Back to the start

As I get older I have a growing sense that life loops back on itself over and over again. I suspect that this is because of deeply ingrained habits that mean that no matter how hard we try, we often end up doing the same things over and over again. I also think that if you can recognise this circularity, it is possible to adapt and manage our behaviour – even make a virtue out of the process.

Going back to my running roots

So here I am, almost back to where I was 10 years ago when I first started running: trying to find the love and the habit of running. In fact the circle almost returned on itself completely on Sunday. I went to Bristol to run the half marathon there with my best friend Rob. It was a decade since Rob and I ran our first proper race – the Great North Run. I struggled – and I mean really struggled – to a 1:57 finish, delighted to have dipped under 2 hours. Rob was there all the way and in fact it was he who encouraged me in the last mile or so when I was whimpering and trying to find excuses to stop. He wouldn’t let me give in.

Fast forward 10 years and I had the honour of returning the favour and supporting Rob as he ran a very pleasing 1:44 as preparation for an assault on a sub-4 hour marathon in a few weeks.

To get the reward one needs to do the work

Florence MarathonThe weekend in Bristol really made me realise how much I love road running. The Bristol course has a 6 mile out-and-back section along the gorge under the Clifton Suspension Bridge. This means that as most runners are heading out at mile 3 or 4, the lead runners are returning on the other side of the road at mile five and six. It is a great opportunity to see fast runners doing what they do so well. I was captivated to see the elite men and women fly past. And even more so I loved seeing friends such as Jamie Smalley from Runderwear and Andrew Levison, hammer past at sub-6 minute/mile pace. I thought:

That is where I want to be

I love running fast and free. I love racing others. I love chasing times.

I also know that in order to get to a point where I can race at the level I want to be, I need to put in the training. I am not getting any younger, but I have a feeling that the last 12 months of relative inactivity might have done me the world of good. My body has rested and my mind has had a chance to focus on other things. The downside is that I have got out of the training habits that I think I need. But I can get back to habitually running. I did it before, 10 years ago, and I was coming from a much lower base then. This time I am older (but not too old), wiser (but still suitably naive) and definitely determined. Plus I still have this blog, which was set up as a way of recording my journey to try to become the best runner I can be.

I guess I haven’t quite answered the question I started with yet: how good can I be? Here’s to continuing to find out.

ASICS Beat the Sun… did they make it?

Ten days ago I wrote about an event that I had just been invited to in the Alps – the ASICS Beat the Sun challenge. The idea is simple – can a team of runners, in a relay, circumnavigate the Mont Blanc between sunrise and sunset on the longest day of the year?

Last year there were two elite teams of athletes trying to succeed in this seemingly possible, but extremely challenging task. One team made it (just) and the other team didn’t, but the narrowest of margins.

A year on and the idea had developed, so that now there would be five team, each representing a region: Southern Europe, Northern Europe, the Americas, Africa and Asia Pacific. And in each team there would be three pros and three amateurs, each running a couple of legs.

The set-up

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The mountains played their part perfectly. The weather was just right, there ws enough snow on the high passes to make for some epic legs and the views were simply spectacular.

The teams themselves all seemed to bond and there was as much love between the teams as there was rivalries.

The guests – me included – were treated to a really fantastic weekend where we had the chance to try out some of the current ASICS trail ‘Fuji’ range, run on the trails and follow the event as it unfolded.

So what happened?

2015-06-21-ABTS-Raphael Jacquemar-4349Well one thing that is for certain is that a Hollywood script writer would have struggled to fit in as many twists and turns as reality managed. Thanks to the tracking technology that for the most part worked perfectly, we (and the rest of the world) could track the runners online as they moved along the trails. And it seemed that as each teams stronger runners came into play the lead was swapping continuously.

Just one example was what happened to the race in Italy. As all the gathered guests waited in Courmayeur for the race to come through and the runners hand over the GPS baton, we understood that one of the Northern Europe runners had got lost. His team – led by the fantastic Holly Rush – was now in last place, well adrift from the other four teams and miles behind the sun. They were out of the race.

But suddenly the spare runner was being readied. Who was injured? What was going on? He sped off in a car and we watched the Americas, Asia Pacific and Africa runners come in, hand over the baton and send their team mates on their way. News arrived that Southern Europe – one of the strongest teams – has stopped. It was their runner, the amateur Virginia Nanni (who I must say I thought looked a bit too glamourous to be taken seriously as a trail runner!) who needed help. In the end, she had stopped because she had a stitch, but that is by-the-by. The question was, would Northern Europe suddenly be back in the race?

