Brooks Racer ST5 – the future’s bright, the future’s orange.

Through my association with Ransacker I was recently invited to a party (erm, well it was called a party, which was unlike any party I’ve ever been to) to view the new products being launched to the running community by Brooks.

It was a really interesting evening and the Brooks team in the UK are really lovely people – knowledgeable and enthusiastic. And Brooks produce a very wide range of products to cater for all types of runner. However the thing that caught my eye was the Racer ST5.

Having long been a fan of the ASICS Tarther, I don’t really feel the need to try to find an out-and-out racing shoe, but what I was lacking was a middle ground between my workhorse Mizuno WaveRiders which I use for everything and the Tarthers, which I reserve exclusively for racing. I hoped the Brooks ST5 would fill the void.

The shoes arrived from Brooks this morning. I immediately pulled them on (breaking the tag at the heel with the first tug, but they were free so I’ve little cause to complain!) and stomped round the flat for an hour. I appreciated the wide toe-box, snug heel, flat profile and light weight. These, I thought, could be interesting…

So tonight I ran home from work in them. 45 minutes easy is what Nick, my coach from runningwithus, has suggested and that seemed like the perfect opportunity to try these ‘racer-trainers’ out. The run home was lovely. The shoes are as comfortable as any I have tried. They provided great grip on the slimy wet pavements through central London and the things I had liked when I tried them at home all remained – roomy forefoot, snug heel, low profile and super light weight for a trainer with quite a bit of cushioning. So you can tell, I am pretty delighted with the ST5s.

And then the story gets better.

What I haven’t mentioned yet is that the Brooks ST5 incorporates a propriatory material in the sole called BioMoGo – the world’s first biodegradable midsole (unless you count the sandals worn by the likes of the Tarahumara of course – they’re pretty biodegradable). The fact that some of the technology from Brooks Green Silence is filtering through to their other shoes is a reason to jump for joy. The fact that I seem to have found a shoe that fits between my super-light racers and my heavy protective every day shoes, that happens to give a shit about the planet is a reason to run and jump for joy. So thanks, Brooks, you’ve made a really lovely shoe and I reckon I’ll be giving them an outing at the Great Bentley half marathon in 10 days. I’ll report on how me and my new orange movers get on.

Go hard, or go home – you decide.

Recently my friend and, dare I say it, sometime mentor Charlie Dark mentioned to me a motto he has adopted: ‘go hard, or go home’. Now I have been thinking about this quite a bit and I have come to realise that it means many things. But one thing in particular about this phrase has embedded itself in my mind. That is the implicit idea that we all have the opportunity to make a decision about our running within a framework – we decide to either go hard or go home. There is no option in this phrase for trying to go hard. Or going a bit hard. There is only ‘go hard’ or ‘go home’.

It has been well documented that the last 30 years have seen a rather spectacular decline in the standards of British male marathon running. In 1985, 102 British male runners ran under 2 hours 20 minutes for the marathon, only 5 managed this same feat in 2005. In the same period there has been an incredible surge in the number of runners from east Africa, especially from Kenya and Ethiopia and more specifically from around the Iten Valley.

This is not the place that I am going to go into a long-winded discussion of why western runners have fallen so spectacularly from grace or why, almost at the same time, African runners have come to dominate the sport. But one thing is for certain – genetics do not play any part at all in either process. Quite simply the genetics of a population change over vastly long periods of time and it is absolutely certain that European runners are not now any less genetically capable of running fast marathons. So the only possible reason for the drop in standards I can see is that we have decided to get worse at running. We decided to ‘go home’.

Last night I was at a friend’s birthday party. It was a typically drunken affair but with my focus on my training and my goals, I elected to stick to fruit juice. Of course someone noticed and it soon started a conversation about running and marathons and inevitably about the people at the party who knew someone who had run a marathon and then – finally – to my times for the marathon. The response to me saying that my PB is 2:40 was verging on hysterical. One of the guests at the party turned to the girl opposite her and screeched “Oh my God, that is fucking amazing. That is like totally elite. I can’t believe it” and I felt angry.

