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.

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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.

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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.


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.

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.


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.

Changing focus and changing my shorts: in search of a new challenge

The London marathon is less than three weeks away and it has really crept up on me this year. That is partly due to the fact that Freestak has been getting busier and busier and I have not been training as much as I should have been. But there you go – 13 April is the date and I have to accept that there are no miracles in endurance sports and especially marathon running: you get out what you put in and all the gels and stretches and last minute core session in the world will not make up for not training.

So my focus has changed – in previous years it was always all about the spring marathon. Now I am looking a little further ahead. I have got a few races in the diary that I am very excited about and my aim is to translate that excitement into action and get some spring training going, possibly starting with a 26.2 mile training run around the streets of London on 13 April.

Racing focus for 2014

CCC finisher - but want to go quicker!
Sporting a CCC finisher gilet – but I want to go quicker!

The first race that I have got an eye on is the Coastal Trail Series Classic Quarter on 7 June. I am going to ask people to sponsor me for this race as I will be running it in memory of my Nan. It was as Julie and I were driving to the 2013 edition of this race that my Mum called to say that Nan had passed away. Unsure what to do, we ended up starting the race, but we had only had 90 minutes sleep before the gun went at the start and I was in a terrible state emotionally. At half way – around 22 miles – I was done and had to drop out. This year I am back to honour my Nan and give this race my best shot.

Then on 5 July Julie and I are in France for the 60km La Montagn’Hard which we both ran last year and we absolutely loved it. It is brutally hard in terms of elevation gain – there is barely anything flat and we will climb over 5000m in 60km. It is a wonderfully organised by the denizens of a small village called St Nicolas and has such a wonderful relaxed, informal atmosphere that I can’t wait to have a crack at it already. I just wonder whether my adversary Denis from last year will be there.

But both the Classic Quarter and the Montagn’Hard are warm-up races for the main target for the summer – the UTMB CCC. This was the race that Julie and I took on last year. We were doing really well together before Julie fell and cracked her already-damaged knee, which meant that her race was over by 78km.

This year I think we are both determined to have a really good go at the CCC. I want to get around in under 17 hours. Last year the winner finished in 11 hours while I took over 24 hours. 17 hours seems like a touch but acheiveable target.

Getting the kit right for 2014 Ultras

Robbie Britton - racing the UTMB in 2014. And probably immune to chaffing
Robbie Britton – racing the UTMB in 2014. And probably immune to chaffing

And one of the things I have to refine for ultras in 2014 is my kit. Specifically my shorts. Last year I wore a pair of tried and tested shorts that I thought would be fine. But it was very warm and after 9 hours of running in the heat, with slightly damp shorts from sweat and water that I had spilled on myself, my inner thighs were rubbing raw. The chaffing was agony. Honestly… I was really suffering.

So in the middle of the heat of the day I threw my shorts in the bin in a public toilet and pulled on my tights for the next 15 hours. The pain was still intense, but less bad in the tights. I was hot though and I felt really stupid: I was in danger of  DNF because my undercarriage was sore!

So this year I am on the hunt for the ultimate ultra short. The team at inov-8 (thanks Lee!) have just sent me a pair of their Race Elite 135 Ultra Shorts and from only wearing them for a few hours around the house tonight, I think they are the business – I think they might be just what I am after.

inov-8 Race Elite 135 Ultra Shorts

The inov-8 135 Ultra Shorts
The inov-8 135 Ultra Shorts

The shorts have a really comfortable, high waist band. They come with a wide, double thickness gusset that will keep certain important parts of the anatomy warm. There are a couple of useful pockets at the front that are designed to take a gel or two. And they are made from a really comfortable, stretchy man-made material. Most importantly, they are tight and will stop my thighs and nether regions from rubbing (especially if I pair the shorts with the utterly amazing RunderWear from the team at RunBreeze).

Performance vs. appearance – what matters more?

However there is the aesthetics to take into account. Now the reason I started running in the first place was to try to reverse the effects of years of bad living. So my body-image has never been great. And tight shorts are never the most flattering look. Don’t get me wrong, the inov-8 shorts look great – it is just me in them that is the problem.

Some people – my wife included – have suggested that a pair of baggy shorts over the top make for a much more flattering look. But then I have done my best to get ‘shights’ – that is shorts over tights – trending and not for good reasons. I think that wearing something baggy over your tights – or you tight shorts – confers no performance benefit whatsoever and so must purely be a vanity thing. I want to be focussed on performance and believe that runners should not worry about how they look – just about how they perform.

