The OMM Elite 2014

Toeing the line with Charlie Sproson (Mountain Run, course designer for Dark Mountains, RAB MM, Marmot 24 and others) to run the Elite OMM course, I felt like it was going to be a pretty special weekend. In my usual blasé style I’d suggested the Elite when Charlie agreed to partner up with me. As usual I figured; “well other people complete it, so we should be able to too”. It’s not an unreasonable assumption, we both completed the Dragon’s Back in 2012, we can both navigate (Charlie better than I!) and have done many a long event. When Charlie dropped into conversation that the distance for the OMM Elite would be 42km as the crow flies each day I was surprised… And a little less gung-ho! Due to the terrain and all other considerations, even the top level courses at Mountain Marathons are never that long, and you never quite go as the crow flies, so this meant it was going to be a pretty serious task to finish.

We had a few beers the night before and chatted with one of the owners of OMM itself which was great. Understanding the people behind the brands and how they view the sport/ the community is always very telling. I was really impressed with Iain’s view on the community and how they as a business are looking to help drive the sport forward. Some interesting announcements to come!

Finally ready after some good honest faffing, we set off and immediately got caught on a poor path. The map itself was a shocker, a 1:25000 shrunk to fit a 1:40000 scale, laminated on one side only. The result was a map with too much detail on it but none of which one could really see; the contours were very faint and it was near impossible to read the spot heights/ count contours. We crashed through what was meant to be a forest path (the forest had been removed) and it was slow going…

Charlie was moving really well and I was struggling to keep up for four reasons; firstly I was slower, secondly I was trying to get to grips with the map and read it on the move, thirdly I was slower, and finally, because I was slower. However, as a pair this didn’t impede us too much; I don’t get demoralised by always being 10 yards behind and if anything it makes me run harder knowing I have to keep up. I hoped that the roles would be reversed later, but at that moment it was good to be moving and good that Charlie wasn’t always waiting around beckoning me, or jogging along side saying; “you can do it!” Slipping into that approach as our default was really good, it meant there were no uncomfortable or crossed words, and it also showed Charlie meant business… the race was on!

Day one was enormous. The ground made it extremely difficult to find a rhythm or get going on. I found this particularly tough as I don’t have anywhere to practice locally on really rough ground. We had miles and miles of tussocks, peat hags, heather, shin stripping bracken and boggy patches coupled with squally showers and silly winds to deal with. When gusting the wind was enough to knock you off your course, the rest of the time it was just a major annoyance.
Wind is my least favoured of the weather conditions; it just grinds you down – all weekend it was relentless and rarely at our backs. At one point we went wrong by about 800m down the Pennine way. Once spotted we worked out where we were and decided to head back up. It was uphill, but it was on the stone slabs of the Pennine way and we had the wind behind us. Over the course of those 10 minutes my morale when through the roof. We were back in the game and running well. The wasted time was forgotten and the spring was back in the step. There were other similar moments over the course of the weekend; the sheer joy of finding a long runnable trod to break up the devastating relentless tussocks.

Charlie was coping well with the rough ground though and was keeping us moving well. The terrible map had dealt us and others a harsh lesson in the woods – we took a fence line rather than the ride and wasted 15-20 minutes getting on it; apart from that though and maybe 5 minutes at the start we’d acquitted ourselves well and came into camp in 9 hours and 39 minutes. By the time we left the barn to pitch the tent it was pitch black and the wind was blowing harder than ever. Tent up, food in, bit of socialising whilst we rehydrated then it was off to bed.

I’d chosen to go light and was just about on the edge of my kit. Sleeping in my bag, down jacket and water proofs. If it had been half a degree warmer then I’d have been perfect, but I still had a good night of sleep and was ready to crack on in the morning.
The night itself had been incredibly windy and the morning continued in that vein. We’d placed 11th on day 1, although technically 10th as Steve Birkinshaw and Adam Perry had lost their dibber after one too many trips on the treacherous tussocks. There was never any doubt that Steve and Adam had completed the course so 11th is how we saw it.

We were just 15 minutes away from 7th though so we knew a good second day could see us in the top ten. Given the competition that would mean we’d had a really good performance. The OMM attracts an international field and a top class field; this year was no exception. Top Estonian Team, Sander Vaher & Timo Sild, Duncan Archer & Jim Mann (5 times LAMM Elite Winners & several times winners of the OMM Elite), Oli Johnson & Neil Northrop, John Ashcroft & Andy Fallas, Steve Birkinshaw & Adam Perry and top mixed team Jasmin Paris & Konrad Rawlik, amongst other very strong runners & teams.

Having noticed Jasmin and Konrad out on the course and seeing them move across the ground we could tell that they were excellent orienteers. We’d slipped back from them through slightly less efficient lines (by this I mean hitting a hill brown 10 metres to the left or right of them – yes, it’s that marginal) and my inability to really get going. Still we started focused and headed out on a shortened course (the organisers had decided that day 1 had been a little too long for all the linear courses).

We lost some time on the first control but started to work well across day two. We knew Tim Laney and Lizzy Wraith were chasing us and that Tim was an outstanding orienteer with a talent for spotting great route choices. After the first control we went direct and rough whilst they went for the longer path. We managed to stay ahead and found ourselves running almost in parallel with Jonathan Wilock (2 Rigby rounds this year!) & Bryan Carr (who in their own words were second day specialists used to taking places on day 2) They had placed 13th on day 1, an hour behind us. Given our relative positions and our distance from the podium we effectively spent the day together, 4 heads deciding on the macro route choice and there was always one of the four of us that would get us going again after a climb. We pushed each other and I’ve no doubt that Charlie and I benefitted from their company and their tenacity.

The wind continued to be horrendous and as we left checkpoint X it wasn’t’ long before we crossed paths with Tim and Lizzy who had taken a completely different line to the control; a line that was a full 25 minutes quicker than ours – top marks Tim! We weren’t far from the finish, just one more big climb and a rough decent through the control to the road. I’m not a huge fan of road, especially not when I’m wearing X-Talons, however it was a welcome relief. It left just a short climb to the final control and a flat track run to the finish and glory!

We missed the chips, but there were a few pies left and we caught the winners being presented with their spoils. Overall I loved it: the partnership with Charlie had been a real success, I’d packed and managed my kit well, had contributed to the navigation and had met some fantastic new friends. Our only issue at the end was that we figured the SI results system had been set up incorrectly as it was showing us in 6th place. Post event we found that it was indeed correct! A couple of people had been knocked out and others we’d simply beaten on the day. Given the line-up we were very happy. Results are here:

There aren’t really any secrets to MMs, Top of the list is navigation, a good line can save you enormous amounts of time, the ability to make quick decisions, to challenge each other in a constructive way and listen to your partner’s suggestions even if it is just to confirm your own thoughts is key. You need to get your kit weight right, work well as a partnership, and only then does it come down to how well you can run. Finally, always be aware that it’s a two day event – too many teams struggle on the second day, so dig in and remember that a minute on the second day is just as long as a minute on the first day!

So it’s the end of the 2014 MM season and I’ve certainly had a blast. I’ve found two new partners that I would happily take to the fells again with. We’ve proved competitive (third in the RAB long score with Matty Brennan and 6th in the OMM Elite with Charlie) and best of all I’ve had a real blast with them. I’ve met loads of new friends and improved my navigation in both skills and confidence.

There is no doubt that, assuming I can get the partners, the MMs will be the first events in my race diary next year. I’ve got a few other pressing scores to settle; UTMB is the main event, but I’m yet to decide whether I try to race it or if I have a blast out there with Tin and treat it as a great adventure. I’m also planning to have a go at the Paddy Buckley, but when I do it will be unsupported. One of the principle things I have to look forward to though is the one race I’m not actually doing; as the Dragon’s Back returns I will be on the crew and can’t wait to facilitate others on what is, in my opinion, the ultimate challenge and event.