Why did I feel angry? Because 2:40 is good – in fact I am very proud of it – but it is not “fucking amazing” or anywhere near “totally elite” and the overreaction is a damning comment on the state of running in this country. In today’s east Africa a similar time might get me a pat on the back, nothing more. In this country in the ‘70s and ‘80s I would be considered a reasonable club runner.

Today in the UK an ex-smoker and former junk-food eating, heavy drinker who has only been running for 5 years is considered to have done something extraordinary with a 2:40 PB. I think this state of affairs is wrong and I really want to find a way to correct it. I firmly believe that sports (or the lack thereof) in the school system is failing our children and has been for 20 years or more and that has contributed to the decline in middle and long distance running. I also think that the totally disproportionate rewards enjoyed by certain sport-people versus others is another crucial factor. But let me be clear here – the population of the United Kingdom today is genetically identical to that during the 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s. There is no reason – save for opportunity and motivation – why we shouldn’t be producing runners at least as good, if not better, than in our golden period of marathoning. So this is my agenda and declaration – I want to understand why the decline has happened, what can be done to reverse it and then I want to do something about it. I want to contribute to returning to a situation where runners, quite simply decide that they are going to ‘go hard’. Simple, eh?

Thoughts on the Florence marathon 2010

This weekend I ran in the 27th Firenze Marathon, in beautiful Tuscany.This is some of what I thought of the race.

The weather forecast promised rain and it delivered. Man, did it deliver. I have to admit that I tend to be a cynic when it comes to weather forecasts and this isn’t inspite of being a geographer and meterologist – it is because of it. I know how susceptible weather systems are to winds and pressure systems, how a small pressure system dictating the weather can suddenly veer away thanks to a change in temperature or wind direction. So it was no surprise that in the week leading up to the Florence marathon today, I could find every forecast from torrential rain to clear skies. Sadly however, by Saturday morning all forecasts has coalesced on one certainty – rain. Oh, and low temperatures and a fairly stiff wind.

So how was it that here I was, atop a hill with what should have been a magnificent view of the beautiful city of Florence (or Firenze to give it is proper name) in a total downpour that ran off the plastic poncho we had been given and poured down my shivering legs to soak my shoes as thoroughly as if I was standing in a bucket of water?

Well those who have read these ramblings before will know that in August this year I started training with a coach – Nick Anderson from Running With Us. Nick suggested that we target a few races of varying distances culminating in a marathon before the end of the year to give us a benchmark. He suggested Firenze because it is a race he knows and if there is going to be decent conditions anywhere in Europe for a marathon at the end November, there is a good chance they’ll be in Tuscany.

The truth is that I decided the moment I first met Nick for a coffee in the cafeteria of a gym in west London, that I would trust him completely and follow his suggestions to the letter. I reasoned that he is an excellent and well-proven coach and that to do anything other than exactly what he said would be a futile exercise – better to give it a year and see how we go and then pack it in if it didn’t work, than half-heartedly follow a diluted programme and then never know if I was able to improve under his guidance.

I have to say though, that at 8.30am on 28 November under the rapidly emptying leaden skies of Firenze, I was starting to question whether my faith in Nick should be this total.

As expected from a mid-sized marathon with an over-zealous organising committee with questionable professionalism, on a day with such nasty conditions, the start wasn’t exactly smooth. We were herded into overcrowded pens at least 45 minutes before being lead down to the start line. By the time the barriers were removed and the line of linked-armed stewards lead us to the start line proper, I (and everyone around me) was completely drenched and shivering quite badly. We were then stopped again 50 metres from the group of elite and celebrity runners actually on the start line, before the marshalls finally stepped aside and a minute later the gun went and we were away.

The race follows a road downhill for the first mile and I was really aware of Nick’s advice that I should run conservatively and not get carried away by the overzealous Italians determined to break the 10 second barrier for the 100m as a primo piatto to the main course of the marathon. I suspect that as we reached the bottom of the descent I was probably somewhere between 200th and 300th place – I was confident I would see quite a few of the sprinters again.

