The North Face might have just changed my life

It is easy to by cynical when brands claim that they are inventing or re-inventing a concept and bringing it to the people, when in fact what they are doing is hitching their wagon on something really cool and riding it all the way to the bank. There are some really horrible examples of this. But there are also times when brands can really genuinely inspire and motivate. That is the power that brands have (in fact I believe it is their responsibility, but that is a post for another time). And today it happened to me.

For the past couple of years I have been struggling to fill the void that has been left by me not training for a tilt at my marathon PB. The truth is that without the motivation and focus to nail 9 or 10 runs a week, because of my commitment to, and excitement about, the businesses that my wife and I have launched, I have drifted physically. I have allowed my fitness to slowly ebb away (made worse by getting older and not adjusting my diet from the days when I was running 85-90 miles per week). Generally I have been feeling quite pissed off with myself.

Screen Shot 2016-02-19 at 08.07.59
A stock image from TNF. Hopefully I’ll have one of me from them soon!

What I have been told over and over again, is that I should do more varied activities. More intervals. Different sports. Mix it up. There have been so many people telling me, or showing me, this that I won’t attempt to list them all here. But Julie (my wife) has been chief amongst them. My friend Tony from Nike. My friend and one-time coach Nick. The chap who did my body composition analysis a while ago. Every copy of every fitness magazine I have read. Charlie Dark from the RunDemCrew. They have all told me or shown me the same thing.

But today it feels that I reached a tipping point.

I was invited to the official launch of The North Face’s Mountain Athletics project. This is an all-encompassing programme that includes footwear and apparel, a training app and regular training events that The North Face stores around the world.

The idea behind this is that TNF have recognised that athletes – especially those doing amazing things in the mountains – train like maniacs to allow them to do the things that TNF ultimately sponsors them for. The brand now wants to wrap its arms around the hours, days, weeks and months that athletes spend preparing themselves as much as they want to own the moments of success.

The launch event started off pretty typically. A room full of journalists, influencers, athletes and brand people. Coffee. Pastries. Yoghurt.

Then we had a series of presentations. Bonita Norris, the youngest British woman to reach the summit of Mount Everest, was the host. She introduced the head of Mountain Athletics from The North Face who described the idea behind the programme and the apparel and footwear. Then climber James Pearson took to the stage to talk about preparation for the climbing that he does with his wife.

And finally…

Sir Ranulph Fiennes. We were treated to the greatest living explorer in full-on dry humoured flow, talking about his youth, years in the army and the SAS and the incredible expeditions that he has undertaken and which are his career. I can only say that if you have the chance to hear Sir Ran talk, go. It is an experience not to be missed.

Then after all the talking, we were told that we should go through to the next room to get involved in some training.

Screen Shot 2016-02-19 at 08.07.03
A stock image from TNF. Hopefully I’ll have one of me from them soon!

Now I have been to enough launch events to know that most of the time the safest option is to cater to the weakest possible attendee. By not making the physical activity in any way challenging, the cigarette smoking, just-back-from or still injured, out-of-shape journalists or influencers can take part and the brand will get the coverage it wants.

Not The North Face.

We were faced with three channels – training for skiing, training for climbing and training for trail running.

We were randomly assigned to a channel.

In each channel there were ten exercises paired into five stations.

We found a partner and did each exercise twice, alternating between us.

So that might be one person doing lunges whilst the other did step-ups.

For one minute.

Then we swapped.

Twice.

So each channel took 20 minutes (excluding a brief pause between each station while we moved). And we were ‘invited’ to do all three channels.

I have not felt so knackered, out of my depth, sweaty and in pain for quite a while (it could be getting on for years!) But I have also not felt so excited, exhilarated, alive and pumped for the same amount of time.

To put it mildly, I loved it. I was crap at lots of it. My arms and legs and core feel battered, typing this five hours after we finished. I am ravenously hungry. And I wish I could go back for more.

The kit, such as it was, did a great job. A really nice pair of baggy shorts and a t-shirt. And a pair of shoes. The shoes are interesting. They are not – in my opinion – right for running. But for what we were doing, they were perfect. Low-profile, grippy, light and they look pretty durable. You can check out the range here.

So where does that leave me? I have always said that I am a lazy person. Possibly part of the reason I ran reasonably well is that I did what was necessary. No more. I have shied away from the gym, cross-training and fitness. I just ran. But today I had the time of my life. I was sweating so much that I couldn’t grip the handle of the kettle bell. I was bend-double at times. My puny arms took a hammering. But I loved it. I am 100% convinced now that this is the way forward. I will always be a runner, but I have seen the light. Thank you The North Face – it was a very entertaining morning. But more than that, you have given me the chance to actually experience the thing that I have known I should have been doing all along. And it was excellent. Please check it out yourself if you are interested and if anyone wants to do some mountain athletics training with me, I’m definitely game.