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CBH’s Guide to Mountain Marathons

I regularly find myself having to explain what a mountain marathon is so I figured there must be loads of people out there missing out on what I see as the best type of event out there. I’m pretty late coming to this sport myself and I’m by no means an expert, but it is hands down my favourite.

Let me know what you think, if I’ve missed anything, if you have any questions, if I have anything wrong, etc.

Note: There is a Glossary at the bottom for terms I reckon may cause confusion. I’ve tried to make them in italics.

So it’s like running a marathon in the mountains right?

Errr, no. Contrary to the title it’s actually a cross between Fell racing, Orienteering and ultra running (in time rather than distance); oh, and there is an overnight camp involved too which you need to be self sufficient for. Confused? Let me try again…

The event has various different formats (described below) but they are essentially a variation on this theme: You have to travel (run, walk, crawl, slide) across open fell land to find controls and place your dibber in to record that you’ve been there. Another way of looking at it is a long distance Orienteering event held over open fell land.

However you look at it, it is a genuine test of mountain skills.

What are the different formats available?

Duration:

Traditionally a two day affair, event organisers have sought to recreate the same magic in other ways, here are the available options:

  • Full Mountain Marathon – a two day event, times will vary by course and competence (see below).
  • Overnight Mountain Marathon – 1-2 days worth of fun squeezed into a single night; e.g., Dark Mountains
  • Mini Mountain Marathon – typically 4 hours in duration; e.g., RAB Mini Mountain Marathons
  • Mixed discipline – Cross between Adventure racing  and the MM really; e.g., Haglöfs Open 5 – 5 hours to do the same thing, but there is a running and a bike course, you split your time how you like

It takes two baby… well, most of the time

The standard format is for mountain marathon’s to be competed in pairs; this is less common on the shortened versions. The pair must stay together and are jointly responsible for kit (although must be carrying enough personal kit to be safe too – see ‘Kit lists’ below). Few mountain marathon’s offer a solo class, most notable are the Saunders Lakeland Mountain Marathon (SLMM) which now has two solo classes and the RAB (see ‘Events’ below)

Terrain:

It varies, but rough open fell land is the general order of the day. You can be lucky enough to experience bogs, babies head sized tussocks, heather, mud, technical rocky ground, sheep trods, foot paths, bridle paths and even the odd bit of tarmac (but only to link fells together). In short it has everything, just not necessarily all in the same day/ weekend. Some MMs distinguish themselves by having courses with lots of steep and big climbs, so take your pick!

Format:

Linear Courses

As competitors cross the line they are given a map and a control sheet. The control sheet has the grid reference of all the controls they must visit and a description for each one. On a Linear course the boxes must be visited in order. The fastest to visit the boxes in order is the winner. Competitors decide their own route between the boxes.

There are different lengths of course available to accommodate different abilities; this makes the sport very accessible.

Non-Linear Courses

Fixed control courses – I’ve made this name up, but it is where competitors cross the start line and are given a map and a control sheet; they can visit the boxes in any order, but they must visit all of them. The primary example here is the Klets’ solo class at the SLMM. Selecting the most efficient order to collect the controls in is essential to a good placing (as I have found to my peril).

Score Class – Competitors cross the start line and are given a map and a control sheet. Most of the time the map is marked with the box locations, but the control sheet states which ones are open, the control description and how many points each box is worth (between 5 to 40).

Competitors have a set amount of time and can visit the boxes in any order they wish to. Competitors must make it to the finish within the time period allotted or they face a penalty; i.e., for every minute they are late they lose points. If you’re half an hour late then you lose everything. So you’ve just trashed yourself for a day out on the fells and have nothing to show for it. It happens to the best out there too, it’s not just an amateur’s mistake!

In general there are two types of Score Class: long and short. Long tends to be 7 hours for day one and 6 hours for day two with the short score being an hour less each day.

Other considerations:

The different formats bring different challenges. Linear courses ensure that everybody irrespective of experience knows exactly where they should go next, it takes out a lot of the tactical thought and it is more about covering the distance quickest. On a clear day though it can lead to long snakes of people heading to the next check point and the necessity for sharp navigation is removed. This is a big shame as that is a key part of the test.

The Score class is deliciously tactical and top competitors are capable of assessing the location of the boxes, the quickest line and how much they can run within the time limit over the ground presented to them. Equally at the other end you have people walking so they are also very inclusive as people compete at all ages from 14 – 80+. The other bonus on a score class is everybody is running in different directions, so there are fewer ‘snakes’ appearing to lead you to the boxes. The Score class also has the jeopardy of the clock and the prospect of losing all the points you toiled for.

Camping:

All full length MM formats involve and overnight camp. At the end of each day competitors head to Download to and get a print out of their day. It not only shows the timings and each control visited, but it also allows the organisers to know people are off the course and to give the competitive standings at the end of each day. Competitors then pitch up for the night, refuel, recover, chill out and socialise (if the midges allow!) This of course means that competitors must carry all their kit to camp; this is also true for the one night format (Dark Mountains), but not the mini mountain marathons.

Some MMs provide an option to purchase beers and milk for the overnight camp – I think this says a lot for the relaxed atmosphere of the events as well as a nod to the fell running culture. How do you tell the fell runners from the Orienteers? The fell runners are drinking beer and the Orienteers are complaining that the control point was two metres out of position. Oh yes, that’s a MM geek’s joke right there!

Food and drink:

Competitors must carry in all their food for the event and carry out all their litter afterwards. With the exception of beer cans and milk cartons bought for the overnight camp. Sadly this means people try to stash their litter in squashed cans, but thankfully the majority don’t.

Naturally it’s up to you what you have for overnight, but food is also a major weight consideration. I heard a story of a very experienced pair who got together and in pre-event discussions one had been assigned the food duties whilst the other was sorting tent, etc. during the event a packet of crisps was passed over along with the advice of “make ‘em last”. Whilst amusing, personally this doesn’t make much sense to me as food is so key to recover for the second day, but people do come up with some ingenious solutions for these events.

Water is collected en route from streams and at the overnight camp there is a water bowser, tap or stream. Overnight camps generally have a stream nearby for washing too.

Atmosphere:

Ohh what an at-mos-phere, I love a party with a happy … Ahem.. Sorry. The Atmosphere at these events is very relaxed and inclusive. I’ve recently heard people say, “oh, maybe in a few years I could think about trying one of those” but this is so far from reality. My advice would be to give it a go, pick an entry level course – in general there are guide times e.g.,(SLMM http://www.slmm.org.uk/courses/ )but if not have a look at the winners times and the average times for each course to give you an idea of how long you’ll be on your feet; or pick a score class when you can call time out whenever you feel like it.

People are very friendly, it’s done in pairs so it is a pretty safe event and if you do get into trouble others will stop and help you even if it means sacrificing their own race standings – as I said above, it’s a test of all your mountain skills!

Again, as mentioned above, there are usually beers on offer before and even during the event and people from all ages and experiences take part. Naturally at least one of you needs to know their way around a map and compass, but if you don’t see the ‘how do I train?’ section below.

The general feeling of the events is very much like that of a fell race or Orienteering event. It’s inclusive and a bunch of likeminded people – show respect for the mountains, the environment and your fellow competitors and you’ll fit right in. Just in case you’re wondering what that means – don’t litter (you carried it in you carry it out), respect the uncrossable boundaries (marked on the map), don’t climb dry stone walls and fences. In short, leave no trace.

How do I train?

If you can’t navigate or are not confident then I thoroughly recommend you go on a course. There are a number about, the FRA run some from time to time, but the two providers I’d recommend outright are:

Nav4 is run by Joe Faulkner, recently described on Facebook as “The Gandalf of the Mountains” and has forgotten more about practical running navigation than I will ever know. His event CV is more than impressive with success in both adventure racing and long distance fell/ ultra scenes. He organises several ultras and has completed the toughest events out there including both the 1992 and 2012 Dragon’s Back races. Kudos. He’s laid back, clear and is an excellent coach.

