterity to undo your laces. A friend of mine packed a pair of pliers on the DBR in case that happened to him. There is a simple solution. Tie your lace as normal (single knot) then pass one loop into the other. Pull the lace (as if you are undoing it) so that the bow collapses on the other one and is only stopped in undoing the lace by the bow that you placed in the middle. This knot will not come undone whilst running. To undo it simply pull the other lace as normal – trust me, it’s a revelation. It does leave you with one long lace, but this can be adjusted for in the way you lace your shoes and you can always tuck the excess under the cross lacing up the shoe.
That’s all I can think of right now shoe wise… So what kit do you trust on your feet?
I find myself writing about the inevitable. Anybody who participates in endurance sport long enough knows there is nothing more certain than a DNF… for us it joins the infamy of death and taxes1. I’ve always wondered what would bring it about and always assumed it would be injury, illness or a course just finally beating me, but I don’t feel that it was any one of these. No doubt there will be some readers of this blog that will think I’m kidding myself, that I just don’t want to admit that I couldn’t continue, but I just don’t believe that is the case – if it were I’d feel regret at stopping, I would agonise over the what ifs, how I could have done that little bit more, how I should have crawled if I had to. Right now I couldn’t feel more serene!
So what happened? Well, things were going well. My plan had been to try and get down from the Black Sail pass without needing to use my torch; I did that and didn’t need to put my torch on until the descent from Scarth Gap pass. I was running well and competing. I hit Buttermere to find Charlie Sproson had stayed up a little later than he’d planned so I had a nice boost there and Andy Burton threw on his running gear and ran with me to Addacomb beck which was fantastic. The night recce I had done with Braddan had really paid off as the three guys I was running (including Matty Brennan) with who had shot off from Buttermere weren’t 100% on the route so I caught them up and started to lead the way.
All sounds good, but I’d been plagued from the start with a stomach of discontent. I’d been suffering from diarrhea since the previous Sunday and whilst it looked like it might be clearing up on the Wednesday evening it certainly didn’t. Metres after Andy turned around to return to his check point duties I found myself frantically searching for some cover. Dead of night, head torch blazing, other runners behind with equally dazzling wide beamed head torches… it wasn’t an easy job, but I found cover and lost 10 minutes to nature. I’d hoped the stomach cramps that had plagued me all the way around would go, but they didn’t and I felt totally drained as I climbed up between Sail and Causey Pike.
On my own I decided to put my stereo on to get things going again, the moon had come out and it was particularly spectacular. I cracked on and slowly but surely started to regain my feet. I was running well and I was quite happy. Matty had been struggling since Boot. Great on the down hills but suffering everywhere else. We’d been on elastic since the start, either running together or me going ahead on the uphill knowing Matty would catch on the down, I’d then have to catch up and thus we were working really well. I finally caught him up nearing Braithwaite and we trotted in together for an extended stop. It was party food time, jelly, pork pies, crisps, sausage rolls, etc.
We left and headed to Keswick together putting in roughly 8 minute miles all the way to the start of the first climb on the Bob Graham. I settled into a pace, said something to Matty but had no reply. He was some distance behind me so I figured he’d catch up. I felt great and ran almost all the way to the car park after the initial steep section. I maintained this pretty much all the way around to Blencathra where I had to stop for another 10 minutes to answer the call of nature. Explosive.
I chugged away to Dockray playing head torch games – I’d done the same around to Blencathra partly for the fun of playing tactics against the other runners (amusing to me as I wasn’t not on the bleeding edge of competition) but mainly because the moonlight was so bright it was just beautifully peaceful to run with what nature provided. I found myself in Dockray being asked if I was Chris and did I know Kirk! One of the chaps on the checkpoint recognised me from a kayaking trip about 5 years previous. Small world… but of course everybody knows Kirk so it was an easy question to ask J
The three people in front that got 10 minutes on my back at Blencathra were working really well together, I was on my own with an inspired selection of music, but it’s far from the same. I was losing them to the night. Coming around the side of Ullswater on Gowbarrow Park, I passed the memorial seat and turned to see the most incredible sunrise I have ever seen. The red was magical, the sky almost clear save for a few early clouds that were to burn off. I literally out aloud said “Wow” as soon as I saw it, my breath taken only to have it taken again in shock as a hand landed on my shoulder. Another chap had caught me up and scared the life out of me! Still, I chuckled about it and watched as over the course of the next 60 or so seconds the sun appeared as a slither of flame then showed itself in all its glory. Really magical and energising.
I ran reasonably well into the 59 mile mark to be reunited with my drop bag at Dalemain. I was really starting to chaff and whilst the wonderful checkpoint people fussed over me I exclaimed that I was about to get naked. Drying off and new pants & shorts were very, very welcome. My previous set were soaked with sweat and the combination of water and salt were taking their toll. I found my lanacane applied and headed onto Pooley bridge just outside of the top 10.