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.

 

adidas Ultra Boost review: are they really that good?

When adidas launch a shoe, they really launch a shoe. When they first announced their new midsole material – Boost – they took a group of people (me included) to New York where we joined journalists and blogger from all around the world at a stunning event at the Javits Centre – the home of the New York Marathon.

SS15_Boost_PR_FW1_LED_3x2So it was no surprise that when the brand with the three stripes (and the nobbly midsole material) announced the launch of the Ultra Boost – which they claim is the greatest running shoe ever – it was going to be a big deal. This time I was NFI for the trip to New York, but I was sent the PR material and I talked about the shoe coming out in an earlier post.

A few weeks later, a pair landed and I had the chance to try them out for myself. Here are my thoughts.

A shoe is just a shoe

The first thing that I have to say is that I am a bit of a cynic when it comes to the claims that shoe manufacturers make. Whether they are mega-minimalist sandles made from recycled tyres and hemp rope or huge, six-inch-deep platform shoes, I tend to think that running shoes are only as good as the person they are attached to. And they will never be a substitute for proper training and hard racing.

Nevertheless, good shoes can make a difference as much as bad shoes can and, as runners, I believe they are our only essential bit of kit, so they are not to be ignored.

Fundamentally though the adidas Ultra Boost is just a running shoe. I have tested them properly and I can confirm that they do not make me faster, less lazy, better looking or richer. No shoe can do those things (although some might claim they can!)

Ultraboost_FW_Exp_FunctionalA running shoe with benefits

There are differences however. And they are arguably significant.

Some time ago I expressed the opinion that the ultimate racing shoe for me would be a hybrid of the Nike Flyknit Races upper and the adidas adios Boost sole. The adizero Prime Boost comes close to being that shoe.

With the Ultra Boost, adidas have taken the same elements – the Prime Knit upper and the boost sole – and made a more usable shoe. They have made a shoe that could be used for lots of runs – easy, tempo, threshold, long runs and even races. The Prime Knit upper is great – flexible, breathable and it wraps around the foot meaning that my foot remained at the perfect temperature, there is absolutely no rubbing and the shoe feels really well held in place.

Underneath the combination of Boost midsole and Continental rubber outsole means that there is plenty of cushioning without the shoe being doughy and there are no problems at all with durability or grip.

The shoe is light, comfortable and for those who like a bit of heel-to-toe differential, it has that too (be warned if you are part of the zero-heel-drop-brigade, this is probably not the shoe for you)

Overall thoughts…

I think that the adidas Ultra Boost is a great shoe. I am sure it will sell well. As usual, adidas have put a lot of technology into the shoe in both the upper and the sole. The shoe will confirm to the shape of all but the weirdest trotters and there are no signs that the shoe has durability issues. It also – in my opinion – looks fantastic.

I am not going to race in the Ultra Boost – I prefer a lighter and less bulky shoe. But for everyday use and the odd session, this is a great option. Possibly not the greatest running shoe ever, but then I don’t think there ever has been or ever will be a greatest running shoe ever – it is all a matter of personal preference. I would say, however, that these are worth buying if you want a go-to shoe that performs well and looks great – they might just be the greatest for you.

Screen Shot 2015-03-12 at 22.39.55

Click to open the infographic: ADIDAS_BOOST_INFOGRAPHIC

Book review: The Way Of The Runner by Adharanand Finn

At the end of last year the team behind Like the Wind magazine along with some wonderful friends opened a Pop-Up for a week. We had film screenings, talks, workshops and hundreds and hundreds of runners coming in. It was actually a bit of an overwhelming experience and there were too many amazing experiences for there to be highlights – it was all one massive highlight.

In the middle of the week, on a rare quiet moment, a man walked in through the doors. I instantly recognised him as the author of one of the books that I love and that we were selling in the Pop-Up: Adharanand Finn. Author of Running With The Kenyans.

It was great to meet Adharanand and I was really excited when he told me that he was writing a new book. He had decided to travel with his family again to experience another hot-bed of distance running – Japan.

A week ago his latest book – The Way Of The Runner – dropped on my doormat and I immediately started looking for opportunities to dive into the pages.