Mountain Run is run by Charlie Sproson. I met Charlie on the Dragon’s Back in 2012 and he too is laid back, clear and an excellent coach. He has designed courses for the SLMM, Dark Mountains and this year’s RAB MM which was outstanding and he will certainly give you an insight into the (evil) mind of a course designer.

Be aware that the MM format will test both your micro and macro navigation. At the more advanced level it will test the accuracy any estimates you make as to how much distance you can cover based upon the terrain presented on the map. MMs generally don’t announce their location until a few weeks before the event so you can’t go and practice.

As you would expect, you can hone your micro navigation at your local orienteering club, your fell running skills by getting out there or doing races and mountain based ultras are also a good training ground (not so much the ones that go around the fells on bridle paths; e.g., UTLD, as it just isn’t the sort of terrain you’ll be covering).

Flipping this question on it’s head, mountain marathons are excellent preparation for events like the Dragon’s Back (not 100% sure on this, but I don’t think anybody who had a pure trail running background actually finished in 2012).

What Kit do I need?

Kit lists vary from event to event and also by the conditions on the day sometimes, but one of my favourite things about MMs is the ingenious ways people come up with to be within the letter of the law, but as light as possible. The Balloon bed is sadly a lesser spotted item these days, but it has to be up there with the best solutions ever; not least because of the comedy it provides when the odd rogue balloon bursts in the night.

Here are some links to some event kit lists as examples:

Getting your kit right is essential. Both bulk and weight are critical considerations and your kit will get honed over time, however this shouldn’t be seen as a barrier to the event. My advice would be enter, beg/ borrow/ steal kit then once you realise it’s the event for you then you can start on the delightful journey to kit nirvana.

A friend of mine managed to get his kit for the LAMM down to just 3.4kg including 0.5 ltr of water and all his food (0.5kg). This is beyond obsessive and I salute him for it! My kit is down to less than 5kg as a solo competitor (primarily as I take loads of food) and for the RAB which I did as a pair I managed to get my kit into a Slab 12 race vest (although this did arose suspicion and a kit check at the end – passed of course). Every gram counts and it’s a great money pit.

I’ll do a secondary posting on kit, but my final word on it would be that all sorts of weird items become essential; e.g., 2 plastic bags big enough to fit your feet in. Why? Well, your shoes are guaranteed to be soaking at the end of day one, so if you’ve gone with the luxury of a fresh pair of socks then at the overnight camp you will be happy you have bags to put your feet in before they go in your shoes and it will ensure those sock stay dry at least until the next morning.

I’m sold, where can I find these great events?

Without a doubt the most challenging and ultimately rewarding event I’ve taken part in is Dark Mountains (http://www.marmot-dark-mountains.com/ – you may even spot me on the website J) however I would not recommend this for beginners. There is a score format which does make it accessible, but only if you have solid mountain skills and can make a good decision; i.e., to call time on it when you are starting to deteriorate. Last year I did the A course (second from top) with Braddan Johnson and it took 15.5 hours – we battled through extreme winds, rain, sleet, hail, snow (blizzard and whiteout) almost got into our bothy at one point, but finished in everything we had out there (my top layer was 2* long sleeve super warm tops, Montane Fireball smock and a Paramo adventure light smock) we also mis-punched on the last control so we didn’t even get a finish! Despite this I rank it as the best single day event (MM and non-MM) I’ve taken part in.

SLMMhttp://www.slmm.org.uk/ This is the first one I did and I’d recommend it to anybody. Super friendly, great time of year for weather and the courses (as per the link above) have something for everyone. I also love it as I can compete as a solo as this way my Nav indiscretions only affect me!

RAB MMhttp://www.rabmountainmarathon.com/ I have a rapidly growing love for the Score format and this event is run to perfection. The course this year (designed by Charlie at Mountain Run) was terrific with starkly different terrains on the different days. Great atmosphere and highly recommended for both beginners and experienced alike.

LAMMhttp://www.lamm.co.uk/index.html Very much want to try this one out. Self dubbed ‘The connoisseur’s Mountain Marathon it has a history of steep and big mountains, but it’s remote Scottish location means that it really means Friday and Monday off for those of us further afield.

The Highlanderhttp://www.handsonevents.co.uk/?page_id=13 Featuring a Ceilidh at halfway it kinda sets itself up for a sociable event! It’s in Scotland surprisingly enough and takes place at the end of April. Again, it’s one I’m keen to have a go at.

The OMMhttp://www.theomm.com/events/OMM_Original/ The Original Mountain Marathon (OMM) (formerly the KIMM – Karrimor International MM ) has had a bit of bad press within the community of late, and the weather at the end of October rarely helps things. I will however report back after doing it myself this year!

RAB Minihttp://www.darkandwhite.co.uk/mountain-marathons.asp Again, something I want to try, more of a long distance Orienteering event in that you don’t need your overnight kit – I hope to get one or two in the bag this year or next.

Haglöfs Open5 Serieshttp://www.openadventure.com/open5/ These are a combination with mountain biking. A fantastic format and one I will certainly look to try out next year.

Summary:

You don’t need to be an expert or have all the best kit. You just need a sense of adventure and basic understanding of a how to use a map and compass.

 

Glossary:

Control Description –What I refer to as the cryptic clue, it states where the box is, examples include ‘Crag foot’, ‘Stream junction’, and the dreaded ‘Re-entrant’ (often the most ambiguous of the lot). Once you understand all the terms it’s pretty simple really, and really quite helpful (not how I felt about them on my first MM!)

Controls – These are also known as “dibber boxes” essentially it’s an electronic box which you place an electronic “dibber” in, it beeps to let you know it has recorded you being there.

Dibber – An electronic key which are commonly used for timing in events such as ultras and are regularly used in Orienteering competitions. They are the modern day equivalent of a control punch (used to punch a specific set of holes in your orienteering card to show you’ve been to the location)

Download – Dibber is placed in a dibber box to download all the information from it – showing which controls people have been to.

Open Fell Land – Uncultivated high ground where there may be no path, a sheep trod, footpath or even a bridleway running through it. Still not sure, look at the Bob Graham route or even better, go out to a Fell race details of when and where are here: http://fellrunner.org.uk/races.php

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Know thy self

A recent post by Neil Bryant on Facebook started me thinking, so if you get to the end of this blog post feeling like it’s time you’ll never get back then please take it up with Neil :). His post was brimming with positive energy, enthused by the possibilities opened by his choice to move to the adventure playground that is Chamonix. I guess putting so much on the line for a lifestyle change ensures Neil sees the value in everything around him – the post had a childlike joy of discovery  about it, and having been fortunate enough to run out in Chamonix this winter it prompted me to ask whether the snow had melted; had that visible, tangible change had occurred?

All this got me thinking about the running we do. Rather than generalising, I’ll speak from my own experience. During the week I tend to be a creature of habit to a degree. I’m fortunate enough to have woodland trails nearby and as I run in the morning I do get three very distinct changes in the year: the runs in the light, those in the dark, and those where you get to witness the change between the two. My trails are also changed by the seasons, although not as starkly as Neil’s between snow and summer, but still, the flora changes subtly, the sounds and the conditions underfoot oscillate, etc.

These changes are what ensure that my run never seems to feel stale. I frequently read advice stating I should run my trail in reverse, seek other trails, introduce new locations, keep it fresh, run on my hands whilst juggling a small kitten, etc. but I don’t get it. I don’t need these changes, I love the intimacy I have with the trail I run plus spotting the changes and cultivating that childlike mind (not just switching off, putting the blinkers on and getting bored: “I’ve seen it all before”, “Can’t be anything new”) is something I really value. I also think that as humans we like/ crave that stability, that habit.

The value and pleasure of understanding how your trails change and the huge change that can have on your awareness is pretty priceless and I encourage all to work on/ enjoy it.