The solitude and the chaffing continued to Howton. I made a mistake here and whilst I’d planned to fill up my bottles (I’d been managing my fluids well up until then) I didn’t in my confusion and just headed back out again moments behind the Greek pair as they had a quick checkpoint turn around. I caught them further down the road and we headed up High Kop together. Separated again by the descent to Haweswater I was regularly applying the lanacane to Mardale head and an excellent checkpoint support crew from the Delamere Spartans.
I went up the Gatescarth path well, but this is where the route really falls apart for me. I must caveat this and state that there is a real loyalty towards the Lakeland 100 and 50 and people do love the course. For me it just doesn’t work. It’s a great genuine circumnavigation of the Lakes, but I personally really don’t like the route – to the point where had I recced it before entering I wouldn’t have entered. It’s a very clever route, it minimises climb but still gets 22,500ft in, minimises risk, there are few places if any on the course that aren’t easily accessible by rescue services (much of which a 4×4 can get to or very close), easy to navigate and it makes it easy to set up checkpoints. However it is horrendous underfoot for a huge amount of it and for me as a mountain runner I found it pretty bland as it is just motorway sized rough rocky paths for much of it. Yes you can look around at the fantastic sights (and I did!) and in good weather (which we had) the views are difficult to rival, plenty of people love it, but it is just not really my thing… which is good to know as there is so much choice out there that I need help to narrow it down and get to the essence of what I want to do. Learning point for me then!
I cannot describe just how terrible the paths are underfoot. Baby head sized rocks and loose stones. It destroys ankles, it’s exceptionally difficult to run, mentally exhausting and, well… it’s just not enjoyable. That’s the essence of it, for me that kind of terrain (which the course is to a greater or lesser extent for 60+% because it uses bridleway so extensively) is not fun to run on and after so much of it, totally detracts from the overall event. This is not a rant or throwing blame, it’s just my preference and why it doesn’t work for me – I’m sure there are plenty out there that would think the idea of running across the Carneddau in missle is hell, but for me it’s freedom and a happy enjoyable adventurous place.
I run long because I love it, not for some kind of masochistic fantasy. It was so rough underfoot that, for me, it became about enduring, not endurance.
Smoothie at Kentmere CP was fantastic, but even that couldn’t lift my spirits or mood as I knew I had the same hell to endure to get over to Ambleside. On my way up in the blistering heat I started to question what I was doing. This is pretty common for me; in fact I have in the past purposely gone there to remind myself of my motivation. This time I was surprised to come back with nothing on the personal front. Yes I felt guilty towards those that had put their faith in me through sponsorship and that kept me going on, but I was curious to find nothing else.
It’s difficult to explain really, I wasn’t in a real funk of negativity, in fact I was starting to feel very positive about it. I realised that I had nothing to prove to myself or others and I have always questioned if that is what drives me on. I think since the Dragon’s back this has changed in me. I knew I could finish the Lakeland 100 if I wanted to, but for once I made a sensible, clear decision without any ego getting in the way. There were contributing factors that make up the whole picture and some people will think I’m mad given where I was in the field: When I dropped out I was in 15th place, 90 miles in, had done all the hard bits and had 15 miles most of which was pretty flat and almost all is nice run-able path. The key factors were:
1) I’d had the runs since Sunday and they continued to provide stomach issues and the runs on the way around, it was draining in more ways than one and it felt wrong to keep scaring people by suddenly appearing from behind a bush in the middle of the night
2) Chaffing where the sun don’t shine, I was very sore from Dalemain so spent the next 30 miles packing as much lanacane between the cheeks as possible
3) Just not enjoying it – I run long because I love it, not for some kind of masochistic fantasy. For me, it became about enduring, not endurance.
I saw the family at Troutbeck which was a real boost for me although I don’t think I showed that. This is my only regret of the event, that I couldn’t change my face right then, that I didn’t stop and get down to the river to see the dam Rhys had built. I spent the time between there and Ambleside wondering what I’d gain and if it was really worth rubbing for 15 more miles which would equate to 3-4+ hours and not being able to sit down for a week. I did feel a responsibility to those that sponsored me, but equally I felt I had nothing to prove and that continuing just for the sake of finishing was not the right choice.
Rhys’ dam aside, I’ve absolutely no regrets, like I said, I’d done all the hard bits knew I could finish but had done enough for the sense of achievement. Continuing on would have just ruined it and derived little satisfaction to recompense. Again, to many that will sound odd, to the ultra runners that live by the mantra: ”Never, never, never, give up” and other such “motivational” phrases, but in my clarity of self discovery I could be more content – maybe because for the first time I made a good decision with my head rather than one with my ego.
I’ll reflect further, but it feels like the Dragon’s Back taught me that I no longer need to do things just to prove it to myself or others – I’ve conquered my Everest so whilst I’ll still push myself and still compete like crazy, it won’t be for the sake of it any more.
Knowing this is a great thing to come away with. Like I said earlier, I take part in these crazy races because I enjoy them, yes I suffer, yes I push myself, yes I go beyond the rational, but I love them… maybe not in the moment, but I know I will at the end. Given the course I realised that I just wasn’t enjoying it and didn’t need to continue even though it was predominately good paths to the finish, but it wasn’t about that for me.