The Way Of The Writer

IMG_3089One of the fantastic things about Finn’s first book was the way that he threw himself into running with the Kenyans who were his neighbours in the village where he and his family lived for a year (hence the book’s title). This was not a dispassionate look at the way that east Africans train, live, eat and race. Adharanand was out there with them trying to understand why they are the best marathoners on earth whilst also trying to improve his own running.

And so it is with this latest book. Finn wants to get inside Japanese running and especially the Ekiden – wildly popular road relays that have millions hooked on the TV as they take place.

Whilst Finn’s brilliant way with words, self-deprecating humour, intensity about his running and journalistic rigour are as much in evidence in The Way Of The Runner as they are in Running With The Kenyans, it is clear that Adharanand wasn’t as welcome in Japan as he was in Kenya. Actually that doesn’t make the book any less interesting, but I was left feeling frustrated for Finn that he didn’t get as involved in the Japanese running scene as he seemed to be in Africa.

Points of comparison

It isn’t just the access issue that allows Finn’s two books to be compared. Adharanand refers regularly to the differences between east African and Japanese runners. Sometimes favourably, sometimes not. There is clearly a question that gnaws at Adharanand, which is why, when looking at the Ekiden in particular, Japanese runners are clearly capable of taking on the Ethiopians and Kenyans at their own game, and yet they don’t? Runners who cover 20km legs in the Ekiden at a pace equivalent to a low-60 minute half marathon never graduate to the global marathon scene.

It also seems to me that Finn’s young family also had a harder time integrating themselves into Japanese society than they did in Kenya. They clearly have the ability to land in a very foreign land and really get on with people there, but again I got the feeling from reading the book, that they didn’t really settle and I wonder if that made it harder for Adharanand to spend as much time with the runners that he did meet as he would have wanted to?

A great insight

Despite the fact that Adharanand appeared to have a harder time getting into the running scene in Japan than he did in Africa, the book is still utterly fascinating. I could spend much, much longer telling you about all of my favourite bits from this book, but I won’t. Because I really want you to buy it. In fact I want you to buy two and give one away. I believe that there is not enough good storytelling about running (there could probably never be enough for me!) so I want people like Adharanand Finn to keep doing what they do.

As you would expect from such an accomplished writer and journalist, the stories flow and it is a really lovely book to read. It is also satisfyingly long, not just a brief synopsis of the Ekiden phenomenon and a few personal observations. No, for as long as it takes you to read this book, you will be immersed in the scene. It has certainly made me want to go to Japan even more and take my running shoes. It is as though Adharanand is fast becoming my personal fantasy-travel agent. I wonder where will be next…

The Epson Run Sense SF-810 GPS watch – first impressions

I was recently contacted by the lovely people at the PR company looking after Epson’s range of ‘GSP Sports Monitors’ and asked if I’d like to review the Run Sense SF-810. I haven’t looked at another GPS watch since I bought myself a Suunto Ambit2 a while ago, so I thought ‘why not’… Here’s what I think so far.

Out of the box

IMG_3100
The watch and the cradle. A nice solid package.

The Run Sense SF-810 seems to be a very practical, no nonsense product. None of the crazy colours that some brands are introducing. This is a black and grey number in a solid box, with a clear set of instructions. I was into the packaging and working out how to charge up the watch in seconds.

There is a Quick Start guide which meant that I was able to get up and running really fast (pun intended) and I have to say that at every stage the instructions were really well illustrated and described – a small detail, but I love not having to decipher badly translated instructions or useless IKEA-style illustrations that make no sense at all.

In the hand

I have to say that when I heard that Epson were getting into wearable tech, I thought “why would they do that – they make printers”. But one little bit of info about Epson and it suddenly starts to make sense. Epson is the name that most people call the Epson Seiko Corporation – and of course, Seiko is a watch brand. I remember Seiko watches back in the ’70s and ’80s. James Bond (in his Roger Moore incarnation) wore one in Moonraker (it was a detonator for a little wrist-mounted bomb!) and they have long been at the forefront of digital watch technology.

IMG_3096
On the wrist the watch is not bad looking and weighs next to nothing.

So here we have a GPS unit that is the love-child of an electrical engineering firm and a digital watch maker. No wonder there are some great details.

The watch is pleasingly light. My Suunto is great, but it is a brick. A very advanced brick, but I would never have worn it for a marathon because it is too heavy to not be noticable and I have always wanted to race in kit that is as unobtrusive as possible.

IMG_3098
The spring in the strap holds the Epson SF-810 nice and firmly on the wrist

To add to the lack of weight, Epson have built a little ‘spring’ into the strap, which means that you can fix the buckle and the little bends in the rubber strap lengthen and hold the watch tight. Not too tight – in fact there is just the right amount of tension. I haven’t had a chance to test this theory yet but I imagine that if you were running for a long time and your wrists started to swell in the heat, this strap would simply stretch a little to accommodate it.