Another frequently stated/ debated element of running (and many other sports I enjoy) is the empty arguments about which type is best: Road Vs Offroad, fell Vs trail, etc. Nothing turns me off more than reading/ having somebody argue why one is better for you/ more fulfilling/ original/ greater challenge, etc. I confess that this doesn’t preclude me from enjoying the banter generated from time to time; e.g., https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vuBw39uCT4Q

The most ridiculous think is that it tends to be somebody preaching to the converted. As an example of this I picked up Boff Whalley’s ‘Run wild’, looking forward to reading tales of what he gets from being out there and odes to the mountains I love so much – the musings of a kindred spirit. What I got was repetitive droning about why running on roads was a substandard form… why does he care? How many road runners will read the book and be converted? I’ve never understood why people can’t just enjoy what they enjoy and let others enjoy what they enjoy… surely we’d all be happier?

As our world becomes more complex and information rich we look to collectives, mental boxes we can put things in and other methods to enable us to process and keep up. The question on my mind was what this tells us about us? Can we characterise people by the type of running they do? Are the stereotypes true/ fair reflections of the collective? I think there is enough in it for the personality/ characteristics of our favourite trails/ running types to be used as a mirror. Greek Philosophy counsels us to ‘Know thy self’. Running provides countless ways for us to do that.

My proposal is that what you seek when you lace up your trainers reflects who you are. You may live for exploring new trails or busting out a PB, reaching that summit , spreading your arms wide like wings at the top of a descent, racing, taking in views, enjoying the journey, facing up to the challenge, the list goes on!

Exploring a trail for the first time can be liberating and frustrating at the same time – the stop/ start of not knowing which path to take or the roll of some delicious, challenging single track. Over time it develops into a personal playground. Knowing each trail’s quirks and kings, inclines and exposed roots makes them feel like old friends. Driven by repetition and your passion, your running becomes a vehicle to understand the trail’s personality and how it is carved, influences and created by nature.

The events and runs we take on can challenge us and at extremes can put our safety into question. But these are often escapes from the stresses and strains of modern life, from our responsibilities in work, as a parent, or a way to work through feelings like grief or anything where we need time to switch off or focus on your thoughts.

I challenge you to take a look at your running over the years, how it has fitted into your life and what that has meant. Running can be a great release, sport or challenge, but it can also deepen and reveal the best qualities you have as a person. The type of running we do and the trails we run/ really love have a subconscious calling; they are a mirror to the soul if only we are prepared to look and listen.

Know your trails, know your running passion and you will know thy self.

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Quantifying the risks we take

Risk, perception of risk and calculation of risk is a fascinating beast. The idiosyncratic element is so large it’s almost a social science in itself!

A recent disagreement on a facebook post got me thinking about this topic; whilst a stolen run in the Langdale Pikes pushed me to write about it. As I ran, alone, light fading, snow underfoot, rain coming in, visibility poor, wind picking up, in shorts, carrying a small belt kit I figured some people would think me reckless, some fool hardy or irresponsible, others may see it as calculated, assessed and reasonable – although these views would probably require greater insight into my preparations.

In this case I’d told my wife where I was going, how I would get there, after how long she should start to look for my head torch on the mountain, at what point to raise her concern/ look harder and how long before she should raise the alarm. I’d also packed a map, compass, survival bag, knew the area, was never more than two miles from a road, had full body cover, an exceptionally bright head torch and I’m reasonably experienced and competent in the mountains… well I’d at least argue I know how and when to use my kit and the limitations of the kit.

Still, for some (my parents at least) I suspect that I’m not taking sufficient precaution (sorry mum and dad) but herein lies the issue at hand. Why are perceptions of risk so different and why is it important to make a proper assessment and to recognise/ question the reasons behind the different choices we make as a result?

There are many factors that influence a calculation of risk, the primary ones I’d note are:

  1. Likelihood of occurrence
  2. Impact/ severity
  3. Risk appetite (whether the individual is a risk lover or are risk adverse)
  4. Models/ Experience
  5. Mitigation – strategies to avoid the risk becoming an issue* or to deal with it if it does

*a risk is something that might happen; an issue is something that has happened.

Factors 1 and 2 combine to give a calculation of risk, 3 and 4 are social (idiosyncratic) factors that will impact perception of 1 and 2, ultimately leading to an appropriate decision for that individual to satisfy their risk profile and feel comfortable that they have made an educated and calculated decision.

Likelihood

My argument would be that many never actually critically think about the likelihood/ severity in enough depth and jump straight to risk profile (lover/ adverse). A quick search of forums/ FB kit list posts highlights this immediately and where this post started to germinate from. I’ve lost count of the “but what if…” “bogie man” style  statements, typically presented as a black and white with no room for a shade of grey let alone fifty! It’s not a phenomenon restricted to ultra/ fell running forums, indeed I would argue it is an extension of the same arguments that have parents afraid to let their children out to play through a fear of the “paedophile lurking on every corner!” It’s not that the risk isn’t there, it’s just that the likelihood is significantly lower than certain newspapers would have us believe – the baby gets thrown out with the bath water as a result. This is low quality thinking.

To be as clear as I can be, the following examples and text are not intended to have a pop at any race organisers. I believe they are being placed in an increasingly difficult position in making these judgement calls. I always carry full mandated kit and don’t complain whether I believe it should or should be mandated (although I have sought clarification and when it wasn’t provided in a meaningful way I have complained there was a lack of clarity; e.g., if a race is going to put ‘emergency food’ on then it needs to quantify it by weight or calories… I digress).

Like I say, being an RD is not easy, especially given the decisions runners make; e.g., I turned up at a race with micro-spikes and ski goggles due to the freak conditions and snow fall; I lined up on a heavily altered course (for safety – which was bemoaned my many) next to people in barefoot style trail shoes with zero grip suitable for a summer run in very dry conditions. I wore the goggles almost all day and used my micro-spikes on ~35% of the course. Finishing I was asked if I’d done one or two laps as most had dropped or been pulled after one – considering the amount of moaning at the RD’s decision to adjust the course I think the decision was vindicated and a good called made. The point is that the RD shouldn’t have to make what was clearly a common sense call and it shows just how many people put blind faith in an event “it must be safe because they are letting us go out”. I digress. Essentially I totally respect an RDs decision and treat a kit list as a minimum. I may take thinks that border on acceptability, but take them I do.

Naturally this doesn’t stop me having an opinion about kit lists in general, however my guiding principle is that a good kit list has a mandatory and a recommended element. For me, everything on the mandated list should be a risk mitigation. It shouldn’t reflect personal preference or requirements, but be targeted at a specific risk.

The Facebook question was related to the use of pain killers and anti inflammatory pills (NSAIDs). This is a topic in itself and not one I’m looking to debate; suffice to say I’ve read plenty of statements warning against usage due to potential kidney damage. I’ve used them personally on one event, but they didn’t make any real difference for me so I personally wouldn’t take them again. My stance is if I’m in such a state where I’m reaching for the pain killers then it’s time to drop out, but I digress again.

What I did find quite shocking was that a couple of events now had painkillers on their mandatory kit lists. In an age where you can’t get a paracetamol at work/ school due to fears over liability for dispensing such pharmaceuticals, I find it astonishing that a race would mandate carrying the drugs, especially an amount that, taken in one go, would be harmful. The argument was that an experienced doctor had advised this addition to the kit list and nobody would force a competitor to take the pills, but for me this is a tacit stamp of approval/ encouragement that it is not only ok, but it’s expected and encouraged – I am certain that is not what the RD intended, but I’ve lined up at too many races to mention where inexperienced participants are heavily influenced by the kit list, thus I think this is a very dangerous addition.