The Lakeland 100 (like all of my other races) are about self fulfilment and discovery. When I get to the nub of it that is what they are about. I did fulfil myself on this run, but it also went beyond that and that lead to the self discovery. This race taught me quite a bit in the end. For me all these races present a lesson of some sort about myself. Sometimes it’s about what my body does, others it’s deeper and teaches me what matters to me, going to the extreme gives me that clarity. This time I realised it isn’t about completion and proving something without enjoyment. I loved every minute, even the excruciatingly painful ones, of the DBR and I guess that was a major factor in me wanting to and eventually completing it. So whilst I started with a plan based around getting a good first quarter in and then completing, it turned into a contentment of having had enough and real clarity of thought. As a result it was surprisingly fulfilling, not what I expected from my first DNF.
PS – Thanks to all that made it possible and thanks to all my sponsors. I will be mailing you all soon directly and will be happy to repay any sponsorship due to my choice not to finish. I know the websites make you pay up front as a “donation” rather than a “sponsorship for completion” so I’ll be happy to cover any made as the latter of the two.
PPS – DNF = Did Not Finish
PPPS – Physically I am in pretty reasonable shape. Sudocreme is my best friend and has worked wonders. My left ankle is a cankle as it is pretty swolen and painful to walk on. My right is swollen too but not as much. The soles of my feet are painful as the rough ground did its best to remove the skin. Other than that I could head out for a run today so a pretty good result.
PPPPS – Fantastic wins by Stuart Mills (awesome and gutsy run to win the 100), Ben Abdelnoor (50 record breaker!) and Lizzie Wraith (Ladies 100 winner and record destroyer!)
1. Our new Constitution is now established, and has an appearance that promises permanency; but in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.
I write this from Kendal on the morning of the longest race I’ve ever done (in one go), the Lakeland 100 or the Ultra Tour of the Lake District (UTLD) is a 105 mile jaunt around the Lake District… and it is pretty much around all of it. Describing the course to anybody leaves me breathless although despite the altitude gain statistic of 22,500ft, it is quite remarkable just how much flat they have managed to keep on the course (this is not a complaint ).
To date, almost all my long runs have contained a fair bit of climbing since my preferred habitat it I the mountains, but UTLD is different in that it makes use of as much bridleway and disused railway tracks as possible – much of which you can drive a 4×4 up. Thus it’s a bit different from the narrow sheep trods or wild open fell land that I’m used to. If anything I think this gives me a bit of a disadvantage as I’m not that quick so technical open fell suits me, but the L100 does also present a different challenge in that most of these paths see a lot of action over the years so they are “repaired” in a way that minimises erosion – great thing for the path, but very bad for my poor feet! Underfoot will probably be my biggest nemesis.
22,500 ft of climb is not small; it’s roughly Kilimanjaro and Snowdon combined, however, spread out over 100 miles when compared with something like the Bob Graham (~28,500ft over 66 miles) it is pretty flat… but I can’t forget it covers an extra 40 miles – essentially I’ve little doubt that the accumulation will balance everything out. Reading the various forum posts it is clear that many people attempting UTLD this weekend are trail rather than fell runners, so for them this really is an ultimate challenge and something really different… there will be a few curses at the bumps in the way, of that there is no doubt.
I’ve fully recce’d the course which I think is a first. It’ll be interesting to see if this is a blessing or a curse. My final recce was last Thursday were I introduced myself to the part of the course I am now convinced is the toughest. Thursday was baking hot and I was heavily sweating within moments of setting off from Mardale Head at the base of Haweswater, but it was the conditions underfoot that took their toll between here and Ambleside. It consists of “baby’s head” sized rocks coupled with loose stone and a steep path, so running at any real speed is broadly out of the question whether going up or down. The fact that I’ll already have done ~70 miles by this stage means I’m trying not to think about it right now – and that’s the key, don’t think about the next stage until you’re on it, break down the challenge into little stages and enjoy suddenly appearing at a checkpoint. The fact that I’ve recced the route means it’s less of a surprise when I appear at a checkpoint and that will be interesting to deal with psychologically – is it closer or further away than I remembered, etc.
So how am I feeling pre-race and what has my prep been like? Well, I’ve been on a taper for the past 3 weeks… ok, 6 weeks… ok, maybe more. Anyway, I’m not convinced my build up has well timed (started too early) and thus I’ve got a little weary and allowed life to get in the way. One time I will get this right! I’ve also been ill since last Sunday which, whilst better, still continues. Let’s just say I’ll be at my lightest when I get to the start line! I just hope that I don’t spend the whole time looking for cover or worrying whether or not to release that “danger fart”.