Nick and I had discussed a plan for the race that would see me aiming for 6min/mile to 6:10min/mile – or 3:45min/km to 3:50min/km in Eurozone marathons – running conservatively to 16 miles and then attacking the last 10 miles. As is often the case for city marathons in order to get the miles in, the course tracked north and then west to the Parco della Cascine to eat up the first half, then tracked out east to take up another 10km before we headed back to the city centre for the cobble-y finale.

I was careful to not get caught up running with people too quick for me in the first 16 miles and indeed I struggled a bit with the fact that I couldn’t find a group at my pace so ran long stretches alone. Luckily the wind wasn’t too bad and I was so wet that there was no way the rain could affect me. I passed half way in 1:21:33 and decided to hold off my attack on the end of the race for a little longer. In fact even when I got to 27km I was still a bit concerned about over stretching myself, but a plan is a plan and I had to see whether I could do what Nick asked of me, so I pushed as hard as I dared. My average pace from 25km dropped from 3:53min/km to 3:46min/km.

As ever the last few miles were really tough and there were a few lonely stretches where I really zoned out and felt quite ‘out of body’. I was convinced that I had hit the wall and was staggering along, whereas in fact my pace only increased the closer I got to the end. Finally around 39km I remember snapping back into reality and realising that I had barely 12 minutes of running left. I started to focus and work out that I had a new personal best in the bag – I just needed to keep doing what I was doing.

And so I did keep the pace and suddenly I rounded the bend into the magnificent Piazza san Croce and the inflatable finish line. Time: 2:40:49 – a PB by 3 minutes, a negative split by 2 minutes and 48th place. Job done!

I find it difficult to describe how cold I felt at the end. I had to grab a foil blanket and a cup of tea and get back to the hotel as fast as I could for a 20 minute hot shower. But nothing – not the cold, nor the state of my feet or the fact that I knew I had no time to relax before I needed to head to the airport – could dampen my elation. I was really proud of myself!

So what does this all mean. Well I think that the conditions and the super-twisty nature of the course cost me a couple of minutes so I think that on a different day I would have gone under 2:40. This means that I am another big step closer to the next target for spring next year and it also validates 100% the faith that I have put in Nick. I am sure of one thing and that is that without his input I would not have run that time in those conditions. So I am looking forward with relish to the next phase of our training. But in the mean time I have two weeks off running and I am determined to enjoy that time and recharge so that when I start to build again towards London next year I am in shape to make me proud of myself again!

Why I might buy ASICS’ entry level shoe

I read today that my favourite brand of running shoe, ASICS, plans to launch a $60 dollar shoe in the US in the near future, as part of its programme to double sales by 2015. This story, which seems to have made more of an impact in the business pages than the running forums, interested me because the price point they have chosen has been described as: the price they can sell entry level shoes at. The implication being that once someone has shelled out $60 for an entry level shoe, they will start to work their way up ASICS evolutionary scale until they are evenually rocking a pair of Kayanos, which retails for around $140.

However I think that ASICS might shoot themselves in the foot with this idea, especially if some of the comments I read are true. Toshiyuki Sano, an executive in charge of finance at ASICS, said that they are pitching the shoe at $60 because that allows certain aspects of the higher priced shoes to be retained, but others will have to go to save costs. And it is exactly this stripping back that ASICS might live to regret.

The barefoot running movement is really starting to gather momentum especially in the US and the UK – only last night a girl arrived at the Mornington Chasers in a pair of Vivo Barefoot shoes – and caused quite a stir with certain older members of the club… but that is another story. And whilst I don’t know many people who I think are likely to go the whole hog and ditch their shoes, amongst my friends and peers there does seem to be a trend towards more minimalist shoes – racing flats if you like. I run in ASICS Tarthers. Others I know favour the Adidas Adios range or the Saucony Fast Twitch. Now please don’t misunderstand me – I know these are not barefoot running shoes in any sense of the word, but I do think that one of the residual effects of the popularity of barefoot running is that the rest of us are increasingly looking for shoes with less built into them.