Nanni’s replacement came in to Courmayeur and their next leg runner, Xavier Chevrier, shot off like a man possessed. Leaving Lukas Naegele, from team Northern Europe, waiting like a jilted bride. And he waited. And waited. And waited.

Actually, that was dramatic and slightly heart breaking. Lukas is a fierce competitor and to see him have to hang around while the other runners disappeared off up the mountain, was terrible. Of course, like the true competitor that he is, when he got the GPS unit he went off like a rocket. But it all felt a bit pointless for the team who I thought had one of the best chances.

Coming soon

Once again the whole event has been captured by Sunset + Vine and there will be a film out soon. In the mean time I can say that Team Americas won the race and beat the sun, as did Southern Europe. Team Northern Europe battled hard but were a very distant fifth. While Asia Pacific and Africa raced every step of the way. There were wonderful moments of camaraderie. There was drama. And there was lots of champagne celebrations.

If you want a sneak preview, here is a first edit of the film. Personally I think this is a great challenge and I can’t wait to see what ASICS comes up with for the 2016 edition. My only request… make sure Iaza is there!

Bringing the Marathon Majors to your garage (if you have one)

A few years ago – after I’d run a few sub-3 hour marathons – I got the idea into my head that I would try to run all of the Majors, that was London, New York, Berlin, Boston and Chicago (before Tokyo was added to the group) in under three hours each. I loved big city marathons, I had already ticked London and Berlin off the list and I had a job that would allow me to travel long-haul to run races. I thought it would be a great little challenge to set myself.

Before I got started on that plan though, I worked out that for environmental and financial reasons it was a bit silly and I shelved it. Apart from anything else, Julie and I had launched freestak and we were ploughing every ounce of effort and every penny into building the business.

Having resigned myself to abandoning the plan, I was rather interested to hear recently about a new app that is making big waves at the tech–running interface and which allows people to virtually run a whole range of race courses from wherever they want.

Screen Shot 2015-06-19 at 06.38.48RunSocial has just announced the launch of a new version of its software that allows runners to transport themselves from a treadmill to the streets of a major city or iconic race route via their super-high definition 3D renderings. And best of all, you can race other people on the same course.

I have to say that I am not someone who uses a treadmill. That is mainly because I don’t have a gym membership. But I know that there are many times when if I had a treadmill in the garage (which would, of course, require having a garage!) I would jump on that for a quick recovery run or a threshold session rather than battling the crowds and the traffic around central London where I live. I would definitely spend less time faffing is I knew that all I had to do was pop down to the garage-that-I-don’t-have for a run.

However I have run on treadmills before and what I do know about them is that there is one big problem – after three minutes of staring at the wall or watching the numbers slowly ticking up on the display, most normal people are bored to tears.

So I like the idea of RunSocial for people who do love their treadmill or who believe that running indoors is the best option for them. They can start the app and rest their tablet on the front of the machine (obscuring the statistics which has to be a good thing!) or connect to a TV screen if their treadmill set-up is that well appointed! The 3D rendering of the course moves at the speed of the runner and if you can find someone else who wants to run the course ‘against’ you – no matter where they are in the world – you can actually see their avatar and race them (disclaimer here – RunSocial do not talk about racing using their app due to the propensity for people to fall off the fast moving conveyor belt and brain themselves before trying to sue RunSocial for their own inability to stay upright).

Obviously there are many ways in which this virtual running could be developed. I imagine that GPS tracking technology could allow people on the RunSocial app to run with or against the avatar representing someone actually doing a race somewhere in the world. Or there could be global running challenges where runners all over the world start a course at the same time and see who would be the fastest.

Personally, I’m not sure that I would fancy running a marathon on a treadmill. But I do like the idea of being able to explore a course somewhere in the world that my environmental and financial concerns won’t allow me to actually visit. That could be the Boston marathon as four 10km legs. Or the London marathon broken into 30 minute chunks over a week or so. Or how about a Rollapalooza-style race on a bank of treadmills between teams? So many opportunities. I guess all that is missing for me is a treadmill.

And a garage to put it in.

Check out RunSocial at www.runsocial.com and on the iTunes app store. And if you have already run using the app, please let me know how you got on.