I’m confident I’ll finish unless I take a significant injury. Call it complacency but since the DBR I’ve not feared a race – not sure if this is a good or a bad thing, but it does allow me to put my energy into the race. The biggest obsticals I foresee are:
The conditions underfoot – I’d rather be on open fell land as on these rocks my feet will take a battering
The heat – with our fabulous recent heat wave and naturally high humidity it will be very difficult to cool down and I suspect it’ll be a major factor in the success rate for the event this year. I have prepared though and have invested in some S!Caps which are favoured in the States for electrolyte replacement
My recent illness – I just hope it doesn’t plague my journey and enjoyment of the event
The distance – I’d be lying if I said otherwise
On the flip side I do have quite a bit going for me:
Experience – the DBR, Transvulcania and other events have taught me a great deal about how to manage my race
Bullet proof psyche – I know that I will finish unless I have a particularly nasty injury
Pretty good condition – illness aside I’ve been running well and although my extended taper means I haven’t been banging out the miles and that will tell in the latter stages, I am in pretty good shape
I’ve been asked this a lot and the honest truth is I just don’t know. So my Gold would be sub 24, my Silver would be Sub 26 and my bronze Sub 28 – I’ll not lie, anything over 30 hours will have me disappointed at my time, but no doubt very happy that I finished!
Summary: Stable, well made good sized minimal storage hydration belt. Perfect for long training runs, fell races or fair weather ultras.
Capacity: 4 * 300 ml bottles + what is listed as a “large dimensional pocket with a power stretch mesh pocket. I reckon it’s about 1 litre + a mobile phone/
I ended up buying this in a rush in an effort to reduce the covered surface area on my back. Usually I run long with the fantastic Salomon S-Lab 12 ltr Skin pack (trying saying that after a few drinks!) but I felt it was overkill for the kit I needed to carry for Transvulcania, heavy and I’d have sweated harder with it on. I have a cracking bum bag (Inov8 Race Pac 3) but it’s not suitable for much more than a fell race and it forces both hands to be sacrificed to water bottles. So essentially I convinced myself another pack was essential. Enter the Nathan Trail Mix 4.
I already own a Nathan hand held which is great. Solid bottle, cracking flow and no leakage, so when looking I was confident Nathan would be a winner. The belt itself can be shortened and your setting will hardly move as the role of excess elasticated belt is held in place by two Velcro straps and the buckle itself – essentially the belt can only slip so much before the excess meets the buckle.
I find it pretty easy to lock it in place around my pelvis rather than starting there and ending up pulling on my stomach having worked its way upwards. This is the first pack I’ve found to do this and it makes a huge difference to my comfort and performance – pulling against the stomach no matter how lightly has a restriction on performance as consciously or subconsciously breathing is affected and shallow breathing affects speed, perceived effort and general comfort. Huge tick in the box as far as I am concerned.
The Buckle has rotational play in it, is very heavy duty and easy to manage with cold/ wet/ tired fingers.
The bottles are great – flow is superb, really comfortable in the hand, easy to access with a single hand and with four of them totalling 1.2 litres they give great flexibility for filling some with plain water, some with electrolytes, etc.
I did lose a bottle on my first run. A pounding downhill and full bottle combined to dislodge the bottle (nothing an extra ½ hour of retracing my steps didn’t solve). As a result I’ve fashioned my own retention solution with some 5mm bungee cord (Shown below) and have had no problems since.
The pack itself is very small, but this forces you to stick to the essentials and in reality it’s amazing how much stuff one can fit in. The main pocket is split neatly by an unobtrusive Velcro divider which wastes no space if you just want 1 big pocket. Behind the divider is an ID tag and key hook. It’s a perfect size for a standard Pertex (or a Montane minimus jacket), some extra food, a camera, compass and whistle – although you wouldn’t really want to stick in this combination as your compass wouldn’t be true for very long!
On the outer part of the bag there is a further pocket created using a power stretch mesh and strong Velcro lid. It’s plenty big enough for a smart phone or 4 big gels even when the other pocket it full.
Real world usage:
I used this for Transvulcania and fitted the following in without any issue:
Hydration system (type camelback or waist belt with the minimum capacity of 1 litre)
Red light for back position
Mobile phone with the number provided at the registration
Plenty of food – at least 10 gels, some electrolyte tabs and an energy bar
Canon Ixus camera
The downside was having so many bottles to fill, but it was minor compared to the benefits of low surface area, staying on my pelvis and large fluid capacity. I hardly noticed I was wearing it – a relief since I’d only been for a 90 minute run before hand with it. As your bottles get uneven you can notice the change in stability, but it’s pretty minor and very manageable.
I’ve also used this for the Welsh 1000m peaks race where the kit list is:
Waterproof garments, to cover trunk and limbs to wrist and ankles
To achieve this I ditched a bottle and tied my waterproof jacket into the empty water cage. I trapped the map between my back and the pack and it stayed in place – this shows just how well the pack moves with the body and you certainly notice the elasticated belt. I’ll confess I did regularly check the map was in place and on the particularly steep downhill I just chose to hold it. Lining up to a race knowing you are as light as possible and knowing people are wondering how on earth you got all your kit in such a small bag does give you a psychological advantage.