I would certainly look at a cheap ASICS shoe if one were produced and sold in this country. Most of the time I want a really basic, light shoe and I accept that at the level I run at I will need to replace my shoes every few months, so no big deal. I am not a heavy runner and I don’t have any biomechanical issues that mean I need stability built into my shoe. So from a business perspective this could be a problem for ASICS if they find that it is not just first-timers who buy their stripped-back $60 shoe, but experienced runners who think that less is more and who don’t want to pay for technology with dubious benefits. And I think I might be one of them!

The long and the shorts of it

One of the most oft quoted reasons that running is so popular is that it requires very little equipment – a pair of shoes and you are off! Well as anyone who has been to one of the mass participation races in the UK or runs in an area popular with those out training will tell you, that is far from the truth. With the expansion in popularity of running has come a plethora of running kit innovations intended to make us faster and more comfortable. There are GPS devices, heart rate monitors, knee straps, ankle supports, MP3 players, hi-viz vests and every conceivable type of rucksack or waistpack. The list is seemingly endless.

And then there is clothing. The global sports apparel market is worth $122billion per year. It is a fiercely competitive market and as such there is a huge amount spent on marketing and innovating. So it is no wonder I have such an extensive collection of running clothing, the size and extent of which would make any fashionista blush with envy (and I am not alone in this – every runner and indeed sports person I know is the same). As runners we are encouraged, by every means available, to buy ever more kit.

One of the things that I see time and time again are runners wearing too much. I know that wearing exactly the right combination of layers can be a dark art (unless it is just a beautifully warm day – then it is simple), but one is far less likely to see someone wearing too little as one is to see someone wearing too much nowadays. The reality for many runners, I think, is that especially as the year turns darker and colder and greyer, there is a need to feel comforted by multiple layers to overcome the reluctance to get out of the front door. In the last few weeks – as we approached the weekend when the “clocks go back” – the over-dressed runner has become an ever more regular sight. Well that is fine with me. I for one am sticking with shorts for everything but the slowest run on the coldest day when I might pull on my well worn (but never holey) tights. And that brings me to the point of this post – shorts.

I think that for many shorts are a pretty big issue (although for some they can be a pretty small issue – more on that in a moment). OK, shoes are the most important bit of kit, but shorts are crucial to comfort, modesty and the image that a runner projects.

When I started, I ran in a pair of cut-off tracksuit trousers – the thick cotton sort. They were a disaster. Almost too hot in any weather, they absorbed all moisture like a sponge and after a rain shower they would feel like they weighed close to 10kg. And they were spectacularly unflattering for a red-faced, sweaty fatty like me plodding round my bi-weekly run. After a month or so I decided to upgrade to a pair of baggy, black Nike shorts that came to my knees. Massively more comfortable than the cut-offs they helped me take my running to a new level, although it is worth noting that at that stage – and probably for at least the first 6 months that I was running – one pair of shorts was enough as I was running so infrequently that I could wash and dry them after each run in time for the next one!

At this early stage the baggy black shorts were ideal for me. They covered a large proportion of my lower half thereby saving me from embarrassment and the general public from the need to hold down their lunch as I lumbered past. They were also made from wicking material and had a little pocket that was perfect for keys and a couple of coins.

However in time, as I started training for my second and third half marathon and I began to race in 10Ks and even contemplate a marathon I found that I needed more kit to keep up with the increased regularity with which I was running. Suddenly I was forced to make shopping decisions and I realised there are a lot of shorts out there.

I was still lacking the confidence to buy racing shorts so I stuck with the baggy ones but I did invest in a pair of tracksters (no tights for me at this stage). At the same time I started going to more races and I noticed that the fast chaps wore rather more racy looking shorts. It was inevitable that at some point – if I carried on running more and more – I would want to start to look more like a proper runner. And so I remember when I bought my first pair of ‘proper’ shorts. It was after the Brighton half marathon in February 2006. I finished in 1:40:37 in a monsoon. I think it had rained throughout the entire race. I was soaked and cold and tired and, worse of all, sore from the chaffing my big baggy shorts had administered. But I was a runner. And I knew that I wanted to upgrade my shorts.