 

ASICS Beat The Sun returns to Mont Blanc

Imagine a challenge so finely balanced that after 15 hours of total physical commitment and days of planning the target is missed by a fraction over half a minute. That would be incredible, non? Well that is exactly what happened at the ASICS Outrun The Sun event last year. Two teams attempted to run around the Mont Blanc as a relay between sunrise and sunset – just over 15 hours. One team – Team Ultra Trail – made it with a few minutes to spare. The second team, Team Enduro – which included my wonderful friend Holly Rush – missed the official sunset time by 33 seconds. As I said in the film that Sunset + Vine made about the event, it is hard to imagine a better challenge: had the route around the highest peak in Europe been even 10km longer or shorter, there would have been no challenge.

But there you have it: a perfectly poised challenge that was great fun to observe. And having run the CCC – the same route but only from Courmayeur to Chamonix – I know exactly how tough the challenge was.

BTS_logoBut what next? Team Ultra Trail, which included a former winner of the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc, beat the sun. The next group attempting this would have learned from any slight mistakes the successful team made last year. And Team Enduro… well they would know that they just have to run 33 seconds faster. Obviously there is no way to artificially make the course tougher. I guess you could handicap the runners in some way. But that would be very hard to do fairly. So how about handicapping the team? Maybe by offering a non-elite athlete or two a place? Yes, that would work. And that is exactly what ASICS have done.

Next weekend ASICS Beat The Sun returns to Chamonix and this time they have decided to let amateur runners be part of the fun.

Holly Rush: friend, athlete and mountain goat rolled into one
Holly Rush: friend, athlete and mountain goat rolled into one

In fact this year ASICS have created five teams, one each from northern Europe, southern Europe, the Americas, Africa and Asia-Pacific. And each team has a contingent of amateur runners. For team northern Europe, which has Holly Rush, Christian Schiester (Austria) and Lukas Naegele (Germany) as the elite athletes, there will be Loughborough University Student Charlotte Love, aged 23 from Ascot, Finn Volger from Germany and Benjamin Druml from Austria.

The challenge remains the same – the six athletes have 15 hours, 41 minutes and 35 seconds to cover 148km which includes 8,370m of ascent and descent.

Honestly, knowing how hard Team Enduro worked to miss the target by 33 seconds, I think this is a big ask. Personally I would not rate my chances of running my leg fast enough to keep any team I was in, in contention. But thankfully that is not something that is going to be tested. ASICS have very generously invited me to go to Chamonix to watch the five teams take on the mountain paths, and I am sure there will be plenty of trail running for those of us observers who want to, but there won’t be any pressure. Other than to make sure we leave something behind the bar for when the thirsty runners make it back… hopefully just before the sun sets.

National Cross 2015

Yesterday I went to the National Cross on Hampstead Heath to watch thousands of runners do battle with the hills and mud. What became pretty obvious, was that I prefer to be behind the camera than pulling on my spikes and struggling around. I should probably have been running, but I’m really happy with the shots that I took and to be honest I’d have probably been last had I been running, so I probably swerved a bullet there! Hope you enjoy the pics (click on them to enlarge) …

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Amba Hotels City of London Mile is GO!

Screen Shot 2015-02-21 at 08.22.52  Last year I was lucky enough, through the business I co-own, to work on the inaugural City of London Mile race – a one mile hurtle around the streets in the Square Mile, starting and finishing in the shadow of St Pauls Cathederal. Now I will come clean and say that I am not a huge fan of the mile as a running distance – I guess I started too late in life to be a quick runner and I prefer the combined mental and physical challenge that longer races present to the all-out-all-painful gallop that a mile requires. But I had run one before and I knew that whilst it was undoubtedly a painful event, it was also over quickly.

This year the City Mile team again asked us at freestak to work on the race and we gladly accepted. The race is growing in numbers and profile now that the first year proved to be such a success and with the backing of the headline sponsors, Amba Hotels, the race is completely, utterly and totally free for everyone to enter. Yep, that’s right – no entry fee whatsoever.

So you can run a super-well organised race, on closed roads in the heart of one of the greatest cities on earth… for nothing. And – if it is important to you – you get all the usual paraphernalia as well. There are no corners cut.