The buttons on the watch all have an accurate feel – there is a little click when you push them, which means you know you have engaged the function you want. I think this is particularly helpful with the lap button which is larger than the other three and at the 4 o’clock position, so perfect for the thumb to hit it at the end of a rep. Nice touch that.

The watch also has a vibrate function that I have not fully managed to get my head around, but if there is an option for the watch to vibrate at set times or distances or when you leave a heart rate zone, that will be fantastic. I’ll report back when I have a better idea of what the vibrate thing is all about.

IMG_3101
Clicked into the cradle

The watch is connected to a Mac or PC with a cradle that I initially thought looked a little over-engineered. But because the HR monitor in this watch is in the unit itself, the data and charging points need to be on the side because there is a light on the bottom that reads the heart rate. So the cradle is a great way to charge the watch and download data. There is a very satisfying click when the watch snaps into the cradle and from my initial test the unit seems to charge really quickly.

What else?

IMG_3095
The RunSense 810 in its No NonSense packaging

There are a few things that I have not been able to fully test yet. The heart rate monitor seems to be very accurate but I haven’t done a long run or a hard session with the watch on yet so I’ll have to text that later.

I also haven’t tested the battery life yet so I’ll have to run the watch and see what it does.

The literature also boasts that the watch will measure stride length and cadence. Now I have to say that I have never personally worried about any of that stuff. In fact I have only had a small amount of tweaking to my running style, thanks to Nick from RunningWithUs. I actually think that trainers and coaches who tell people that they need to run at a certain cadence or with a particular foot strike can do more harm than good. But each to their own. I suppose if you do want to bobble along at a certain cadence then having a watch that tells you will save the need to be constantly counting. Again, once I get into this watch and work out what it is all about, I’ll write an update to this initial post.

I also have to say that I have not created an account on Run Connect which is the proprietary platform that Epson uses to extract, store and analyse data. And I don’t know if it is Strava compatible. As soon as I do, I’ll review that too.

Overall, so far, I have to say that I am impressed. This seems like a well built watch with an intuitive set-up and user interface. Maybe on this showing Epson is about to become a big deal in wearable tech. I’ll certainly keep using the unit I have here and give more feedback in due course.

Always a runner? Then dress like one!

My friend Nick Anderson used to explain that as a coach he is interested in the runner 24 hours a day, not just the hour or three that he or she is actually running each day. Let’s face it, it is relatively easy to ‘be a runner’ when you are actually running. But the other 21 hours a day, when there are all the distractions that come from life; family, friends and work, then it is much harder to be a full time runner.

And what about what you wear when you are not actually running? It’s easy to look like a runner when you are running. But perhaps less so when you are not – trainers and a suit looks a bit daft and running tights in the office is a definite no-no in my books (at least they are for me!) It is probably ironic then that people who consider themselves to be a runner – who define themselves as a runner – often look like every other person on the street when they are not doing the thing that they love. Obviously if that is not a problem for you, then you are in a good place. But for me – whose life is all about running now – I want to advertise my passion for the sport.

The answer… t-shirts!

I have always wondered why races supply either huge t-shirts (London Marathon, I’m looking at you) that end up straight in the bin, or poor-quality technical t-shirts that I am only going to wear when I’m running and only when none of my good quality t-shirts are clean (which is pretty much never). I do like wearing the cotton t-shirt that I got from the Great North Run 25th edition and from the Hampstead Heath Pond-a-thon – the only ones that fit me. And recently I have had a chance to advertise my love of running with some lifestyle t-shirts.

Run-Sundried-MensSUNDRiED

A few weeks ago I was contacted by SUNDRiED who wanted to send me one of their t-shirts. It is an odd situation when you are asked to review a non-technical t-shirt, but I was happy to see what they are producing. They send me a small black t-shirt from their ‘Run’ series.

SUNDRiED describes itself as a brand that was created by surfers in Peru. They produce t-shirts, sunglasses, hoodies and some other bits, all emblazoned with either their logo or a graphic word or phrase. In terms of the actual t-shirt, they feel amazing. The first one I received, was a men’s small in black with the word ‘RUN’ emblazoned across the front. That was a bit too neat for me (blame my lack of running rather than the t-shirt – I guess I am not quite a small any more!) and it was pretty quickly ‘borrowed’ by my wife. So SUNDRiED sent me another one – khaki, size medium. It is lovely and will not be being borrowed by anyone! It is a really neat fit, soft organic cotton and I really like the simplicity of the logo.