Aside from all that, I’d question the logic; i.e., what is the risk that is being mitigated here? In this case it seems to me it only creates risk 0 if a situation arose where somebody needed pain killers it would be due to an injury (twist, fall, sprain, etc.) Painkillers are then about comfort for the individual (cue wagging forum finger along the lines of, “well, if you strayed from the course and broke your leg then you’ll be grateful for the extra clothing and painkillers!” – this is taken almost verbatim from a post on the Fb L100 forum) your life is not going to be saved by a paracetamol or Ibuprofen.  – but your internal organs could be damaged and you could put yourself at risk by taking too many through a one-eyed determination to finish coupled with an exhausted, sleep deprived, befuddled thought process. Pretty high likelihood of that state for participants of hundred mile or a non-stop multi day ultra I’d wager!

So getting to likelihood, we must first assess the chances of something happening, this is skewed by experience either direct or indirect (I’ll come back to this) – in the case of the L100 post I’d say it was pretty unlikely and thus not requiring me to carry extra anything as presented by the poster, but wait! Likelihood is only one piece of the risk puzzle. The impact is crucial in deciding on the mitigation strategy, so let’s look at that as perceived, or even evidenced, likelihood is useless without impact.

Impact

If the impact is great; i.e., risk to life and/ or future quality of life, then a mitigation strategy should be in place or acceptance of the risk made; e.g., the impact of running off a cliff is high, even if the likelihood is low, but what is my mitigation? Improve my map reading? Don’t sprint in the clag/ dark? Pack a parachute? In reality it’s something I just have to accept, whereas taking a mobile phone with 112 set up (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XPZv_8dABfU) may be the mitigation strategy for incapacitation on the mountain.

Jumping back to the broken leg on the L100 post, whilst the impact might be high, my assessment goes something like this:

(a)    It’s difficult to go wrong nav wise as it’s bridleway/ well worn footpaths that I’ve recced

(b)   There are a huge number of people coming through who can raise the alarm

(c)    You are tracked between ~8 mile stretches (CPs) so the organisers know roughly where you are

(d)   Most sections you can pretty much drive a land rover to

(e)   You’re never far from a road or obvious landmark so if your nav really is that bad then you’ll hit one of these soon or should be able to see one to help with your location

So what is the mitigation in the kit list? Well the poster was pointing to extra warm layers and a first aid kit. My assessment? Well stipulate a phone with 112 set up – a ‘First aid kit to include: blister plasters* / sterile pad dressing / bandage or tape to secure dressing as a minimum requirement’ is, frankly, going to do bugger all to your broken leg anyway. A real, useful, make a difference in an emergency, first aid kit will weigh between 5 and 9kgs and would never be stipulated on a run – much like the fact you could twist your ankle on a kerb or get knocked down crossing the road in town, one cannot account for every possibility.

* when was this ever an emergency?

In this area I feel many RDs lack courage/ fear the backlash of an uneducated back lash of “how irresponsible!” if they don’t have a first aid kit on their list, rather than a practical, considered approach to not mandate it (notable exceptions include NAV4 events which makes it’s kit list decision based upon first class, firsthand experience). At this point it’s clear I’ve drifted into mitigation and whether the mitigation is effective; getting back to the point, if the risk is a small cut to the finger or a blister and the mitigation is about comfort rather than safety then IMO the items should be on an optional list rather than a mandatory one. Again, looking at the first aid kit a more serious wound can be dealt with through construction of a tourniquet using clothing if required. So far we have likelihood (crystal ball) and impact (not so much worst case, although it should be considered and balanced with a likelihood of it going wrong, but realistic case scenarios.

Mitigation

For me it’s really clear. Every race risk which has a severe impact should be mitigated or accepted due to low likelihood/ impracticality of mitigation. Rapid core temperature loss due to rain and wind leading to hypothermia can be mitigated by waterproofs. Nobody is saying that you can sit down in a blizzard as if you are in San Tropez providing you have a “minimus suit” on, but waterproofs make a significant and genuine difference and enough to get an individual to safety.

Another fine example of excellent, well thought out mandated kit was the addition of a bothy bag on Dark Mountains. Some may say; “but you’re carrying a tent!” they would be right, but if you’ve got so cold that you need to pitch your tent or a weather front has come in so quickly as it did on us, then being able to jump in a bothy, make a considered decision, warm up and then pitch the tent, wait it out, etc. is a superb mitigation and is far more likely to be used – I know we talked about it at one point! Others include a survival bag not a blanket, map and compass, not GPS alone, etc.

Items that do not meet this criteria should not be on a mandatory kit list in my view – recommended kit, yeah, but not mandated – some people are happy to risk a DNF if the situation gets more hairy than the mandatory list. The notable exception to this is what I call “levelling kit”; e.g., a mountain marathon list includes a stove – hot food is not a requirement to survive, so a stove is arguably outside of the justification for the mandatory list (if you ignore the ability to provide a warm beverage in a hypothermia situation – one reason why I suspect it is on there) however it keeps the playing field a little more level.

So far, logic enables us to assess and draw a strategy together for risk, but two very vital elements are missing – appetite for risk and models/ experience. These have a huge influence upon our perceived likelihood and potential impact.

Appetite for risk – risk adverse or risk lover?

One’s tolerance for risk will have an influence on one’s assessment of likelihood and impact which one should be very mindful of – maybe even ask the question; “Have I really got that risk assessment right? Am I being a little too gung ho?” however the major influencing factor it has is over one’s mitigation strategy. A risk lover will be far more comfortable with less kit, it doesn’t mean they wont take enough to be safe, just that they will view the requirement differently to a person that is risk adverse.

The “yeah, but what if” people amongst us may take items to ensure they get to the end at all costs whereas a risk lover may simply say, “well if that happens I’ll just have to drop out & DNF as I believe the chances of it happening are so low compared with the burden of the mitigation strategy”. So risk lovers will tend to mark likelihood lower and be pragmatic (sometimes overly so) about kit. In a sport like ultra running which can see a start line flooded with machismo, this can lead to events being cancelled due to poor decisions; e.g., the 2012 Fellsman was cancelled part way through for the first time in 50 years due to the sheer volume of hypothermia cases. IMO this was about a lack of experience and poor decision making; both in the kit taken and, more importantly when people put it on. “Runners” making “runners decisions” in the mountains is a poor choice; i.e., “I’ll put my jacket on at the next CP” rather than stopping for 2 minutes to stay safe – I’m no martyr, I’ve done this myself several times!

Experience/ Models

These greatly influence our lives in all facets and influence the view of likelihood and impact significantly. As an abstract example, I have a great idea for a business, whilst I know abit about running a business and in the past have been paid to advise organisations as to how they should do it, I see the risk of setting up my own business as way too great – the potential pitfalls and risks outweigh the reward for me. A major influencer on this assessment is down to the fact that I don’t know anybody that has built a business from scratch – I have no first, second or third hand experience of this. Thus all I see is a question mark as to how I pay the mortgage, let alone finance the company.

The same applies to an assessment for the mountains. Once you’ve experienced or witnessed a case of hypothermia it’s harder to believe it can’t happen to you. Is it just a big “bogie man” that only happens to others? Ever badly twisted an ankle and had to get off a mountain alone? All this has a major impact and is generally positive; i.e., results in a more realistic risk assessment.

It must be noted that none of the mitigation strategies are a substitute for experience or knowledge. The best equipped bag in the world is no good if you don’t know how or when to use what is in it. Likewise avoidance of an issue by not taking silly risks is a far greater strategy. This doesn’t mean being over cautious, nor does it mean doing something because you got away with it last time. Regular and realistic in flight assessments should be part of any run in the mountains. My recent run up to Harrison Stickle was a good example of how I personally do that. I looked for signs of successful paths in the snow, regularly checked the crust and if my weight was held before proceeding, I kne my escape routes, slowed down, kept a keen eye on my Nav and ditched the idea of taking in Pike O’ Stickle in favour of getting part way down without the need for my head torch (although I had it on in case I fell and knocked myself out). I knew I was on a well used path and ensured I stuck to it; more importantly I ensured I was warm as toast – overdressing and paying in sweat rather than under dressing and pushing it to keep warm. I also regularly reminded myself that I was on my own.