Brendon Davies - inov-8 elite athlete and looking good in tight shorts
Brendon Davies – inov-8 elite athlete and looking good in tight shorts

So what should I do? Well first thing’s first – ask you, my dear friends. Tights or tight shorts on men: fine or a crime? What do you wear when you’re running, especially for ultras? What is the worst thing you have seen? And should anyone – ever – wear tight white lycra? Help me out here, people, because the inov-8 shorts feel amazing and I think they are the solution to my problems and will almost certainly contribute to me achieving my newly-set summer goals. I just don’t want people to be laughing at me in the street as I smash those goals…

Winter gear and a review of the inov-8 Race Elite range

At the risk of sounding like a fashion blogger (and believe me, when it comes to personal style, I am in the bottom tier of the population!) there does seem to come a point in the year when I put away my summer running gear and bring out my winter kit.

It is not as dramatic as making a complete change on one day, but I certainly dig out my running tights, check that they don’t have holes in them, maybe wash them after not wearing them for 6 months. The same goes for long-sleeve tops and jackets that have not seen the light of day since before the London marathon in April. I then starting trying to remember where I put the running hats and gloves, etc that I know I will be looking for pretty soon.

My selection of winter kit
My selection of winter kit

Basically winter is most definitely coming and kit will be required to deal with the conditions. And dealing with the conditions is absolutely crucial if you want to be the best runner you can be. Hibernation is not an option: it is a scary thought but the London marathon is only 176 days away. That is 5 months and 25 days from today or perhaps 20 long runs… so it is important that you don’t miss many of them!

Winter miles = summer smiles

Please don’t misunderstand me: I am not a running masochist. I’ve woken up on many, many occasions, heard the rain tapping on the window and felt an icy draft blowing through the window and wanted, more than anything, to roll over and have another hour in bed.

However (and this is a BIG ‘however’) I have learned that if I was to take all the ‘want to roll over and go back to sleep’ and put it in a big pile of ‘want’ it would not be as big and important as the pile of ‘wanting to know how good I can be as a runner’. So I get up. Because by getting up and dealing with whatever the weather is bringing to the party, I am giving myself a little more chance of running the marathon PB that I so desperately want in my next marathon in April 2014.

Make the tough runs as safe and comfortable as possible

So I think that most of the time I have the mental toughness to know that I want the longer term goal more than I want the short-term enjoyment of an hour more in bed. It is a struggle though. And that toughness does not make me immune to the cold and the wet. I still don’t want to go out in miserable weather before the sun has come up. And that is where kit comes in…

The right kit can, at the very least, make a run more comfortable. In extreme circumstances, it can make a run safer.

The basics

If you are faced with cold, wet conditions, you need kit that strikes a balance between comfort and protection and gear that offers you so much protection that you can’t run properly in it. My advice is: if in doubt, go for less than you think you’ll need – you will soon warm up and to be honest, once you are drenched, all the kit in the world won’t stop you being wet. All you will do is end up carrying the water around with you.

The stuff that I have in my winter wardrobe is really simple:

  • tights
  • long-sleeved tops (a couple have a collar and a zip neck for extra warmth)
  • wind-proof jackets
  • waterproof jackets
  • accessories such as thin beanie hats, buff neck-gaiter things, gloves.

That is about it.

Then recently my kit had an upgrade when I had the opportunity to try out a couple of items that hit the spot as far as the protection vs. performance balance is concerned.

Inov-8’s Race Elite jackets

Anton, Julie and me (and my inov-8 Thermoshell!)
Anton, Julie and me (and my inov-8 Thermoshell!)

The lovely people at inov-8 were very generous and sent me two jackets from their Race Elite range to try out: the Race Elite™ 150 Stormshell jacket and Race Elite™  260 Thermoshell. Both arrived in time for the CCC and I suppose I am grateful that in the end the race was blessed with such great conditions that I had no need for either a warm layer (which is what the Thermoshell is) or a waterproof. But I have been wearing the Thermoshell in particular a huge amount for all sorts of activities and thought it would be timely to write down my thoughts about both.

Race Elite™ 150 Stormshell

The inov-8 Race Elite Stormshell
The inov-8 Race Elite Stormshell

Technology is a wonderful thing and in many spheres advancements mean that stuff is getting smaller and lighter. Waterproof apparel is no exception.  The Race Elite 150 Stormshell is feather-light. Inov-8 say that it weighs 150g, but I think that it might even be less than that. Either way, this jacket barely registers if you have it in your pack, bumbag or even stuffed in a pocket. But – and here is the really amazing thing – it is totally waterproof: 20,000mm Hydrostatic Head, water-resistant zip at the front and a hood that fits like a glove-for-your-head… Anyway, this jacket will do as good a job at keeping you dry as you can hope for, especially from something that is so light and compact.

The detailing is also great. The hood is wired so that it keeps rain out of your eyes and is adjusted to fit with a one-handed tug of a toggle at the back of the head. There is a waterproof chest pocket for a map, etc. The waist can be adjusted to ensure it doesn’t ride up or let any drafts in with another one-handed toggle-pull. And there are thumb-loops to make sure that the sleeves stay down over your hands.