LtW_tshirt_photoLike the Wind magazine t-shirts

The other running t-shirts that I have really been enjoying wearing – for a whole host of reasons – are the ones that we produced for the Like the Wind magazine Pop-Up*.

The t-shirts were designed by Fergus McHugh, one of the illustrators who works on the magazine. Fergus came up with five designs and I think they are all brilliant. We ended up only producing three of the designs that Fergus came up with, due to financial restrictions, and I have nabbed one of each for myself. But I don’t just love the t-shirts because the designs are cool – having been involved in the manufacturing process, I really enjoyed sourcing the organic cotton t-shirts, finding a printer and deciding on the sizes that we would have produced. Obviously I am biased, but I think that the LtW t-shirts are great. I am also really looking forward to seeing someone wearing one when I am not expecting to see it.

Be a runner, dress like a runner!

So there you have it – I love the idea that I can express my love of running all the time through the power of t-shirts. The streets are full of people pronouncing their affiliations and the things that they enjoy doing, so why not do the same as a runner? What are your favourite running-related t-shirts or items of clothing?

 

 

 

 

 

* Disclaimer – I am the editor and co-founder of Like the Wind magazine. You can find out more here.

You can’t manage what you can’t measure

I think that it’s a rather outdated management saying – that you can’t manage what you can’t measure, or something like that. And I am going to clumsily apply it to an experience I had recently at Premier Podiatry

Screen Shot 2014-10-17 at 18.24.55
Ken Hoye, runner.

I have known Ken Hoye for quite a few years now and a while ago he contacted me to let me know that he was now working for Premier Podiatry. We talked about what they do and he invited me to come and have a hands-on experience. It confirmed something that I sort of had an inkling about and potentially showed me a way to become a better runner.

Ken is a sports scientist, a rather handy runner, a coach and – importantly for the point of this post – a biomechanical specialist. He and I have shared the road and track in the past, but now I was going to see what he could tell me about my wonky body.

What Ken didn’t know – and I didn’t tell him – was that when I was in my first year at Exeter Uni I broke my ankle playing rugby. Three days in the hospital in Devon, a trip home to south London in the back of my Dad’s van (thanks for the rescue Dad) and an ‘open reduction and internal fixation’ – plate in the leg, basically – later and I was… never going to do sport again. From that point on I did practically no exercise, drank and ate too much and smoked.

Since I have started running I found a new lease of life. I also discovered that my right leg, the one with the metal work, is not really very good. Any time I up the mileage significantly, the ankle joint stiffens up and the pain that starts below my ankle bone has at times tracked all the way up the back of my leg and into my glute.

My response to all this has been a stubborn refusal to acknowledge it. I have simply pushed past it. I try to make sure that I stretch my achilles and calves really well. I have an ice pack for when the pain gets really bad and my ever-patient wife will often give me a massage to try to loosen my ankle up.

However when Ken suggested I come and see what my biomechanics are like I jumped at the idea.

Serkis with the same little silver balls that I was covered in.
Serkis with the same little silver balls that I was covered in.

The set-up at Premier Podiatry near Bank in the City of London is great. There is a lovely reception area and a room with racks and swings and a treadmill. I had been told to wear cycling-style shorts and once we got started Ken stuck little silver balls on specific points on my legs: hips, knees, ankles. This is very reminiscent of the technology that was used to turn actor Andy Sertis into Gollum for the Lord of the Rings films and in fact the technology used by Premier Podiatry includes the same cameras that are used for that process. After a bit of set-up I was asked to walk and then run on the treadmill and suddenly I could see a skeleton representation of me running on a screen that Ken monitored.

The whole procedure was over really fast and almost immediately Ken was able to show me some of the results. Basically I’m wonky and my right ankle is where the problems emanate from. The best thing is that Premier have set levels of mobility and pronation that they can then compare you to. On some of the most important one, I suck. Which really makes me wonder what I would have been capable of if I had got my ankle right as soon as I started running.

premier-podiatry-logoI think that the importance of all this is that if you don’t know where your biomechanical weaknesses are then there is no way you can work to fix them. The next step for me is trying to figure out what I need to do next and Ken and his colleagues have told me that they have a range of ways that they can help. I want to be a runner for the rest of my life, so I am determined to find the time and resources to go back and try to find ways to fix my biomechanical imbalances. If you are serious about your running, then you should too – it might well be the key to unlocking untapped potential!