I bought a pair of Nike drifit shorts that were racing cut but not too short. I felt like I now deserved to look like a runner and the shorts fitted the bill. After that there was no looking back. I have had some shopping failures – a pair of shorts so short that even now I feel too self conscious to wear them – although they are not as revealing as the shorts a friend of mine bought from eBay which were – oddly he thought – advertised in the ‘gay interest’ section… now they really were short!

Overall I think that investing in good kit is worth it. I don’t really have a brand affiliation although I tend to wear Nike most often as they seem to be the easiest to find in the sales or reduced online. I’d like to try Adidas after I saw quite a few elites and top club runners wearing them at recent races and I really like the matching shorts and vest combinations that Adidas seem to do so well, but shorts don’t wear out very often and so justifying buying new ones is difficult. I am also a big fan of Ronhill which seems to produce really good quality, comfortable kit at a reasonable price.

Overall then, I think that a few things are true for me when it comes to shorts; function first, fashion second; pockets are pretty much useless, so less is more; baggy shorts are less flexible and less comfortable; and unless it is really freezing, in the UK at least, shorts are the best for most conditions, especially in the wet.

Catherine Wilding

Catherine is a great friend and valued contributor to this blog bringing with her unbridled enthusiasm for all things running, a wonderful writing style and the insider knowledge that comes from being a very, very accomplished runner herself.

As a runner Catherine has amassed a really impressive clutch of personal bests, with a 37:08 10K personal best, 80:09 for the half marathon and 2:49:07 for the marathon. Catherine has started in the elite women’s race in the New York Marathon and won the Vienna Half Marathon and Amsterdam Half Marathon along with many other smaller races in her running career so far. When it comes to understanding what it means to run at the top level, Catherine has unrivaled first hand experience. Catherine also has a deep knowledge of, and passion for, nutrition and the ways that getting this area right can contribute hugely to any runner’s success.

Professionally, Catherine is a strategic communications consultant for luxury brands, creative copywriter and journalist, which explains why her articles are so beautifully written.

Bristol half marathon race report

The Bristol Half Marathon is in its 22nd year and continues to grow as runners are attracted primarily by a flat course but maybe also by good organisation, a nice t-shirt at the end and the involvement of a number of the UKs best endurance coaches – not least Bud Baldaro and my coach Nick Anderson. The organisers this year delivered on all counts to the largest ever field of 16,400 entrants. Sadly what the organisers couldn’t control was the weather which was pretty bad.

Through Nick I was lucky enough to join the elite athletes in their starting pen and as we walked to the start from their hotel (I stayed in a local B&B – I might be able to start with them, but I certainly don’t qualify to stay with them!) there was a good degree of gazing at the leaden skies, trying to sound upbeat and making nervous jokes. The reality was that, while we all tried to convince ourselves that these were perfect conditions, in the hour before the start the weather worsened so that by the time we crowded onto the start line it was raining really heavily and, for the majority at least, that was not perfect at all.

The race starts in an overly-designed, concrete and glass area of formerly run-down docks near the town centre. Almost from the start the course heads out along the river and almost before I’d got into my stride we were below the cliffs of the gorge, racing along a road that can safely be described as, erm, flat. This bulk of the route is an out-and-back along this river followed by a rather wiggly four miles in the town centre, which annoyingly incorporating some cobbled sections.

The wet weather continued for almost the entire time I was running although towards the end it was intermittent. However one thing that didn’t abate was the headwind we faced on the return leg along the river. I for one, found that quite energy sapping, especially as I hadn’t managed to lock onto a group at that stage and was running all alone…

I finished in 1:16:20 which is a PB and gets me a WAVA score of over 78%. But I wasn’t happy – I’d really wanted to go quicker and maybe even break 75 minutes. Undoubtedly for me the weather played a part, although the same cannot be said for everyone – the winner Edwin Kipyego finished in 1:03:08.

There were others who fared much worse than me. I passed Liz Yelling hobbling along somewhere in the last third of the race. Afterwards she told me that she has a trapped nerve in her foot, but she was confident that within a few days she would recover. Richard Whitehead, the double amputee who broke the world record for his category at the Reading half marathon this year (where I ran with him for a mile or so), slipped on the wet roads and pulled his hamstring which ruined his race and put paid to his hopes of a new world record, although he ran to the end nevertheless.