Race Elite™  260 Thermoshell

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The other jacket that inov-8 gave me to try is a marvelous bit of kit. Probably slightly specialised, but no less wonderful for all that. The Thermoshell is a reversible duvet jacket. It has Primaloft on one side (the blue side) and a Pertex outer on the other side (the black side). The idea here is that with the Pertex side outermost, the jacket is 10% warmer than the other way around, so you can regulate how warm you are on the fly. I must say that I have not been able to scientifically test this claim myself, but it definitely feels warmer with the black side outermost (but maybe that is just me being suggestible, who knows?)

inov-8 Race Elite Thermoshell
inov-8 Race Elite Thermoshell

The Thermoshell is not a down feather jacket – Primaloft is a synthetic insulating material – which means that this jacket is not as prone to being useless if it gets wet and the Primaloft is also ‘zoned’ so that there is 40g per m2 on the body and  25g/m2 in the arms and collar, so you have more warmth where you need it and more movement in the arms where it is important. There is also a nice long zip at the front that can be opened from the bottom to allow some cool air in if you start to get too warm. And if that is not enough, whip the jacket off and it goes into a stuff-sac and in your pack or you can carry it in your hand. At 260g it really won’t be a burden.

Winter gear… great idea!

So there you go. In my opinion having decent winter gear is really important. Make no mistake, when it is cold and wet and you’re tucked up in bed, you need all the help you can to get out for your run. Knowing that you have the right kit will be a big help.

I also think that if you can be comfortable while you are running, that helps you to stay out for those long runs and also run slowly on your recovery runs. I can highly recommend both of the inov-8 products and if you have any other recommendations for kit that works for you, please let me know – I am always curious to know what people use when they are running.


ASICS Gel Super-J 33 and Muscle Support apparel reviews

Last week I was priveledged to be taken to Milan for the launch of two new lines in the ASICS extensive running range – some new apparel and a new pair of shoes. You can read my introduction to the launch and now, having had a chance to run properly in the tights and the shoes, I have written a review of each.

The ASICS Gel Super-J 33

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The ASICS Gel Super-J 33

The name of this shoe is intriguing – from what I understand, the ‘Gel’ bit refers to the mid-sole technology that ASICS employ to provide cushioning. In fact the gel pods in the 33 series of shoes are placed so as to mimic the the natural fat deposits in the runner’s foot and are positioned to cushion and distribute the impact forces.

The ’33’ in the name refers to the shoe being part of the series of natural running shoes that ASICS have developed and is based on the fact that we have 33 joints in each of our feet. The idea is that this small range of shoes is designed to allow the foot to flex and move as naturally as possible, whilst still providing cushioning and protection and this is reflected in the fact that ASICS suggest that runners should have a pair of the ’33’ series shoes in their wardrobe as a second pair of shoes – not the primary shoes that you do most of your running in.

As for the ‘J’… I have no idea. Maybe that will be explained in due course.

What I do know for sure is that the ASICS Gel Super-J 33 is a very light and unstructured shoe. The upper is a mesh with welded overlays which means that there are virtually no seams in the upper and the shoe is feather-light on the foot. There is no heel counter to speak of and the mid-sole is on the thin side adding to the whole sense of minimalism.

However, and this is the really interesting part, this shoe is designed specifically for over-pronators. ASICS have identified that 45% percent of runners over-pronate and this shoe has been engineers to ensure that those runners have a stable platform when the foot is planted to launch into the next stride.

The way this has been done is by moving the FluidAxis – a groove through the outsole and into the mid-sole which allows the shoe to flex – closer to the outer edge of the shoe, thereby countering the effect of the over-pronation.

My impression after having had a few runs in these shoes, is there is not really much sense that these shoes are engineered for a foot-strike different to mine (which is pretty neutral) and I think that is a really good thing. There is an initial feeling of some denser material under the arch of the foot on first wearing them, but that doesn’t last and I think that unlike so many support shoes on the market, this one does it’s job as subtly as possible. I certainly don’t think that this shoe would be a bad idea for a neutral runner, especially if you are planning on running longer distances in them, where you run a risk of losing form anyway, as well as for over-pronators looking for a shoe that really will let their feet do their thing whilst providing a modicum of support and enough cushioning and protection.

ASICS Muscle Support apparel

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ASICS Muscle Support apparel… in space, apparently!

I am going to say, right now, that I am deeply skeptical about the claims that many apparel firms make about their compression wear. In my opinion it is ludicrous to claim that a piece of fabric can have a direct effect on powerful muscles deep beneath skin and sub-cutaneous fat. You only have to handle a piece of meat to realise how strong muscle is and a thin sheet of nylon is not going to have much effect.