The Florence Marathon 2010 – a breakthrough moment

Screen Shot 2014-09-07 at 16.22.28I was recently talking to someone involved in the organisation of the Paris marathon and she asked if I had run her race. I said I had and I explained that it was a bit of a breakthrough race for me. The first time I ran under 2:45. But actually if I think about the race that really was a breakthrough, for a number of reasons, it was Florence 2010. Why do I consider it to be a breakthrough? Here’s why:

Getting my race head on

The Florence marathon was in November, seven months after the sub-2:45 Paris race. I like the fact that instead of being satisfied with my Paris result, I redoubled my effort and tried again for a faster time. I think that I am inclined to be satisfied with a good result sometimes and yet when I went to Florence I wanted to improve on the time that had been a big target up to that point.

Getting the days before the race right

I was supposed to be sharing a room with a friend at the Florence race, but unfortunately he wasn’t able to come at the last minute and that left me on my own in a big hotel room. Usually I would have found the solitude rather disquieting and I would have ended up running around trying to keep myself busy. Instead I stuck to the plan of a couple of very short easy runs, planned where and I when I would eat dinner and then spent a lot of time on the bed in my hotel room watching TV. I really did as little as possible in the couple of days before the race and so by the time I was on the start line, I was really rested and ready to run.

Not panicking when things don’t go right

Screen Shot 2014-09-07 at 16.21.56On the start line, two things didn’t go to plan. One, it was tipping it down with rain. I mean really pouring with rain. I was soaked an hour before the race started, with puddles in my shoes. The other thing is that I mistimed my toilet break and five minutes before the start I was in the middle of a crowd of runners desperate for a pee.

Rather than panic about these things though, I rationalised that the rain was good because it would keep me cool and I waited until the race started, ran 800m and found a bush in need of watering. Then I got on with the race. In the end neither the rain nor the 60 second stop 800m into the race made any difference at all.

Getting tough with myself

Screen Shot 2014-09-07 at 16.22.12Marathons tend to hurt, especially if you are running them as hard as you can. The Paris marathon had certainly hurt. And the Florence race was tough. I wasn’t running to a time plan, instead I focussed on the person in front and I tried to catch them. Easy at the start, harder as the race went on. But I kept pushing. I didn’t allow myself to ease up and the result – 2:40:49. An improvement of over three minutes on my time from Paris.

So there you have it – I knew what I was getting in to in Florence and I really welcomed the effort that I knew it would entail. The result was great from a time point of view. But more than that I was happy that I had grown up a bit as a runner and started to get all the things right that would be essential if I was going to run the marathon any faster. Maybe I need to re-read this list and see if I can do it again…   Screen Shot 2014-09-07 at 16.21.12

ASICS Outrun The Sun: Part Two

Well, best laid plans and all that… I aimed to post an update on the race from Chamonix and yet here I am back in grey and grim London after a much needed good nights sleep, trying to figure out how to cram the story of Outrun The Sun into one blog post. That might not be possible, but here goes anyway.

When I first heard about Outrun The Sun – the idea that a relay team would try to run around the Mont Blanc between sunrise and sunset (timed according the the official French meteorological society) on the longest day of the year – which would give them 15hrs and 40minutes or there abouts, I thought it sounded like an interesting, but not particularly ‘likely to fail’ idea. After all the winner of the UTMB gets around on his own in just over 20 hours. But then I saw a picture on which some stats about the challenge had been written – the relay teams would need to run 25% faster to achieve the challenge. That got me thinking.

Screen Shot 2014-06-23 at 21.10.57
The start of ASICS Outrun The Sun – will they make it?

I know that the winner of the UTMB is a supremely fit, highly specialised mountail runners with years, if not decades of experience. The last winner and the one before that were both born and raised in Alpine mountain huts. They are running all-out with technical and crowd support and are utterly spent when they finish the UTMB. There is very little spare capacity in the pace they are running it.

To successfully complete the Outrun The Sun challenge they would have to run around a marathon 25% faster than they had run the UTMB. That is like asking the winner of the London marathon to run a bit over 10km in 23 and a half minutes (I’m basing that on a 2 hour 6 minute finish, which is 31 and a half minutes for a quarter of the marathon and then taking 25% off…) I realise that this analogy falls down when you realise that the world record for 10,000m is 26:17.53. But my point is that the athletes running in the Outrun Challenge would be entering a zone that they were not used to at all!

We got to run

The gun goes and the sun comes up. Off go the runners!
The gun goes and the sun comes up. Off go the runners!

I was determined to make the most of the running options in Chamonix and whilst I was really frustrated to spend nearly 5 hours on Thursday in Geneva airport waiting for a transfer and then sitting in heavy traffic in said transfer which meant I didn’t get to run on Thursday, the ASICS team did sort out a run on Friday morning and on Saturday.