Overall: I’m over the moon with my purchase. I paid £20 all in for it and it is well worth that. Retail is something around £40. I’d still buy it for that price knowing what I know now, although I probably wouldn’t have done so up front. That said, you get 4 very high quality leak free water bottles, given the costs of these alone it’s not bad value at the retail compared to a number of other brands/ similar gear. It really fits that gap for races or days out where you can really go stripped down – I’ll also now be using it for all fell races as it is so much more stable than anything else I have ever used. ditch the bottles or take a cheeky one with you for a longer or unusually hot race.
With so many incredible races around the world to chose from the challenges for distance runners never end. Take the Bob Graham for example, the same run can vary from a hot crystal clear day (rare) to zero visibility, strong to insane winds, torrential rain and subzero temperatures (time to call it off). The world is a natural playground full of mountains to climb, deserts to cross and conditions to thrive or risk death. These days you name it and somebody has put a race around/ up and over it; who says we are sensation seekers!
The trip to Transvulcania started when I saw this YouTube video after last year’s race.
I immediately posted it to Facebook stating it should be on the list. With normal friends this would have been fine, but Tin Wilcock picked up on it and next thing I know I’m in Croydon away on business phoning Laura to see if a trip would be authorised through fear that the race would sell out!
Fast forward to 5am Friday 10th May and I find myself sharing a cab with Tin and Sam Robson to the airport. Armed with hand luggage, a cardboard box, 2 bin liners and a roll of parcel tape we met with local ultra legend Richie Webster and manufactured our shared hold luggage. Not realising we only had a 6kg hand luggage limit we frantically had to ditch weight before the bags were weighed and then put it all back in on the sly. Yep it’s sneaky and against the rules, but it found us on the plane with no extra charges.
Friday we spent travelling and registering only to find that (a) we didn’t have a seat on the bus, and (b) our Spanish was not good enough. It had been a planes, trains and automobiles day (albeit taxi, plane, hire car, plane, hire car) faffing aside we got to bed with about five hours before wake up.
Walking down to the lighthouse at Fuencaliente there was no doubt this was going to be a special event. I’ve never experienced a big European razzmatazz style event, in the UK it’s usually turn up in a field and somebody says; “off you go then”. Here we found warm up compares and music, a remote controlled flying camera to take in the enormous crowd of 1600 runners ready to take on the 83KM course along with a bit of pushing and shoving. The results from the flying camera can be seen between 3:18 and 4:20 here:
My plan was pretty straightforward, I’m terrible for nervous energy and adrenaline surges at the sound of the gun so getting as close to the front as possible for the first climb as the narrow tracks would make it very difficult and risky to pass was critical to me having a good day and conserving energy.
I also wanted to get as much of the course completed before the sun came up as I knew heat would be the biggest enemy of the day.
Knowing heat would be an issue I’d dashed out a rush order for a batman style utility belt arriving on the Wednesday I’d had time for one run with it before the race… it’s good to try new kit on the day though right? Luckily I’d made the right decision and the Nathan Trail Mix 4 and my Nathan hand held was all I needed. My Review is here, but in summary it was stable enough to be comfortable, lightweight, low surface area and everything was easy to access – recommended kit!
We were off! (see previous YouTube link) Adrenaline surge and the usual frantic running around people (why go to the front if you are not going to go out fast?) on and off the trail probably using up far too much energy, but it made for a lot of fun. The surface was a nightmare to run on; black volcanic sand and mini football sized sharp volcanic rocks just sap energy but I sound found a rhythm. All i had to do was keep going on the incline (average 10%) to 2000m and I’d have the main climb and almost ¼ of the overall distance in the bag.
The first village the race hits is just over 7KM in and the streets of Los Canarios are lined with people – Tour de France style. It’s fantastic how proud the people are of their island’s race and how they cheer on the runners – it’s no exaggeration to say they genuinely make you feel like a super human and look upon you with heartfelt admiration… inspiring stuff! I never tired of hearing “Venga, venga, venga” despite that nagging feeling in my mind that Venga may be a reference to the Venga boys! The other shouts of “ánimo!” were also constant (I translated this in my mind to “Animal!” as for some reason that motivated me well).
Sam overtook me at the village and was cracking on. I was happy in my rhythm and not looking to push myself to the red just to keep up. Good sign that my ego was firmly in check! Sam has been putting in a load of impressive performances – the last being a second place snatched from the jaws of victory through a series of navigational errors during the 147 mile Viking way. He’s been going out hard and, whilst I feel I’ve got my fell racing speed back, I’d not run really long for quite some time.
I necked a drink and cracked on surrounded by people that either have money to burn (£120 on a pair of shorts anyone?) or were sponsored. Whilst the Spanish economy is struggling, the ultra runners certainly are not! It was hard not to put a huge smile on my face as we broke into the woods. The sand and soft moving ground was still underfoot, but the trees made a change from the moonscape and provided cooling properties.