Was it as much fun as really pushing it? Well as a dedicated sensation seeker I’d say yes, I was forced to concentrate at all times, I got to contemplate my own mortality and it got dark so I got to use some kit ;)

So what, all very interesting but what do I want you to think about/ take away from this ramble? I’d sum it up as follows:

  • Always respect an RD’s kit list and risk assessment
  • It is my firm view that RDs should remember that newbies are greatly influenced by a kit list; put pain killers on there and they may very well think it’s de rigueur – don’t be afraid to put items on the suggested/ recommended list instead , think carefully about what should be mandatory; i.e., if it isn’t mitigating a serious risk with a high impact or a leveller.. if not, suggested list
  • You can’t absolve all responsibility to the RD, do your own personal risk assessment before the race – mandatory kit list is the minimum, the less experience you have the more you should pack!
  • Continue to assess risk throughout your run, especially if solo – take mitigating actions both before (tell somebody your route) and during your run (slowing down, is that potential ankle breaking leap worth it? etc.
  • Kit is no substitute for experience – knowing how and when to use it so search out a course, go on that “crazy” group run in terrible conditions – I’d recommend the FRA run courses, NAV4 (http://www.nav4.co.uk/) and Mountain Run (http://www.mountainrun.co.uk/)

All this talk of risk comes at a time where a race has been found guilty of the deaths of three trail runners. It’s a terrifically tragic case and one nobody ever wants to see or hear about. The only details I have are here and my comment may as a result be deeply misinformed as I am solely going on this.

Ultimately when we take to the mountains for such races we take a risk and a personal responsibility for that risk. The idea that we as participants can absolve all responsibility for our actions is ludicrous. Ok, seeing the weather being a bit iffy could prompt the RD to mandate a bothy bag for all runners, but they can’t account for the actions of the runners to come off the way marked trail. Likewise no matter what is signed before a race, the organisers/planners can still be guilty of gross negligence.

I’ve had a chat with my wife about this very subject and how I wouldn’t want any actions to be taken or any impact as a result of my death if it were to happen. There are times when blame shouldn’t be searched for and it should just be accepted as a tragic accident. I would hate to think that my actions could put limits on the sport I love so much or the freedom that comes with that sport.

The key IMO is to increase the skill levels and knowledge of the participants in these races, I see the governing bodies; FRA, TRA, etc. having a strong hand and influence in this – more cheap/ not for profit navigation courses put on, raising awareness of hypothermia and other issues that pose a great risk to the runner; maybe even a licence system that enables people to run the longer or more challenging races (e.g., AL fell races).

The licence could simply consist of a number of courses and a test of knowledge, phased in over a 3 year period and with an abundance of courses run by local running clubs involved in the fells should make this a relatively painless exercise. It could also strengthen the already strong community. Sure people will grumble, but better than races being cancelled due to organisers not being able to take on the liability.

Numb to the risk?

The final word I wanted to give on risk is that it is calculated but ultimately it is so difficult without a crystal ball that we are forced to subconsciously take risks daily and become numb to them. The key here is that it is the perception of risks that we are ultimately dealing with 0 statistically you are significantly more likely to die or be seriously injured on a standard daily activity; e.g., riving a car, than you are on the mountains. It is out lack of familiarity (and of those around us) with the setting which leads to gross over/ under estimation – much like too much exposure (driving a car) without a reminder (road death/ accident/ near miss).

In short, get trained/ gain experience slowly rather than jumping in at the deep-end without a good mentor. Learn to calculate the risks you are taking and consider them before, during and after (review) make your own decisions to match your comfort level and have fun out there!

 

Got this far? I’d love your thoughts and feedback.

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Kit I trust – Part 3

As a dedicated gear fiend I have managed to find more essential gear that I can’t live without. One looks set to become an expensive addiction, the other fills an excellent gap in my arsenal.

Paramo Valez Adventure Light Smock

Not a name that will ever roll off the tongue, I was put onto the Valez after booking what is expected to be a cold wet night out looking for SI boxes spread about the Peak District: a.k.a. Dark Mountains. Partnering up with Braddan Johnson, who took part in the original event (see here for accounts), he told me the only survivors of the event to get around almost without exception wore this jacket. Whilst everybody else struggled with the conditions and hyperthermia the Valez wearers shrugged it off and cracked on. My reservation over the jacket was the sheer weight of it – my other waterproof weighs a little over 100g so 585g and multiple layers of fabric seemed a bit extreme. I was also concerned about it ‘wetting out’ and just becoming a heavy sodden lump on me if I’m out in a sustained downpour. A quick exchange with Joe Faulkner of Nav4 sealed the deal as a recommendation from Joe on kit is the best I know of.

Why buy it when I have a perfectly good waterproof jacket in the fab Montane Minimus Smock? Well it’s all about cold weather and extreme rain (something of a good purchase given the 2014 weather so far). Wear this jacket to run in at more than 5 degrees and you’re gonna get hot, there is plenty of ventilation with two huge zips at the front of the jacket, but if it’s pouring with rain that kinda defies the point. It is the perfect jacket for biking though and thus I can see why it’s the number one choice for adventure racers (Joe assures me it is also very comfortable to sleep in :))

Having tried and relied upon various fabrics over the years I’ve found that the membrane layered systems such as GoreTex don’t really shift the sweat fast enough. Great for walking, but moving swiftly across a mountain side and I find myself wet through… still warm, but wet through. My experience so far with the Paramo is that it shifts the sweat much quicker or at least appears to. It’s far more comfortable as a result and given the warmth of the garment even if I were to get a little wet I don’t fear a sudden chill down like I do in other jackets.

In the field I wore it for the Tour De Helvellyn 2013. The forecast was 70-90 mph winds and persistent rain. In the end I’d say it was 50 gusting to 70 and I had about 20 minutes of rain, so not the extensive test I was consoling myself I would get for entering such a race, but a test all the same. The forecast for the temperature was to feel like -14, I’ve no idea what it actually got to, but I wore a single short sleeved compression style skin top underneath and a pair of shorts for the race. I was toasty all the way around. I got a sweat on going up Sticks pass which I could feel on my arms and I felt a little wet in the jacket (arms only), but 5 minutes after reaching the top I felt totally dry again. In previous jackets I’d have been soaked to the skin way before Sticks through sweat; in short, very impressed at the breathe-ability.

In the rain the jacket more than stood up to the elements and didn’t wet out. Not the best test though as the rain whilst heavy only lasted ~20 minutes. Enough to give me confidence in the jacket though. I’ll update this once I’ve had a nice 8 hour down pour in it!

Hood – I find the hood is spacious but can be pulled tight easily enough, it also doesn’t flap in the wind which is one of the things that really gets my goat as you’re not only battling the wind, but also being strangled too, so very happy with that side of things. The zip on the front comes half way down and provides plenty of ventilation in addition to two half zips which come up from the bottom on either side. Obviously for venting and they are two way, but I can’t see why I’d ever unzip from the bottom… a slightly odd system. To top it off it has an enormous kangaroo pocket which is very handy but…

The pocket does get wet as moisture is transferred from the layer against the skin and tries to escape via the pocket it obviously cools and makes for a damp pocket. This is no different to any other jacket, but it is a little disappointing of course.

Temperature, only really for cold outings, It’s a perfect cycling jacket, but running in it means it’s only really suitable for cold outings, but I have my minimus smock for the warmer ones, so for me this jacket complements the minimus to make up my arsenal. If the temperature has a minus sign then it’s the valez, otherwise it’s the minimus.

Cuffs – in order for you to be able to tighten your cuffs with your teeth they are reversed, frankly I find this a real pain. If you are left handed I’m sure it’s a boon, but I just find it really awkward and if I had a magic wand (or the ear of Paramo) I’d change these to be a standard cuff.