However I have experienced the benefits of compression, not least when I have worn my Compressport calf guards and a pair of Skins recover tights that I was sent by them to try out. But I remain unconvinced by the idea that running tights could do much to help maintain form and generate more strength in the legs.

So imagine my delight when the keynote speaker for the apparel section of the presentation, a sports doctor and physiotherapist, started by talking about his skepticism about the apparel. He went on the say that the proof for him was in the testing and that having tried the tights and top, he was now a believer and he explained why. He talked about the skin being a hugely sensitive organ that constantly feeds back to the brain about all the conditions it is experiencing. In the case of the Muscle Support tights and top, that feedback tells the brain that the quads and the area below the knee, where the compression is at its strongest, needs extra blood, which in turn brings more oxygen to those regions and leads to the muscles being… well, supported really.

After the presentation and before going for a run in the kit, I asked the doctor more about this theory and we talked about a treatment I had had for a damaged knee, when the osteopath, Gavin Burt from Backs and Beyond, used acupuncture to relieve the pain. Gavin explained that the wires that he inserted would alert the body to intruders and the extra anti-bodies rushing to the scene of the alien invaders would find nothing there and instead get to work repairing the injured knee. It really worked and a similar process is at play when the skin tells the brain that there is a weird tightness in the quads, so send reinforcements.

The same goes for the Inner Muscle Half Zip top that we were issued with. This is tight in the extreme with a diamond shaped panel running across the back from shoulder blade to shoulder blade. Obviously there is not much that a bit of nylon is going to do to hold your arms back and your chest expanded. But the feeling of the top is enough to remind you constantly to run tall and upright and keep your arm-carriage in the right form.

I must admit that I am not in a very heavy training period at the moment – I’m really only doing 50-60 miles a week of easy running at best (and sometimes much less) so I have not been able to really gauge whether the tights can have a dramatic impact on muscle fatigue. But I do subscribe now to the theory behind the Muscle Support range. It is tight enough that you know you are wearing compression apparel and I have no doubt that it is tight enough that the brain is receiving feedback from the skin. It could just be then, that this gives you the small gain that you need to go the extra mile, or hold your form a little longer, or push a little harder and it is all those small additional gains that add up to you becoming the best runner you can be. Which I guess is the whole point!

Tight tops and loose shoes

Overall I really like what ASICS have set out to do with both the Gel Super-J 33 and the Muscle Support range. As seems to the way with all the brands now, the names are all ‘hyper’ and ‘super’ and ‘mega’, but beneath that layer of hype, there is real science at work. I guess the ASICS ‘Apparel-That-Tells-Your-Body-To-Send-More-Oxygen’ Tights, doesn’t have the same ring, so I will happily defer to the experts on that!

My feeling is that the shoes are only subtly developed to accommodate those runners whose feet roll in as they land on them. The dual-density EVA and the repositioned FluidAxis are designed to help as much as possible for something that is made out of nylon and foam. If you think that a 5mm bit of foam is going to change the way you land, when your 70+ Kg frame comes crashing down onto it, you are deluded. But what the Gel Super-J 33 might do, is give you a little extra stability, a little less roll and add a few more percent to your training.

The same goes for the Muscle Support apparel. The science behind the kit is sound. The idea that a thin sheet of nylon, however tight it is, could force the way your muscles work to change is idiotic. But by telling the skin to tell the brain to change the flow of blood or the firing of nerves in a set of muscles, the top and tights can change the way we run just enough to make a subtle difference and that might be all you need to smash a session or get through a long run with less fatigue and better form, which will pay dividends when you come to race.

The final thing that really made me realise that ASICS are actually about performance above all else, was the guest that they had for the day in Milan – the great Stefano Baldini. This is a serious runner. He is a man who, I am sure, could eat out every night and never have to pay for his dinner. He is a national hero and a serious figure in the Italian world of athletics. He has no need to lend his support to a gimmick. It was extremely hard to get a word with him, but he did say, quite openly, that he thinks that both the innovations from ASICS are rooted in research and experience and if Baldini says that, then it’s good enough for me!

Moreover, I for one can do with all the subtle help I can get so you can be sure that I’ll be using the shoes and the apparel through the autumn and winter. We will see whether it’s helped come London marathon time next year!

Nostalgia for a bygone era: the Iffley Road kit review

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From left to right: Brasher, Bannister, Chataway – three heroes.

If you are an athletics fan, then Iffley Road should be a name that evokes a sense of history and greatness, at least in middle distance running, for it was at this stadium, on 6 May 1954, that Sir Roger Bannister, ably supported by Sir Christopher Chataway and Christopher Brasher, broke the seemingly impossible 4 minute barrier for the mile. It was a moment in athletics that would resonate around the world and create a lasting belief that as a species, we are capable of much, much more than we realise.