The sun rise was beautiful and energising. Golden rays penetrated the trees and the sweat started to increase. I realised that I’d forgotten to tape my nipples – a huge error when only running in a vest. I started to panic a bit as rubbing is one of the few things that can take me out of the game.
The incline was runnable in most places and I was picking off runners – the fells certainly helped in this respect, if only I was a little further on in the season and had not been out so long post Dragon’s back. I found I was taking big chunks out of people on the downs and the flats until I finally saw some medicos and stopped for some tape. Charades ensued – note to self, save yourself 5 minutes and 50 places by knowing the word for tape in Spanish.
Checkpoint 2 done and I still hadn’t drained the 1.2 litres I started with in my belt. At the time I wasn’t too worried as it had been dark for most of the time. I filled my handbottle with a zero tab and a homemade powder (Maltodextrin and Fructose 2:1) and 2 of my belt bottles (300ml each) before finishing the first big climb. 2 hours 40 minutes into the race and I’m feeling good.
Ahh, descent at last, I’m flying past people and I think I’ve finally taken back the places I lost getting tape. The paths begin to roll and there are some fantastic single track sections. The views last for miles and it’s mostly in the shade. Every couple of minutes I pass a random spectator encouraging me to speed on, but my mind is on my feet and the sand I can feel in my shoe. Do I stop and empty or risk a blister? The first rule of long distance events is to manage any rubbing as soon as it is identified or, preferably, before! Muscular aches/ fatigues, bonking, etc. are all things that can be managed, but the most seemingly innocuous of rubs can take you out of a race as you just can’t take the pain; It’s why boxers target any open wounds. I stop, loose countless places again, but at least my feet are free from the irritant and a quiet confidence returns as my mind relaxes again.
Up ahead I can hear the next aid station, it’s probably 1KM away in the end, but what a ride! The path has varied from great runnable downhill single track to wide, steep, sandy uphill but coming into that aid station is the memory that will linger. Beautiful single track, overtaking people, anticipation of the baying crowd set up Tour de France style along the edges and then the reality of all those elements intensified through the realisation it’s for you was just epic. (7:03-7:45 on the YouTube video gives you a taste as do these:
***Video to be uploaded***
For me it was worth everything just to run into El Pilar. What a highlight.
I raced through El Pilar, grabbing a couple of powerbars and some fruit, encouraged by the crowd I didn’t stop for fluid as I still had plenty. Mistake. Firstly I was to find that powerbars are truly disgusting. Secondly I’m just not drinking enough. Charging out onto the wide dusty path I felt the adrenaline subside and the heat take it’s place. As the sun punished me I was left taking stock of my food and fluids. I’d planned to take enough food to get me to the aid stations and a few spare gels, but I’d assumed powerbars would be edible. I also knew I’d made a mistake by not forcing myself to drink. Too late, done now, move on.
From El Pilar to the Observatories at Roque de los Muchachos I started to struggle. I knew I didn’t have the miles in my legs to keep going with real strength and the heat was beginning to get to me. The paths go up and down on steep switchbacks, but it’s mostly up as the shade is slowly stripped away. My GPS was also showing that I was less than 2/5th into the run. Something I now know not to be true (for some reason all our GPS readings came out very short). Psychologically I dipped thinking I had more to go than I did, combined with the expectation of how I would feel not matching how I actually felt.
Richie Webster is a true Ultra veteran having run almost every race I’ve heard of and a truck load that I haven’t. His experience really counts and one trick I’ll take away is that he carries with him a laminated course profile. If I’d have had this I’d have known I was closer to the 25 mile mark rather than 20 miles, but I’d also have known where each future aid station was. All I remembered was that they were about every 8KM apart.
I was drinking much better now, but it was too late. A big group of middle packers passed me and I struggled to respond or even keep up. I then made another mistake at a check point where despite stopping for a couple of minutes and taking on fuel I didn’t double check I had everything before I left. In my head I’d filled all bottles, in reality I’d just filled my hand bottle. Luckily they put on an extra aid station 5KM later which I reached pretty quickly. The fear of running out of water still haunting me and preventing me from draining what I had. My downhill was still good though and I would catch up/ overtake countless people on these sections. Knowing there was a big long downhill coming meant I stabilised psychologically and just dug in. I can churn out miles and it’s really all about constant forward motion – that’s what I did.
When I race I never take a stereo – I prefer the sounds of the race and the natural environment; the bird song, the creaking of trees, the sound of my progress through long grass, the silence. Most races I’ll get chatting to somebody for a period then find my own space again – a conversation helps the miles fly past. Here I felt really quite alone; there were no audible natural sounds, no birdsong, conversation was sparse/ none existent when I craved it and… well, I found myself wishing I had my stereo as I slogged out the mid-section. I even resorted to singing to myself (in my head mind, I’m not a loony). I guess the lack of English speakers surprised me and my interaction of “mucho calor”, “Si, Si” wasn’t cutting it – if I ran it again or a race like it I’d take an emergency stereo to help with any tough miles; it was just the lack of natural sounds I found really eerie – It took me a while to put my finger on it but I think that was it.