And aside from the weather (nobody’s fault there) I do have a gripe that I mentioned earlier; a dark cloud, aside from all the real clouds – the timing chips were supplied with tyvek-type strips which I was naive enough to use and which had one rather significant design flaw – it ripped when wet. So I and several other runners from the elite pen arrived at the end with no chip. It now seems that there were thousands of runners who either had to stop to pick up chips or lost their chips altogether and didn’t have a time registered at all – check this out. This is an issue that the organisers must resolve for next year.

Aside from the chip issue though, I thought the race was great. There were plenty of well staffed drinks stations, great support from the people of Bristol despite the weather, a flat course and a wonderful atmosphere. I’m almost certain to be back.

The talent myth and Matthew Syed

I have just finished reading an extraordinary book and I would like to share how it has had an impact on the way I think about my running.

The idea that natural talent is the primary factor when it comes to athletic ability cannot be new to most of the people reading this (whether or not they believe it). I am a victim of assuming that those I look up to – especially runners who I admire for their speed and endurance – must be genetically superior or somehow more gifted than me. Matthew Syed, in his book Bounce, argues that this is untrue.

When I met my coach for the first time I told him that I was sure I was too old to improve significantly or that – given my genetic limitations – I would not be able to run much faster than I already do. My coach gave me the same response as I heard from Bud Baldaro when I first met him: that I could improve with hard work, dedication and more running. It was a very straightforward message and I realise now that they were telling me that talent had very little, if anything, to do with how fast I could run a marathon. Hard work was the answer. Sadly the message didn’t sink in immediately and it has taken the beautifully crafted words of Syed to hammer the point home – we all have huge potential and all we need to tap into it is hard effort.

The thing that struck me most about Syed’s assertion that talent is a myth is the amount of evidence he is able to call upon to support his arguments. I won’t go into very much detail here (I’d encourage you to buy a copy and read it yourself) but naturally the really interesting passages for me are those where he writes about endurance sports. He explodes the myth that the dominance of long distance running by athletes from east Africa is something to do with their genetic abilities – he points out that indeed it is not east African’s who are ‘natural‘ distance runners, nor is it Kenyans in general who have the right genes for endurance and speed. In fact the majority of successful runners come from a really tiny region called Nandi District which contains only 1.8% of Kenya’s population but has produced about 90% of the top Kenyan runners (and about 50% of the world’s top-class Kalenjin athletes). The dominance of this region is down to opportunity and inspiration – this is a region where many, many children use running as the primary transport method to  get to and from school and where their local heroes are the stars of long distance running. To cut a long story and a very good book short, these factors along with the desire to work bloody hard at their chosen sport is what makes these people special.

So how does that relate to me and my running? Well I think that Syed’s book makes it clear that one of the reasons the talent myth is so widely believed and so deeply ingrained in the consciousness of the majority of people is that it offers an excuse for mediocrity. It is all too easy to look at someone who is better than oneself in any field and reach for the consolation that we could never be as good as them because genetics have dictated that they would be better no matter what (and that therefore trying is a waste of time and effort). It is a much more bitter pill to swallow to acknowledge that the reason they are better is that they practice more or they train harder.

So for me this means that I have to shrug off the mantle of inferiority. I have to face up to the fact that I can run faster – much faster – if I dedicate myself more and train harder. It becomes a question of motivation, because it now is apparent that if I get up earlier to fit in an extra run or turn down a social invitation in order to rest before a key session or race, my running will benefit and I will get quicker. Whilst running with two club mates on Sunday this was brought home with some force when, after describing how much more running I am doing now in comparison to what I did for my last road marathon (in Paris), I was told that the modest target that I have set for Florence in November is inappropriate – his point was that if I am going to put in this much effort then I should aim for and expect a much larger improvement. So I’d better finish this off now and get to the club… I’ve got the second of my two runs today to do and a new target to set for November!