If you fancy the challenge (and I really recommend that you do have a go) you can now sign up here. I reckon that despite training (erm, I’ll get started soon, I promise!) for a summer of ultras, I’m going to be there giving it my all for a handful of minutes. I mean, it’s free – why wouldn’t you?

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adidas Boost – the next chapter

SS15_Boost_PR_FW_Neon_3x2When adidas announced Boost as their latest technology, I honestly thought that they were on to something in terms of changing the paradigm. They had created a material that would challenge the ubiquity of EVA as the stuff that was on the bottom of every pair of running shoes (excluding the most minimalist of minimal shoes which have no cushioning at all). But as with all technology, the proof is in the pudding. How would Boost stand up to millions of miles of running? What would runners think of it? Would it become the default cushioning material for running shoes everywhere in the way that EVA had in the past?

My personal Boost experience

Personally I think that Boost is brilliant. It is firmer that a lot of the EVA that is found in trainers. And what I really liked is that now it has found its way in to the adios adiZero – my marathon racing shoe of choice – there is what I think is the perfect balance of weight, cushioning and firmness.

In fact in all the adidas shoes that I have had the chance to run in, that have Boost in them, I have found the material to be just about right.

SS15_Boost_PR_FW1_3x2As an aside, I think that when the adizero Prime Boost came out, adidas had come pretty close to the perfect racing shoe for me: low-profile Boost cushioning with around 9mm drop, durable rubber outsole and a flexible breathable upper. Only problem is the price at the time of the launch – £185!

Now Boost continues

Today adidas have announced the next chapter in the Boost story – the Ultra BOOST. adidas tell me that this trainer features 20 percent more BOOST cushioning material which they claim has the highest energy return cushioning in the running industry.

The shoe looks pretty amazing and there is a very sumptuous video to go with the launch. As soon as I can, I will run in the new Boost shoe and post a review, but for now… enjoy:

http://youtu.be/oqpTJP36okk

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Imagine… passion and profession coming together

Imagine your favourite thing in the whole world. And then someone says ‘here you are, come and do it for a living…’

Now I hope that all the wonderful people who actually read this blog understand that I am reasonably skeptical; open to ideas wherever they come from (and that includes from brands) but always ready to question their value. So when I post the advert below, please believe me when I say that it is not because I think that HSBC is the champion of the underdog or that they were not complicit in the chronic misbehaviour that all of the banks in this country indulged in and which left the economy teetering on the brink. But I think that the film expresses a sentiment that I agree with – that creating a business from your passion feels unreal: as if it is a fluke or something that shouldn’t happen to people like me.

Julie and I now have a business together with two colleagues who are helping us build something really special. I am massively proud of what we have started. Undoubtedly the hard work is still to come, but the fact that we now work in the endurance sports sector is a blessing that I am grateful for every day and the opportunities really are endless.

Screen Shot 2014-12-03 at 19.02.31One of the interesting things about the journey that Julie and I are on, is being involved in something fluid, where the business changes and develops. And we have the chance to guide the company as we go, which is an amazing challenge and opportunity.

Now we are looking for more people to come and join the business. So we have created a job description and a form that anyone interested in joining us can fill in so that we know something about them. If you think you might be right for the business or you know someone who might be, we would love to hear from you/them (in case the link above doesn’t work, this is what you need to paste into a browser: http://www.freestak.com/2014/12/were-looking-for-people-to-join-us/)

I’m already looking forward to meeting the next member of the freestak team!

Avoiding a doping problem in marathon running? Might be too late.

I just read an astonishing – and very disappointing – statistic relating to elite level marathon runners:

Thirty-six Kenyans have been confirmed as failing [performance enhancing drug] tests in the past two years.

And probably the saddest thing is that I’m not at all surprised. The reasons why doping is almost certainly endemic in the heartland of endurance running are well understood and follow a pattern that, without a dramatic re-think by the authorities, will almost certainly be repeated over and over again. The pattern is something like this:

  1. A sport increases in popularity
  2. Brands recognise that people (their potential customers) are watching and/or participating in the sport in increasing numbers and they want to get involved, in the case of endurance sports by sponsoring races and athletes
  3. Races compete to offer bigger prize pots to attract better runners so they get more sponsorship
  4. As a result of more money – both in terms of sponsorship and prize money – athletes find that there is more and more competition at the top
  5. Athletes start assuming that the people who are winning the big prizes are doping, therefore they need to start doping in order to compete
  6. … Et viola! You have professional cycling in the ‘1990s and early 2000’s
Rita Jeptoo. Winner and cheat.
Rita Jeptoo. Winner and cheat.