I also had the chance to meet up with friends Sophie and Charley for a run on Friday afternoon as opposed to taking part in a rafting activity that ASICS had organised. So all in all, I was really pleased with the amount of time I was able to spend on the trails. And it did really hammer home the point that the athletes in the relays were dealing with some pretty challenging terrain. It really wouldn’t take much for someone to twist (or even break) an ankle or fall and take a nasty bump, and the challenge would be all over. So now it was apparent that the athletes had to not only run faster than ever, but they had to do that whilst being careful.

‘Lovely’ weather

Screen Shot 2014-06-23 at 21.12.11
Xavier looking very hot at the end of his leg of the relay

As a spectacle, the weather couldn’t have been better. Blue skies without a cloud in the sky. Even at the start of the challenge, at 5am in Chamonix town centre, it was too warm for a duvet jacket. Sadly for the runners, the lovely weather as far as we were concerned was to prove one of the biggest challenges for them.

As the day warmed up, the runners – pushing the pace harder and harder – really started to suffer. Xavier Thevenard, who finished his leg in Courmayeur where all the invited guests were gathered, explained that he had run with a small hand-held bottle and had to scoop up snow as he ran, which then melted in the bottle and provided him with something to drink. As UK runner, Holly Rush from the larger 7-person relay team – called Team Enduro – pointed out, the sun was a double enemy creating time pressure as it set and making it too hot to run the required pace in the middle of the day.

Before they started running…

The day before the challenge, the journalist, bloggers and retailers who had been invited along, were treated to a preview of the latest trail running gear from ASICS and a chance to meet with and talk to the 11 athletes who would make up the two teams: four in Team Ultra Trail and 7 in Team Enduro.

It was really interesting meeting the runners. Obviously the seven from Team Enduro seemed to have an easier job. But their handicap was they they are not specialist ultra trail runners. There was a former 1500m specialist from Germany, an international road marathon runner recently converted to trail running and a crazy Catalan who looked to have lived his whole life on a mountain (he had!)

Team Ultra Trail – which included last years winner of the UTMB – looked to have a much better chance of beating the sun. But then they also had only four runners and that would create pressure that might lead to a mistake – starting too fast or not taking care and twisting an ankle. The whole thing was so delicately poised!

All the gear!

Screen Shot 2014-06-23 at 21.10.06
Two of my favourite bits of kit from the weekend – FUJI packable jacket and FUJI Trabuco 3 shoes

We also had a chance to look at the lastest trail running gear from ASICS. There were a few interesting things for me. In the footwear there is a range that runs for the very bulky but dependable and comfortable Fuji Trabuco 3.

The Fuji Trabuco 3 is a proper beast of a shoe and the one that I used for my first ultras. To be honest, it was so solidly built that in the end I got rid of them because of the smell as much as anything – I suspect the uppers had a good few hundred miles in them and the mid-sole and outer-sole looked like they still had life in them. This latest version retains all of the sturdiness that I remember from the earlier pair I had and quite a bit of the weight. I think this would make for a very good, everyday trail running shoe. But I would probably want to race in something a bit lighter and more flexible…

Which is where the GelFuji Racer might come in. Now I have to say that over the weekend I didn’t get to try these shoes on the run – I was given a pair of the Trabuco 3 and that is what I wore. But I did have the chance to check the shoe out at the product presentation and I think that these would be a great racing choice. The shoes have been designed to maximise water release and with a slightly lower-heel drop, so I think they would be idea for hammering along trails and through rivers or mud without worrying about grip, proprioception or water-logging.

As far as apparel went, there were a few things that I really enjoyed wearing.

The FUJI Packable Jacket is a really cool bit of kit. It’s not waterproof but would keep a light shower at bay and it is very windproof and so it’s an ideal thing to stuff in a pocket or backpack for if it gets chilly or you stop running and start cooling down. It packs into its own little pocket and weighs next to nothing.

I also really liked the shorts we were given – the 2-in-1 shorts which were lightweight, dried really fast (I sweated a lot!), had a couple of really useful zipped pockets and had a cycling-shorts style liner inside that stops chafing.

The final bit of kit that I will mention was the short-sleeved t-shirt that we had in our pack. This fitted like a glove, had a couple of useful pockets, a zip-neck (that was really useful in the heat of the day) and a couple of sticky rubber patches on the shoulders to hold the straps of a back-pack. I thought that this was a really well thought-out piece that I can see me wearing quite a bit in the future.