But 1954 was a long time ago. Things, and especially sport, have changed beyond recognition (although so many things that we think are new – doping for instance – are not nearly as novel as you might think). However for many runners, me included, the name Iffley Road evokes a time when running was a pure sport, untainted by rampant commercialism and all the negativity that comes with the professionalisation of sport.

And clearly those feelings of purity and enthusiasm and high moral values are what the team behind new running apparel brand Iffley Road are trying to tap into.

A quick glance at their website and you will see that the imagery they use is evocative of the  period of Roger Bannister, et al. But more than that, the words that the Iffley Road team use also talk of the glorious history of running.

The theme is obviously central to the design and aesthetics behind the kit that you can buy from Iffley Road. The clothing is all understated and designed to look as though it was made in an era before the technologists and designers got their heads around how to push the boundaries of apparel design, to give us what we see in the shops now. But the truth is that many of the technologies that you will find in modern running apparel are built into the Iffley Road kit, not least in the modern fabrics that they use.

Screen Shot 2013-10-05 at 17.05.27I was lucky enough to be able to try out a couple of items of Iffley Road kit – the shorts and a t-shirt. So far, having worn both for quite a few runs, I am pretty impressed. The shorts are quite square cut, which is exactly how I imagine they would have been in the ‘50s, but there is a half-elasticated waistband which runs from one side of the shorts to the other around the Screen Shot 2013-10-05 at 17.06.13back, while the front has a drawstring to pull them tight. There is a comfortable liner and a couple of very neat pockets in the front that are just about big enough for a set of keys or an energy gel. The only thing is these pockets have no closure, so you would have to be careful that things don’t fall out.

The other item that I tried is the t-shirt. The interesting thing about the t-shirt for me, is that the cut is really on the ‘athletic’ side. The fabric is called Dri-release and is described by Iffley Road thus:

All Iffley Road tops are made from a bespoke Dri-release® micro-blend. This high performance fabric looks and feels like cotton but performs better than performance polyesters. Having road-tested dozens of fabrics, we believe nothing else matches the comfort and performance of this beautiful lightweight material, wet or dry.

For the record the material is 85% polyester 15% cotton, it appears to be woven and there is not much stretch, so you need to be honest about the sizing, because I wear a small in almost every brand I have ever tried and the Iffley Road ‘small’ is by far and away the neatest I have ever worn. From a running point of view I really like that, but I do think that if the t-shirt got wet for whatever reason, there could be a few problems with rubbing, so bear that in mind if you decide to buy one.

And I guess that leads me on to my other comment about Iffley Road. This is priced at a level that I think makes it ‘special-occasion’ running kit. Everything about the kit feels high quality and the finishing is beautiful. In fact even the packaging is beautiful. But Iffley Road has decided not to compete at the cheaper end of the market – £65 for a t-shirt and £60 for the shorts is definitely at the upper end of the price spectrum.

All in all, I really like so much about Iffley Road. Having met the founders, I really like them – they are runners and are as passionate about their sport as they are about their brand. They have decided that they want to be more than just an apparel brand, setting up races for example. I like the nod – or should that be deep bow – to the history of running. I like the shape and fit of the kit. There is the question of whether you can invest the sort of money that the Iffley Road kit costs, but if you have the means, I would say that it would be a fine addition to your running kit drawer.

What I needed for my summer of ultras: kit review and nutrition

One of the things that I love about running is the simplicity of it – if the weather is kind, all you need is a pair of shoes, a t-shirt, shorts and a pair of socks and you are ready to go. If you want to be really comfortable you could add a cap and sunglasses. And you might want a GPS watch. But there are no bats, balls or bikes involved, so really the kit requirements are very low.

However the further you go, the greater the requirement (or the temptation) there is to take stuff with you. And once you start running ultra distance trail races in the mountains, the kit requirements are really extensive. I realised this as I packed for the UTMB CCC the day before the race wondering if I would really need all the kit I was taking. I would find out as I attempted to run Over 100km in the mountains. (Click on the image to the right for a closer look).

What you need to take and why

The first thing that I would like to state for the record is that I am not all that concerned about how much kit I am required to take for a trail ultra. I am not one of those people who is constantly trying to game the system and take less and less and less. To be frank, the few grams I would be saving by spending a fortune on the lightest possible waterproofs or by trying to get away with not carrying everything on the kit list, seems pointless to me when I know that the real problem is that I have probably not trained enough and I am carrying too much bodyfat. So I just take all the kit.

The justification for my attitude to taking more rather than less was brought home to me a week before the CCC when Julie and I were in Chamonix. We decided to run up to Planpraz as a pre-race training run, carrying all our kit to give it our rucksacks good test. It was a beautifully sunny day and we were warm climbing all the way from Chamonix town centre to around 2000m altitude at the top of the Vertical Kilometer course.