I recognise that this is massively over-simplified, but a slide towards systematic doping like this is well recorded. And if you factor in that running is a sport in which there are few barriers to entry, then athletes from places like Kenya have an even greater incentive to win ever more competitive races. To put that in context, it is worth knowing a few facts about Kenya:

  • The per-capita GDP is $1,137 (compare that to the UK where the figure is $40,000)
  • Unemployment is around 40% (in the UK it is 6%)
  • 45% of the population of Kenya is below the poverty line

Winning the London Marathon nets $55,000. If the race is won in under 2:05 there is a $100,000 bonus and if the runner breaks the course record into the bargain, there is another $25,000. That could mean a winning prize of $180,000. Not bad if you come from a subsistence farm in rural Kenya. Oh and of course by winning the London, the athlete has quite a bit of additional sponsorship to factor in.

The point I am rather ham-fistedly trying to make is that there is a very strong motive for athletes – especially from poor places like east Africa – to win a relatively small number of races that have life-changing prize pots. In this environment, with so many people aiming for the same prizes, it is understandable that people will take whatever measures they deem necessary to win. And they can always justify those means by assuming that everyone else is using nefarious means.

There are a couple of other factors that point towards widespread doping in endurance sports in east Africa being probable:

  • In Kenya there is practically no out-of-competition testing which means that the chances of being caught are minimal (at least that used to be the case, but perhaps that is changing)
  • The brands are not motivated to ensure that their athletes are not doping. Apart from the embarrassment there is no real penalty for the brands if their athletes dope and if they are caught the brands simply deny knowledge and distance themselves. However being associated with winners is very good for the brands
  • The national federations are not motivated to stamp out doping – they want winners: it is good for national pride, national income and raises the profile of the country on a national scale
  • Coaches and agents are not directly penalised if their athletes are caught doping. Certainly their reputation suffers, but they are rarely in the limelight – after all who knows who Lance Armstrong’s agent was? – and they earn money from their athletes winning stuff, so they are at the very least motivated to turn a blind eye

So there you have it – the reason I am not surprised that there are so many runners in east Africa being caught doping is that I think there are many, many reasons why athletes would dope and very few why they wouldn’t.

The answer? Well if I knew that I would be the head of WADA (the World Anti Doping Agency). But I do tend to think that much, much stiffer penalties would help. For a start I think that if runners knew that they faced a lifetime ban from all competition in all sports for any doping offense, they might think twice. Warren Gatland – the sprinter banned TWICE for doping violations is testament to how ineffectual short bans are – he spent the time he was banned ‘getting faster’ (read into that what you will) and came back after a few months away, quicker than ever, winning hundreds of thousands of dollars in Diamond League outings this year.

I would also take a Mafia approach and go after everyone associated with the cheats – their coaches, agents and doctors would all face lengthy, if not permanent, bans. National federations would face huge fines (in fact I would make them responsible for repaying the cheat’s lifetime winnings). Brands would be fined for sponsoring cheats.

That all sounds a bit heavy handed. But it might start to make the people who are currently uninterested in stopping their athletes from doping, have a strong incentive to make sure their athletes clean. And the athletes themselves would know that one slip would result in no sports career whatsoever for the rest of their lives.

I expect there are a myriad reasons this is not fair and not practical. But it is all I have got. If you have any suggestions, I’m sure WADA would love to hear them!

I can’t, but you should…

As the co-founder of freestak: the endurance sports agency, I get to work on some absolutely fantastic events. In fact one of the principles that we stick to at freestak is that we only work on projects and products that we personally believe in. The downside of this is that I disqualify myself from entering some amazing competitions. Like this one!

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This is a really amazing competition. All you have to do is upload a picture or a story of one of your adventures – it can be anything: daytime or night time, UK or abroad and it really doesn’t have to be too epic. By entering you are automatically in a draw to win an amazing holiday in Austria where you will be flown to Austria, put up in a 4-star hotel, be taken out on some amazing mountain adventures (suited to your level of intrepidness) and be kitted out by Berghaus and LEDLenser. Here’s the link to enter.

I would certainly want to win this prize. Sadly the terms and conditions I wrote myself exclude me from entering. But you should. And if you win, send me a postcard!