I finally arrived at the observatories. There was a classic series of false summits and “it’s just around this corner” thoughts as the sound from the aid station travelled for miles. I ran the final switchbacks (showing off to the crowd… ego still in check?) much to the rapture of one particularly vocal spectator. My Spanish is limited but I picked up that I was the only person foolish enough to still be running at this stage.
Mentally I was ready for the downhill. I’d spent the last 30 minutes on the bring of cramp and still hadn’t had a wee yet. Considering how much I felt I was drinking now this unnerved me and the constant mini cramp episodes when in a certain position told me all I needed to know. Flashbacks of the agony I felt whilst climbing Trefan on the DBR haunted me but I managed to put that experience to good use and kept it at bay.
This is the major checkpoint en route. Food ranged from fruit to pasta and the drinks from water to coke to powerade (why drink something blue I thought as I finished my bright green drink – the irony). I tried to cool off and many people had stopped for an extended break here. As I had an improvised shower and dunked my buffs (full one for my neck and 2* ½ buffs around my wrists) my temperature did come down but not for long. I faffed around, torn between sitting down and cracking on. I triple checked my water position and how far to the next aid station then headed out.
My expectations of immediate downhill were shattered as the path continued to climb, eventually the descent began. I’d thought this would be the time to make some places up but my legs weren’t working properly and certain positions triggered the cramp. Oh dear! Out of nowhere all the people that have been poor descenders had suddenly turned into gazelles, skipping past me – how did that happen?
My temperature was soon up again. I drank my electrolytes and tried to enjoy the down, but with the temperature soaring with every meter of altitude lost I was struggling.
Every now and then I’d pass somebody in a worse state than me, but they were few and far between. This section did have some very runable gradient and usually I’d have made some real time here. It wasn’t as technical as I’d expected and the forest surroundings were very welcome – without this shade it would have felt like I was descending into Hades.
I’m inadvertently making this run sound horrific – it wasn’t, I loved it, it was just very hard to really run despite it being runable in most sections. A lack of acclimatisation and simply being too white to be there was the real problem, the other part was failing to keep on top of my fluids – the trail is beautiful and I’d recommend a visit and trek to anyone! The race organisation, atmosphere, marshals, medics, etc were absolutely first rate. I couldn’t fault it at all – it’s definitely a race to do!
I finally reached the aid station at Torre Forestal de El Time and having decided a long time ago that the race was over for me and it was now all about enjoyment, I stopped to cool off. I must have been there 20-30 minutes just sat there in the shade getting dunked in water every now and then. Several causalities came and when in this time – a Spanish lady arrived with double vision which was a shame as she had been going really well, but any race like this is not about doing well for a period, it’s about finishing well overall. Many people ran better than me at the DBR, but they didn’t manage the overall race and thus didn’t finish. In that case it’s about knowing that you’ve got to get up every day and do it all again. All of these races are experience and you learn more from a fail than a finish, but it is nice to finish! Does this make me run too safe and within myself? Probably, but I don’t fear a DNF, I don’t think it is an embarrassment or anything like that. Frankly there is enough machismo in ultras as it is. People are out there doing amazing things; e.g., running 50 miles, yet the conversation will quickly turn to 100 miles and beyond, or not needing water/ food for super human distances or people taking a ridiculous event and doubling it or more. At the end of the day there is always someone, somewhere doing something crazier than you, so the trick is to get over it, not get involved and find what you enjoy.
Back to the race. Whilst I was at the Torre Forestal de El Time aid station I saw a bloke being stretchered off to an ambulance. He looked British but no words of English were spoken so I didn’t feel right to approach him. I’d had a friend request on Facebook just before the event by Ant Bethell and we’d agreed to try to all meet up for a beer after the race as he was going out on his own. Seeing this guy had nagged at me, for some reason I was convinced it was him, but it just didn’t feel like the right time to ask as he was being put in the back of an ambulance, in my mind it would go something like:
“Erm, excused me, are you Ant Bethell?”
“Why yes I am, but I’m a bit busy right now”
“Quite right, sorry. Toodle pip!”
I left it. Turned out it was him – a real shame as he had spent almost all of the race in the top 50 (given that there were something in the region of 50 elite runners this was no mean feat! The heat had got him and chronic cramp had set in).
Time to get going, I couldn’t sit here all day, but the going was slow! Keeping the cramp at bay meant I couldn’t put my legs in certain positions required for downhill movement. At one point I cramped, yelping out and scaring the life out of the guy in front. It was just about survival now.
I’d got running again when a bloke collapsed 20 yards in front of me. He got back up with the help of four Spaniards and I’d figured I’d leave them to it until I got closer and could see he was an English speaker. He was Canadian and I took him on. A Belgian guy with fantastic English also stopped so we helped him to the next road crossing and the medicos.