Price – Retail it’s £190, but a quick google comes up with £165 or hit ebay paramoseconds or paramoextras for a bargain. I paid £125 as the jacket had been used once for a photo shoot then back to the factory for a re-proof; i.e., it was like new.

If you’re doing something cold, adventure race or bike a lot in winter then this is the right tool for the job.

X-Bionic Running Shorts

For quite some time I’ve been interesting in trying out some of the kit from this top end manufacturer, but haven’t been able to convince myself to part with the cash when I know there are other products that work for me but are half the price. X-bionic make a huge number of claims about their products, each one takes half an hour to read about the patents and there is more marketing jargon than any other product I come across. The big question for me was whether it actually worked.

Following the chaffing issues I had on the L100 I knew I had to do something. Sweat had become a real issue. I already used Kinesio tape on my “bikini line” to avoid chafing and would religiously apply if I was doing anything over 20 miles. I also wear skins shorts which I find really good, but they do get wet and don’t shed the water particularly well. Combine that with a standard pair of cotton pants and the chaffing was brutal.

Chatting with Simon Robinson (X-Bionic Rep for UK) post L100 resulted in a generous offer of an ex-demo pair to try out. All I can say is that I now look for x-bionic offers everywhere I go! The shorts themselves are without doubt the most comfortable shorts I have ever worn. They are just like my skins in as much as they stop just short of the knee and whilst they don’t offer as much compression as the skins (probably because I have a large rather than medium pair) they seem to keep the muscles in place very well.

So to the sweat test. Ok, if you’re expecting miracles from all the patents then you’ll be disappointed, at the end of the day whatever you wear will need to absorb the moisture before releasing it so it will still feel wet to the touch on the outside, but the crucial fact is I don’t bother to tape up any more as all chaffing issues have gone. Naturally I need to test them in hotter conditions like we had on the L100, but I’m totally confident that there isn’t a more effective product out there. So yes they cost £70, but a pair will last a very long time and in ultras the right kit is the right kit! I know I’d have paid £70 not to be chaffing where the sun don’t shine. I have also combined the shorts with the start fitness own brand sports briefs. Since rocking this combination I’ve completely eliminated the issue. Thus in my acid test of gear; i.e., would I buy another pair if I lost/ wore them out? The answer is yes, in a heartbeat!

X-Bionic Energiser 2 Long sleeve

I purchased this at 30% off as a replacement for my ever ageing (7 years and counting) icebreaker tops I use when it’s really cold. To be fair to my icebreakers they have been used and abused as I lived in them for a year whilst travelling and have worn them to death ever since. They can get heavy though when I’m working hard as they do hold the moisture. The Energiser has all the sweat traps, air conditioning channels, 3D Bionic Sphere chest, etc. it’s rated as warm and boy does it perform. It’s got excellent compression, comfort and everything is articulated and supported where it needs to be. It is sooooooooooo comfortable I just feel ready for action once I’ve got it on.

Initially I doubted how warm it would be, but I found myself ditching my windstopper smock within minutes of starting out. I then feared I’d get too hot, but again once at temperature it appeared to manage it very well indeed. With the garment being so figure hugging there is nowhere to hid in it, but it also feels like an extension of your skin so it’s my go to warm layer. I’ve also picked up a bargain on sports pursuit for a short sleeve top and again it’ll be my go to ultra top – I wore it under my paramo for the TdH along with my sample shorts and that was it. Despite the extreme weather I always felt super comfortable and like my temperature was being managed by the garments.

X-Bionic in general

Would I pay full price? Yes. Am I a convert to X-Bionic? Yes. Do I think some of their garments are bonkers? Yes. In terms of durability and overall value for money I think it is high despite the price tag. They are comparable in price to a merino top; e.g., icebreakers and they offer so much more than a standard compression top. The products are backed by a 2 year guarantee and in my experience when gear just works then it’s worth the price tag. Keep eyes peeled for web bargains, bite the bullet and buy them, you won’t regret it.

DryMax socks

Whilst training for the Bob Graham I ran into a real problem. Frozen feet. When your feet have no feeling it reduces your speed and drastically increases the chance of injury. Fell and mountain running your feet get wet, there are no two ways about it and in winter it can be excruciating. Until now I’ve used Seal Skins to counter this issue and whilst they don’t keep your feet dry they do keep them warm. Enter DryMax socks. Sam Robson provides a more extensive review here if you want the details. Essentially they work by using that fibres that don’t absorb water so whilst your feet still get wet, they dry out quickly and with the winter socks, they are nice and thick to ensure warmth. I wouldn’t go back to Seal skins now, if it’s cold and wet then I reach for the DryMax.

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So that was 2013 then!

Another year gone, just over two and a half years now since I started running very long and writing even longer. My life has changed a lot since I started; back then I was still battling with getting the right side of the crazy line following my brain injury and 2013 saw me take the final step to bringing things under control. Life is still hectic, but it’s far less confused, fraught, frustrated and prone to angry outbursts. It has been a combination of things, new observations to manage myself, a new migraine prophylactic which made me realise just how frequently I was having them (it was like removing a sheet from over my head and ear plugs, the world now is back to clear volume and I genuinely feel like I can see with greater clarity), and the biggest step of all – going part time.

Going part time has enabled me to be calmer, taken away the majority of the confusion (which I was feeling 24/7) and allows me to do things which I would argue are reasonable to expect; e.g., go to a supermarket without feeling the need to run out or kick off, interact with my children without shouting at them, etc. Doesn’t mean I don’t shout or snap at them, but the frequency is now the same as any normal parent! I’m extremely fortunate to have a sympathetic boss and employer, and I certainly don’t regret making the career sacrifices/ loss of status that it unfortunately demanded. Finally getting to a point of settlement on my case has been pretty monumental and no matter how sanguine I was about it by the end it’s fantastic not to have that looming over me like the never ending story it was. Seven years almost to the day I had the settlement payment, I don’t wish that process on anybody.

So onwards and upwards for 2014, but before I do a quick look back over 2013 is worth while, mainly because I have plenty of lessons to learn from it. Like the tricky second album most musicians fail to pull off, my second year has been a bit of a damp squib. I only realised this as I submitted my entry to UTMB for the second time and noticed that I’d only really done one race; Transvulcania. Everything had been geared around the Lakeland 100 and given that I had my first DNF at that very race I didn’t get any points from it… I did learn a hell of a lot about myself though.

The other main anchor of my year was supposed to be the Welsh Ultra Series, but that didn’t quite go to plan either. The first race was beset by blizzards and dangerous snow conditions so we ran a reduced course, the second one clashed with Transvulcania and the third was moved at the last minute by a week so I couldn’t take part. To be fair to the MCN team they refunded my money for the third and fourth races since I could no longer run in the series (needed 3 races out of 4) so I am sure I’ll return one year to run the series.

I did take part in some epic activities still though, I ran well in my club Fell race series. At one point I could have won it, but threw it away for other priorities. Don’t get me wrong, I know full well this is because my club Nemesis Adair suffered a calf injury early in the season thus enabling me to bag some early points, but there were two races I should have taken top points from and didn’t. The day before Moel y Gamelin I chose to undertake a 50 mile recce of the lakeland 100 course with Braddan Johnson (no regrets on that front, we had a great run and I needed to do it in advance of the race) although to be fair to Jimmy O’Hara he ran a blinder that day and I’m not sure I’d have been able to beat him even if I hadn’t have done the 50 miler. The second race which I should have won was the utterly fantastic Nant y Moch. It was but a few weeks after the Lakeland 100 (or Lakeland 90 as I like to call it :)) and I just didn’t have the beans to overcome Adair that day. Still, even though I came second overall to Adair it was a great series this year with some epic battles out there between Jimmy, Adair and me; the finest of which was the final race of the series where I almost turned back on the first hill – nothing was going right, my legs felt like lead and my stomach was all over the place, I was being overtaken by everybody and Adair and Jimmy were long gone. I decided to just settle into what I could manage and see out the race. As I approached the final climb up the gulley to Moel Famau I took Adair and got the bit between my teeth. I absolutely nailed the climb taking Jimmy part way up and managed to hold on during the descent to take the win – my first real win over Adair I think. Good times.