As we arrived at the top and decided to stop for lunch, a bank of clouds rolled in and obscured the sun. Suddenly we were freezing – it was not raining and it was lunchtime. But the drop in air temperature was immediate and significant and the moment we stopped moving, we were cold! Suddenly we were hauling jackets and over-trousers out of our backpacks to keep us warm. Point hammered home!

So the UTMB CCC obligatory kit list is relevant and here is what everyone is obliged to carry for the entire race:

  • mobile phone
  • personal cup
  • stock of water
  • two torches in good working condition with replacement batteries,
  • survival blanket
  • whistle
  • adhesive elastic bandage
  • food reserve
  • jacket with hood made with a waterproof breathable membrane which will withstand the bad weather in the mountains
  • long running trousers or leggings or a combination of leggings and long socks which cover the legs completely
  • additional warm midlayer top
  • cap or bandana
  • warm hat
  • warm and waterproof gloves
  • waterproof over-trousers

My personal kit list

I had all of the above plus a couple of other bits and here, for the record, is a what I wore and carried during the race:

Screen Shot 2013-09-21 at 09.02.45
ashmei merino carbon running top. Photo © Roy Belchamber

ashmei merino carbon running jersey – this was a simply brilliant bit of kit. It wicked sweat and kept my temperature regulated. The top never rode up and there was no rubbing at all. It just felt like the ideal thing to have next to my skin, it didn’t start to pong after 18 hours running and the zip neck allowed me to cool down more when it warmed up and keep my neck warm when it cooled down.

Nike shorts – an old favourite pair that I have run in at least 100 times and I thought would be great. Ended up causing the worst chafing I have ever had and ended up in the bin in a public toilets in Champex Lac. Will only wear tight cycling-style shorts for this sort of thing in the future.

ashmei merino trail socks – one pair, 24 hours and not a blister or even a hot-spot in sight. Brilliant!

Headsweats visor (won in a competition earlier this year) – super-comfortable, kept the sun and the sweat out of my eyes. And visors make you look like a trail runner… which is important


Me in my Naked Runner glasses at the 2013 VLM
Me in my Naked Runner glasses at the 2013 VLM

Naked Runner sunglasses – really light weight, the right level of darkness to the lenses and the most comfortable glasses I have ever owned – they never bounce on my nose! Basically brilliant for the price.

Scott T2 Kinabalu trail shoes – I had to choose between these and the inov-8 RocLite 315 which I really love running in. But in the end I wanted as much cushioning for the 20+ hours we would be on our feet and the Scott’s offered more than the inov-8s. In the race the Scotts were truly amazing: light, cushioned, grippy and just about roomy enough. A perfect choice for a race this long.

North Face Base Layer Light (long sleeve) – this top was recommended to me by none other than Jez Bragg when I met up with him at the North Face shop in Chamonix. It came out when the temperature dropped in the early hours and it was really super-comfortable giving me just enough warmth for the early hours.

Adidas Supernova tights – I pulled these on earlier than I thought I would because I had to take my shorts off, due to the searing pain of chaffing from the short’s liner. They were great, but I probably wouldn’t have worn them if I had made a better shorts choice.

Compressports calf guards and thigh guards – the calf guards remained around my ankles until about 50km when my calves started aching. Once I pulled them up, they made my lower legs feel great. Essential kit as far as I am concerned. The quad guards went on at the start of the day and I kept them on all the way round. They seem to support my quads on the downhills, my hamstrings on the uphills and stop any rubbing between my thighs. Another essential bit of kit as far as I am concerned.

Montane gilet – this is a minimalist masterpiece. It is made from pertex, so it crunches up super small (the size of a tangerine) and keeps the wind completely at bay. I wore this for the start of the race when it was a bit chilly and then later, once the sun went down and I was feeling cold again. One of my favourite bits of kit.

Ultimate Direction PB Adventure Vest – this was a present from Julie and in general I love this bag. It is really well thought out, with some great features. I especially like the fact that it will carry masses of kit without swinging around. In fact whether it is full or empty, it fits like a glove. I do have an issue though which is that the finishing is poor – zip pulls have popped off and can’t be replaced. The bungee holding the water bottle on one side snapped and Julie had to unpick the edge of the pocket to try to reattach it. So generally great, but frustratingly badly finished.

Black Diamond Carbon Z-Poles – OK, not something I wore, but these were not in my pack very much. They are brilliant. Light, sturdy and easy to stow away thanks to the folding mechanism. I think that poles are essential in the mountains and this model ticks every box for me. The use of poles helps take the pressure off your legs and back, making very long races feel much more manageable. And the winner of the UTMB used poles, so they must be right!

