One of my favourite DVDs is ‘On Thin Ice’, the story of James Cracknell and Ben Fogle racing to the North Pole with Ed Coates, a doctor they chose from hundreds of applicants to join them on the adventure.
The story is a bit like an epic A-Team adventure, with a challenge set at the start, set-backs along the way, the characters all being somewhat different from one another and yet gelling into a powerful team and, in true A-Team style, plenty of preparing for the challenge ahead. This is one of my favourite parts of the DVD: the kit coming together, pouring over maps and charts, the logistics and the training. The training is the best bit.
One aspect of the training involved Cracknell and Fogle going into a climactic chamber and living for 18 hours in -35C with a snow canon and a gale throwing out blizzard-like conditions. That really looked tough and as soon as I saw it I really wanted to have a go. But I accepted that wasn’t likely to happen… until Nike called!
My chance to try a climate chamber
The team from Nike and their PR agency Freud took a group of journalists and bloggers to MIRA, a testing facility near Rugby where all sorts of climatic conditions can be created in warehouse-sized sheds with heat exchangers the size of aircraft hangers. Even the security was impressive, demanding our smart-phones and cameras so they could have the lenses taped over to stop us taking photos of prototypes of things!
We were invited along to try out the Nike Elements range and to ensure it was given a thorough testing, we were going to run in the very same climate chamber where Cracknell and Fogle had endured their first taste of arctic conditions. Sadly we were not going to get as extreme as they did, but the guys behind the controls were going to make sure that we ran in pretty challenging conditions.
The Nike Elements range
We met two of the EKINs who gave us our kit and took us through the range –Nike Free Run+3 Shield men’s running shoe (£85), Nike Element Shield Max Jacket (£130), Nike Element Thermal running tights (£50), a Dri-FIT Elements Jacquard Print Half-Zip top (£38), a Nike Speed Short-Sleeve t-shirt (£40), a pair of Nike Elite Storm-Fit Tech run gloves (£25) and a rather fetching Nike Cold Weather Reflective running beanie (£18). It was obvious we were not going for jog on a treadmill in a warm gym!
The main thing that I took away from the session is that Nike have used their technological might to build two things into their new collection – safety and comfort.
Reflections on safety
The safety aspect of the Elements range comes in the form of strips of reflective material. By which I don’t mean the half-hearted hi-vis stuff that is usually sewn onto jackets and gloves. This is an unassuming dull silver material that simple explodes in a lightening flash when a light source hits it – a car headlights would have the panels on the jacket and shoes shining like a supernova!
And comfort comes in the form of waterproof material on the shoes, meaning that any liquid that hits them simply beads and rolls off. And in a stretchy wind-proof and water-resistant membrane on the jacket. We were ready for anything the chamber could throw at us…
The chamber was set up so that three of us could run abreast on treadmills facing a huge funnel that would blow cold air at us while the ambient temperature was reduced.
As we started, I thought it would be interesting to see how the kit would perform at a decent clip, so I whacked the treadmill up to marathon pace – 6 min/mile – and tried to concentrate on how each item felt.
The Nike Elements range
To start with, I was a bit worried that I had a pair of Nike Frees to run in. I have owned a couple of pairs before and I love them, but not really for doing much running in. I tend to think that they are a bit too squishy for anything other than a very easy recovery run and so my Frees tend to be used for walking around as much as for running. But the new Free Run+3 Shield is a very different feeling shoe. It seems to be all in the upper. The sole retains the multiple decoupled blocks which makes them super-flexible. But the upper is much more supportive. The water-proof material and what looks like a new lacing system, really holds the foot tight and suddenly I felt that I was wearing a light, flexible and comfortable running shoe. I’m not sure is the firmer upper is an intended side effect of making the shoe ‘winterproof’, but it made the shoe much more usable as far as I am concerned.
The tights were great – they always are. Apart from a pair of very thread-bare Sugoi tights that are at least five years old now and a pair of ashmei tights that I save for ‘best’, I have three pairs of Nike tights and I love them. Simple and uncluttered, with a neat little zipped pocket at the back, just big enough for a set of keys or an iPod shuffle, I think they are great, with a deep enough crutch and rubberised strips around the ankle to make sure no flesh is exposed at either end.
The t-shirt and half-zip top were stylish looking and really comfortable. But really only there as a support act for the main item – the Element Shield Max Jacket.
This is very much like a soft-shell jacket that anyone who does outdoor activities like climbing or hiking will be familiar with. Not especially waterproof and nowhere near as useful in a downpour as a waterproof shell, this jacket is however shower resistant, windproof, light, warm and flexible. I did find that the built-in gaters in the sleeve that have a thumb-hole were a bit fiddly to manage and I got my hand stuck in a fold of fabric at least twice. But the main innovation is hidden in the hood.
In a slit in the back of the hood is a snood. I don’t know how else to describe it. Held between the lining and the outer of the hood is a piece of fabric which can be pulled over the head so that it sits around the neck like a buff and pulled up over the nose bandit-style. I have a concern, of course, that with the hood pulled over the head and the bandana/snood pulled up over the nose, I would start to resemble some hoodlum hanging around outside McDonalds, but at 10 mph on a treadmill, that was not my main concern. As I started running, with the chamber at 10°C, there was no need for anything over the face, but as the wind speed picked up and the temperature dropped, I thought I’d give the snood a go. The problem is, which I had seen from other people on the treadmill with the snood over their nose and mouth, that hot breath quickly gets the fabric damp which then makes it difficult to breathe. But if it was really cold and you were not working too hard, then it might be a rather good way to avoid chapped lips and a frost-bitten nose.
The climate chamber experience
The treadmill exercise involved the team dropping the temperature and increasing the wind speed. What I found interesting is that because I was working reasonably hard, with full-length tights, two tops, a jacket, a hat and gloves on, I was getting warm very quickly – after all if I race a marathon or half marathon in the autumn and the mercury sits at 7 or 8°C I might wear gloves, arm-warmers and a vest, but nothing more. But there was a point – around 5°C and a 50kph headwind, when the kit really came into it’s own – I suddenly felt right: not too hot, not too cold, not sweating particularly and still able to move fluidly at my marathon race pace. The gear continued to perform really well until we reached 4.7°C and 65kph wind-speed at which point the team turned off the fans and the temperature returned to normal.
And that was the end of our climate chamber adventure. I was really impressed with how well the kit performed:
The tights, t-short, top and accessories are typically good quality and wicked sweat well while keeping me warm in the chamber as well as in several runs afterwards.
The Free Run+3 Shield shoes were a revelation – they felt firm, light and comfortable. Despite being waterproof – and they are really waterproof: I ran them under the tap at home and after several minutes, not a drop of water got through – my feet didn’t get hot and if you’re out running in the rain, I’m sure the Free Run+3 Shield will prevent soggy socks which could help you elongate a run and keep you blister-free.
The Nike Element Shield Max Jacket is great: slim fitting, well designed with useful pockets, highly reflective in places and warm as well as breathable. I would have to say that this is a jacket for very cold conditions and I question the usefulness of the snood if you’re running (and breathing) hard, but for a slow run in the depths of winter, this jacket is just the ticket
After the running we tried on the Nike Flash running vest (£150) – although it was a bit too big for me, making me look like a highly reflective mushroom, but if you want a gilet that will make sure you’re seen on your run, this is worth a look.
And with that, we were on our way back to London. It was a great day and a very good way to try out the kit, which I am sure will be on many a runner’s Christmas list, who can look forward to the onset of real winter weather with relish!