Supporting Martin’s Double Brutal was also an epic event in itself. His second place at the event was incredible, especially since he wasn’t bothered about where he came, just finishing it. It was an awesome achievement and one I know he’s rightly very proud of. Still think it’s bonkers to do a double, but I think I’ll have a crack at the Brutal at one point, if only to stop people asking me if I’ve ever done a blinking Ironman! Another successful support was a trot out on the Paddy Buckley with Nicky Spinks for her record breaking round – my God that lady can climb! I was so relieved that I caught up before the road support point after falling behind on Cnict!

On reflection I started the year still hampered by the aftermath of the Dragon’s back. It took a huge toll on me and whilst worth every bit of it I should have taken more time off. Transvulcania was epic though and a race I’d certainly like to do again if only to finish without cramp and a drip! Prior to that I’d had one of the best solo mountain runs I think I will ever have. Poor conditions at Val D’Isere meant I was happier to go for a run rather than out on the skis. Lift pass given to my sister in law I headed out and ran up through the resort. The winds meant the side I was on was deserted but a perfect crust was there for my microspikes to dig into. Fair play it was bitter in places, but my long ski socks and shorts still kept me warm enough. Crossing a ridge to the waffle hut was a bit hairy and at one point I fell through the crust up to my waist, but safely across I entered the hut to claim my prize of waffles. I noticed the tone in the hut had changed, a little like the hick town where the music stops as the outsider walks in the bar. Looking around I realised everybody was looking at me in incredulity. A few chats and waffles later I headed out with guys filming me and cheering me on – it’s easy to have a go at the French but when it comes to mountain sports they have got it right, cheering and encouraging the crazy or the daring rather than moaning about any minor impact it has on them. Bravo.

It’s hard to regret entering the Lakeland 100, but it is safe to say that if I had been around the course I wouldn’t have entered. As far as I’m concerned it misses the purpose of going to the lakes; sticking to coach roads/ bridleways which are strewn with rubble is not a place to enjoy yourself. I take my hat off to anybody that wants to do it, takes it on and completes or DNFs there; that said, I certainly wouldn’t recommend it to anybody. I don’t regret my decision to stop and despite all the reasons why it is not the thing for me, I did learn some important lessons about myself (see previous post). These led to the right decision for me of withdrawing from the Spine race. With it just around the corner now I am very pleased with that decision.

My annual trip to the Brecon Ultra went pretty well all things considered. Still 25 minutes off my PB, it was about 40 minutes quicker than the year before. I found myself in what has become a familiar situation in 2013… running along. I’ve not feared running hard in my races this years or just being happy to settle into my own pace. This has meant that I’ve run alone in almost all my ultras. Treading that familiar no man’s land between the very front racers and the chasing pack. I’d run comfortably but hard at the L100 and once Matty Brennan dropped off at Keswick I found myself having to motivate myself – I’ll admit I resorted to a stereo for company… for so long I ran it flat before I finished.

The Tour de Helvellyn was the same, a completely solo run, but I wasn’t racing there anyway and ran completely within myself the whole way. To take 50 minutes off my previous time was very nice mind and I think with a few tweaks and somebody to run hard with, maybe I could dip under the 7 hour mark on this race… it’s all on the conditions though and they were reasonably grotty this year 50-70 mph winds in places and little benefit on the return section for me. Maybe in 2014 I should try harder to stick with people even if that means burning out. Great to see some old faces though… ahem, sorry, faces I know from old… actually, maybe I had it right the first time :)

The last run of the year was epic as things go: the Lanbedr horseshoe and a a fair bit more. Once the first two climbs are out of the way it is undulating all the way to the far end of the run, what with the map in the bag and enjoying it too much we ended up on The Lord Hereford’s Knob (Twmpa) which added in an extra major down & up to get back onto the right ridge. Totally worth it and after 29.5 miles of fantastic company and mind-bendingly beautiful views the beer tasted very good at the Red Lion.

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So what is coming up in 2014? Well, being part time I have all day Thursday off which I will be spending in Snowdonia as much as possible. I’m looking at a Paddy Buckley round and I’m pretty sure I’ll be having a go at it. Despite thinking that trying to work on my pace by attempting to break 3 hours for the marathon, I’ve realised that I’d actually rather be out in the mountains and a little slower in the other races I do. I’ve got Dark Mountains in a few weeks, a night mountain marathon which’ll be in the Peak District. I have no idea how it will pan out, but I’m partnered with Braddan Johnson so it should be a great laugh either way. Following on from a successful first attempt at the Klets class at the Saunders I suspect I will return in an attempt to get the first day route right and hopefully burst into the top 10… we’ll see.

I’ve got a trip to Scotland planned for the Highland Fling, a trip to Anglesey for the Ring O’Fire and a trip to somewhere for the RAB Mountain Marathon planned. I’m also hoping that I get into UTMB which will define the year for me. I’ve no doubt the usual suspects will be in there; the Welsh 1000m Peaks race, the Peris horseshoe, the Fell Relays, but I hope to be fitting in a lot more fell races and a few less official ultras.

The issue to date with fell races are that they are relatively short, but by the time you factor in travel and everything else it is really a full day out as so many start late in the day; thus the idea of doing an ultra appeals if you have the day rather than just the morning. We’re in the process of buying a campervan which may lead us to head out to the area the night before, spend the weekend/ day there punctuated by either myself or Laura running the race. This way it’s really only 1-2 hours out of the day surrounded by a stack of family fun… we’ll see what the reality is. I’d like to race the Welsh championships as well as our club champs and the odd classic; e.g., The Cardington Cracker! Hopefully combining long days out on Thursday with fell races will help bring back some of my speed, one thing is for sure, I’ll have plenty of fun trying!

 

 

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Finishing out the year and thoughts for next…

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!

2014

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.

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The British Fell Relays

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!

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Results:

  • Chris F = 80th
  • Adair and CBH = 57th
  • Phil and Steve = 113th
  • Jimmy – 67th

Results above are overall placings, our final placing within our class was: 54th (in class out of 99)

  •  Jenny – 108th (8th lady)
  • Vanessa and Laura = 155th (27th ladies)
  • Jackie and Nesta = 165th (34th ladies)
  • Jayne = 96th (10th lady)

Results above are overall placings, final placing within class was: 28th (in class out of 38)

Links:

http://www.britishfellrelay.org.uk/

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Kit I trust – part 2

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!

Head torches: See my previous post here

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:

  • Inov8
    • 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
  • PHD
    • Fast and light specialist. Whilst they are not cheap, pound for pound I see good value for money. The best down kit. Fact.
  • Skins
    • Compression clothing, I just don’t rate their calf guards
  • Montane
    • Outstanding jackets/ body covering and gloves
    • Fast and light principles – cut for running
  • Salomon
    • 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)
  • Petzl
    • Not cheap, but excellent quality, beam and aftersales. Superb products. Can’t go wrong with their headtorches
  • Silva
    • Impressive extras within the box, great lamps and top quality construction
  • Gore
    • 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.
  • Mountain Hardware
    • Generally very good kit, not so focused on running specific activity though
  • Nathan
    • 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.

So that’s my list… what’s yours?

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Considering a head torch? My musings on what makes a good one

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.

The purpose:

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:

  1. Emergency/ mandatory kit
  2. Occasional training use
  3. 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.

Budget:

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.

The beam:

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…

Weight

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.

Fixings

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:

  • Silva X-Trail

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.

  • Petzl Nao

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 :)

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