Overall impressions

I left Chamonix very early on Sunday morning having witnessed the finale of the event in the town centre and having had not enough sleep before my 5am transfer to Geneva.

The impression that I was left with, is that ASICS are serious about trail running. I think that they have developed a range of clothing, footwear and accessories that will suit a huge number of runners looking for the right kit for off-road running. ASICS are also committing themselves to exciting projects that really push the boundaries – the Outrun The Sun is a prime example of that. There was no guarantee that the runners could work as a team, ride their luck, push hard and beat a very stiff target. But ASICS were happy to get involved and see if it could be done. Of course, I haven’t yet told you whether or not Teams Enduro and Ultra Trail did get round in time. If you want me to tell you that, you’ll have to check back in the next couple of days…

Training for a mile: must remember to smile.

I was recently invited by adidas to join them at the Westminster Mile and run the race alongside a bunch of other blogger and journalists. They then introduced a twist. I’ll come to that in a moment.

Me? I’m NOT a miler

Now I have not run a race for a very, very long time. Probably almost 25 years ago. The last time I tried to race a mile or 1500m was at school and I was probably 14 or 15 years old. And I was always well beaten by Phil (who was a really good swimmer, understood the need for training and didn’t bow to peer pressure and an addictive personality by taking up smoking). What I know is that even looking back through the mists of time, running those shorter distances was unpleasant. And that was brought home to me last night on a training session organised by the adidas team (bit late to organise training for a race in 4 days, but I guess it is the thought that counts!)

A session to prepare us mentally if not physically!

We were all still smiling at this point - the session hadn't started!
We were all still smiling at this point – the session hadn’t started!

We – that is me, two other writers, a member of adidas’ PR agency and Tom the coach – met at the London Marathon Store and changed into our kit before being presented with a new pair of the adidas adios Boost (more on them in a minute) and after quick introductions we were off with Tom leading the way to a park in Shoreditch, nestled between a railway line and the back of the Truman Brewery.

After the short jog to the park, Tom put us through some drills as a warm up and explained the need for warming-up before a mile race. To be honest, one of the things I like about marathons and long races is that you can use the first mile to get into it and warm up. For a mile, you probably need to do several miles of warming up before you start which seems counter-intuitive to me: run more distance than you intend to race in order to be ready to race. That is probably not the only thing that marks me out as a non-middle and –short distance runner!

One we were warm, we had the following session to do:

  • 200m hard (VERY hard) then 30 seconds then 200m harder
  • 90 seconds recovery
  • 200m hard (VERY hard) then 30 seconds then 200m harder
  • 90 seconds recovery
  • 2 x 3 minutes at 10km pace
  • 90 seconds recovery
  • 200m hard (VERY hard) then 30 seconds then 200m harder
  • 90 seconds recovery
  • 200m hard (VERY hard) then 30 seconds then 200m harder

A nice neat session which really tested the remaining few fast-twitch fibres in my legs that have not yet capitulated in the face of old age and a focus on long, slow runs. I actually really enjoyed the session although my face didn’t betray the inner joy I was feeling. Tom actually said that I looked shocked, which was not entirely untrue!

Am I ready to race a mile?

So where does that leave me, running wise. Well actually the session made me feel worse about my chances on Saturday rather than better. The 200m reps were not on a track, they were between two cones on a path in a park, which may mean that they were more or less than 200m apart. I was hitting each one – even the last one in 32 or 33 seconds. But that is 4:08 pace for a mile at best. And remember we had recovery between the 200m efforts.

On Saturday, if I want to take in the challenge that adidas has set up, I have to try to run the mile as fast as Wilson Kipsang ran each mile of his world record in. That is around 4:47 pace. I suppose that it might feel less like my lungs are going to burst if I am able to run a few seconds slower on the day, but not much I would guess. So I would be amazed if I get anywhere near 5 minute pace.

The adidas adios Boost

At least I know that I will have a decent pair of shoes on my feet (there goes another excuse!) with the new adidas adios Boost that we were given last night. I have written about these shoes before and I stand by what I said then. As far as the racing shoes I have tried are concerned (and I don’t get to try them all by any means) these are currently one of my favourites. They are light, fit like a glove and I love the Boost mid-sole material which seems to be the perfect balance of cushioning and rebound for me. And they are orange which looks pretty cool!

So I will report back about the mile race after the weekend. In the mean time, if you fancy trying out this iconic – and for most of the runners I know – pretty unusual distance, there is the City of London Mile Race on 22 June. I think that the mile will be an interesting experience and is short enough that anyone can have a crack at it. And you never know, maybe I am about embark on a new running career as a middle-distance runner. Maybe…