It was such a sad sight. He was determined to keep going and we couldn’t get him to stop. I suspect he won’t remember any of it and was just on auto pilot. In his mind he was so close to the end and just wanted to finish. He was desperately trying not to cry which he just about managed but I almost didn’t. Flashbacks to day 5 of the DBR put me in his position emotionally in an instant. Exhaustion removes any mental defences against extreme emotion, but I just about managed to pull myself together. The Belgian chap kept telling me to go on and I know a crowd is not wanted so once he was with the medicos I cracked on. Happy knowing he was safe and my explanations of ‘Calor’ had surely helped
The very final section down to the beach was a cruel set of steep switchbacks. With a good set of legs it would have been ok-ish, but on tired legs it was torture – it went on forever and the heat just intensified with every step. It was worth it for the final aid station though – loud music, incredibly attentive and helpful marshals and shade! I had been contemplating a detour for a dip in the sea all the way down, but there was a young boy who was delighting in pouring water over anybody who wanted it.
I made another long stop to try to cool down, probably 15+ minutes just enjoying the atmosphere before finally setting off again. My legs felt fresher and I started taking places; gaining upwards of half a mile on some people before hitting the incredibly steep cobble switchbacks to the finish. At one point near the top a family had a hose running and from 20 yards above our heads we had a tremendous cold shower. Never has this been so welcome!
Shortly after the shower the road pretty much levelled off. Leaving about a mile to the finish. Closing in on the finish the streets side cafes were full of people drinking in the sun and cheering on the runners. Shouts of “ánimo, ánimo” and “Venga, venga, venga” intensified. I took another place down this road before entering the final corners begging for the end. The red carpet finish was great – high fives everywhere and a feeling of having really achieved something. Managing to keep the cramp at bay, finishing strong rather than walking it out and having really enjoyed it – despite the struggles. I confess I crossed the line with my arms in the air as if I’d won – there were cameras about and besides I was saluting the crowd as much as anything else.
The finish was decked out with cold paddling pools, showers, masseurs and medicos. Massage I think!
I tried to get my shoes off. Folded in half at the waist, having to immediately straight ever 2 seconds as some part of my legs cramped making comedy viewing for the spectators. After several attempts I got them off, showered my legs and got in line. I saw Sam just as I got on the table. He’d finished in 11:03:35 (158th) See his race report here. In the end this was just 14 minutes ahead of me rather than the several hours I’d expected. Seriously surprised given my torrid middle to end – we agreed to catch up later as my masseur was ready to go.
The first attempt… ok, the first touch and my foot spasmed into cramp. I gritted my teeth and tried desperately to translate cramp into Spanish. My toes were locked in different directions so it was pretty obvious. She tried again, the agonising cramps immediately started again and her actions of stretching the foot to stop the cramp caused cramp in my shin, but I didn’t have the heart to tell her. After the third time she disappeared off to the medico tent. I was asked to stand and immediately my whole left leg spasmed. I was there, teeth gritted, whilst they casually discussed what to do. I pointed to my leg which was quite literally dancing – the muscles were contracting involuntarily back and forth as per this video from Ant Bethell I’d never seen anything like it before. I was told I would go on a drip and a stretcher was wheeled over. I felt a total fool.
I passed Sam – his shock apparent and his concern touching, but I just felt like a total idiot for getting into that state. As I lay waiting for an IV my legs went through wave after wave. I gripped the drip stand and gritted my teeth trying not to scream. To my surprise the tent was full with a number of local (ish) runners taking up the beds. I apologised to the medico who casually replied; “Don’t worry, it’s normal” brushing it off as if they expected to treat every runner.
Fair play, the Medicos were fantastic. After it was determined that I had no allergies and that I was not sikh (felt a little random given my shaved head!) I got a bag of saline and a bag of muscle relaxant – combined with 3.5 plates of the finishers Paella and some cola it’s the best recovery package on the market! Next day I could have run again. Bonkers.
Turned out it had been eventful for both Sam and Tin too with Richie the only one to escape unscathed. Sam had similar cramp issues and had fallen over as a result a couple of times on the way down cracking his knees at one point. Tin ran off a cliff (I’m not joking!) after slipping on volcanic dust, thankfully bouncing to within an inch or two of safety – his knee bleeding badly it looked worse than it was but mixed with his Union Jack rock tape (strapping for his knee) resulted in plenty of extra shouts and gasps at the ‘crazy English’ running the race. He also provided the best story having lost his hat early on in the race. Running without a hat, his head had boiled. Near the observatories a camera man in front stumbled and Tin helped him. Turned out he was a Channel 4 camera man. To cut a long story short Tin agreed to stop and have an interview in return for the bloke’s cap. After babbling incoherently for a bit the chap asked him if he could describe what it was like to be a part of the race. The camera recorded as Tin replied; “It’s like running up a volcano… and it’s f***ing hot!” The camera stopped, Tin got his hat. Despite summing it up in what has taken me almost 4500 words to do, I doubt it will make the show!
Distance: 83.3 km (51.8 mi)
Cumulative elevation gain of 4415 meters, and elevation loss of 4110 meters