Suunto Ambit – this is a new bit of kit for me and I absolutely love it. The level of accuracy and detail is like nothing I have ever had on my wrist before and I especially love the accuracy of the altimeter. The watch is really, really easy to read and the backlight is superb, so it is great for running in the night. Best of all, is the battery life. I had this running for almost the entirely of the 24 hours and 20 minutes that I was running the CCC, with a little break in the middle because I was worried that I’d run the battery flat. Oh and as I like a chunky watch anyway, the size of the Ambit does not put me off in any way. All in all a superb bit of kit!

Here is the kit I carried:

Forget Anton and Julie… focus on the inov-8 Thermoshell!

Inov-8 Race Elite 260 Thermoshell – this is a great bit of kit, that I took to the CCC as my mid-layer. It is really light and compact, but when you take it out and pull it on, there is instant warmth and protection. I would never venture out into the mountains without this again. During the race, I didn’t need to use it, but I have on other occasions and I knowing it was in my pack, was extremely reassuring.

Mountain Warehouse waterproof trousers – really compact and lightweight and with taped seams, these trousers fitted the bill as far as the obligatory kit was concerned. But they are not breathable, so I’d never consider running in them. They were for emergency use only and thankfully we didn’t have reason to pull them out.

Norrøna jacket – I bought this for trail running from one of the outdoors shops in Covent Garden – it was the last one on the sale rail and reduced by 75%. It fits me perfectly, is really comfortable, has useful pockets and pit-vents and is extremely waterproof. Whilst it is not the lightest jacket available, from a cost vs. functionality point of view, it was the best I could get and is definitely small enough and light enough for me.

LED Lenser headtorch – this is the business. It is really bright and whilst it can feel as though there is a bit of a lump on the front of your head, that is easily off-set by the huge pool of light that it provides. In the pitch dark it was perfect. I’m not sure about battery life and mine seemed to be on some sort of setting that meant that it would not stay on the dimmest setting, which would have been more than enough. But that is probably user failure, rather than a problem with the torch.


TORQ Bars - the business!
TORQ Bars – the business!

I carried quite a lot of nutrition products with me and I was rather glad I did. My main sources of fuel were TORQ bars and gels. I had 12 gels and 8 bars (I was basing that on one TORQ unit an hour for 20 hours which is only a third of what they recommend you take, but I couldn’t carry 60 bars/gels and thought that as I would be operating at such a low intensity level, that I would be OK just topping up glycogen levels with what I had). I also took some fruit blocks that are sold to kids in French supermarkets– they are essentially fruit juice and sugar in a jelly-like block.

I also intended to eat at the aid stations but tried to limit myself to as little fat as possible (that worked for most of the race!) so I was eating white bread, a clear broth with pasta that we found at some aid stations, ham and occasionally salami. I did eat the odd piece of cheese, but I was getting hungry after 8 hours of running.

We also had a bowl of pasta with tomato sauce at Champex Lac about half way round.

Towards the end of the race, I had used all my TORQ gels and only had one bar left, so feeling a bit worse for wear I sat in the aid station and had three cups of black tea with sugar and three chocolate chip cookies.  I felt fantastic after that and whilst I know that was not ideal nutritionally, the psychological boost and the sugar really got me going again.

Overall thoughts about the kit

So from a kit and nutrition point of view, that was my race. I think I had just about the right stuff. The shorts were a disaster, but then I know that I still need to learn and improve, so there was bound to be one thing I wouldn’t get right. And everything else was really perfect. I will certainly not be making many kit changes for next year…

Guest post: Brooks & Moving Comfort Autumn/Winter Product Launch

When I was away in France recently, I was sadly unavailable for the Brooks and Moving Comfort press party. These are great events, where Brooks’ knowledgeable and passionate team talk through all the innovations and plans for the forth-coming season. But my great friend and awesome runner Dionne Allen came to the rescue and offered to cover the even for me. Here is her report…


I was very lucky and honored to be invited as a representative for Simon to the Brooks’ and their sister company Moving Comfort’s Autumn/Winter product launch. Even more so I was one of the lucky few to have the privilege of going to Brooks’ brand headquarters where the event was held.

A barn-like building in Steyning, West Sussex looking over the South Downs on a hot sunny day, it could not have been more idyllic: a small intimate location it really carried that Brooks ethos of giving the personal family touch and the ‘Run Happy’ spirit, which was flowing throughout the day!

We were taken through both the footwear and apparel ranges for Autumn/Winter and I could be here all day writing about the exciting new ranges they have on offer. Instead I have decided to review a couple of products at the premium end of their range to see if they are worth the higher price tag.

Brooks Glycerin 11

imageFirst off we start with the Brooks Glycerin 11, the most luxurious and pinnacle trainer within the Brooks footwear range. This is the key shoe Brooks are pushing as a brand, focusing all their advertising and social media campaigns on marketing the Glycerin 11, increasing consumer awareness of the shoe and more importantly getting it on people’s feet. After testing the product there is reason to see why Brooks have spent ‘BIG’ money on the marketing of this shoe.

Think of that feeling of lying on a comfy sofa or bed after a long hard Sunday run or getting into a nice cozy bed after a long hard slog at work: that is exactly the same feeling you get with the Glycerin 11. They immediately put your feet at ease and get you out the door. The comfort is second to none and the ride is like floating on clouds. This latest edition of the Glycerin introduces a number of new improvements to improve both its fit and feel for the better. Brooks have introduced screen printing technology so there is no stitching on the shoe and this gives it a nice smooth fit with no worries of rubbing or blistering. It also has a nice rounded collar which hugs the foot giving the shoe a nice plush custom feel. Brooks have also taken away any unnecessary foam that was in the previous Glycerin models which does not just have the bonus of making the shoe lighter but also enables you to feel the ground more allowing for a more efficient and smoother transition off the ground for better energy return and performance.

Although the shoe is stacked with cushioning it surprisingly has great flexibility, allowing the foot to move more naturally, due to its enhances Omega Flex-grooves on the sole of the shoe, which are shaped like a smiley face to add that Brooks personal ‘Run Happy’ touch.

Overall I am a huge fan of what Brooks have brought to the table with this latest Glycerin edition. Not only does the shoe have a nice sleek look, the ride certainly has that nice plush premium touch and I would say its worth every penny of its £120 price tag… an everyday trainer that caters for your every wants and needs! (If you want to be part of an exclusive Glycerin 11 club Alton Sports are stocking an exclusive color way only available at their store).

Brooks Silver Bullet jacket

image-1Next we have one for the ladies; the Brooks Silver Bullet jacket as impressive as its name sounds. This jacket is very ‘run practical’, designed with aluminum fibers which are woven into the inner liner membrane of the jacket to reflect your body heat back to you, to keep you warm on those cold winter runs. The jacket is also windproof and water resistant but beware because as the jacket is not seamless it is not fully water tight so you may still get a tad wet in a downpour. However this does allow for breathability to stop you getting too hot when running and to allow the sweat to evaporate away from the skin. There is another key selling point, which is flip mitts meaning if the hands get cold and you have made the mistake of forgetting your gloves you can flip the inner cuffs over with added thumb holes to cover the fingers… simply genius!!

The Silver Bullet Jacket has a great look, not only is it smart enough to wear to a job interview (guilty) this fashion based jacket is sure to gain a few admiring stares when out on your run. Plus you don’t have to worry about not being able to show it off at night as the jacket has 360 degree of retro reflectivity so you are sure to be seen. The runners amongst us that are not so fashion conscious it does come in a more discrete black.

Moving Comfort

Finally as Brooks sisters company I thought I would give Moving Comfort a mention. I personally am a huge fan and the products I have from Moving Comfort includes my number one sports bra of choice. They certainly have the active female needs at heart and you can read more in my product review here.

A brand inspired by women, their new Autumn/Winter range certainly aspires to their brand goals ‘to enrich femininity with inner strength’  they continue to make the most functionally and beautiful active wear to inspire and motivate the active female.

Thanks massively to Dionne for a great review. If you wear Brooks or Moving Comfort, we (that is Dionne and I) would love to know what you wear and what you think of it – the comments section is open for you now!

The hills are alive, with the sound of running: a trail running weekend in Chamonix

I think that one of the amazing things about running is the variety of ways that an athlete can out one foot in front of another and attempt to cover an given distance as fast as possible. Whether you are a 100m sprinter or an ultra-ultra distance runner, you are a runner. And that means that everyone can find the type of running that suits them.

The reasons that a person finds themselves drawn to one type of running over any other are many, varied and complex. To some extent the choice will be dictated by the proportion of fast vs. slow twitch muscle fibers one has. Opportunity, motivation and peer pressure also play important parts.

For me a range of factors have led me to become fascinated by the marathon and especially road marathons. I have had an inglorious and short (one race) attempt at track racing (3000m in my case). But time and time again, I come back to 26.2 miles of tarmac. But that is slowly changing…

Trying on the trails

Running in the Alps with the Trail Running Team ©Roy Belchamber

Increasingly, thanks to the influence of my wife, I am finding myself drawn to running on long-distance trails. Over the last few years, my summers have been spent in the Alps taking on long races, multi-day running trips and even longer ‘fast-packing’ trips.

And last weekend that culminated in a weekend of running with six other trail runners who make up the Trail Running Team in the Alps around Chamonix.

Getting to know you!

© Roy Belchamber

The Trail Running Team are a disparate bunch, who came together as the result of a social media campaign. Their ‘prize’ for being picked from the hundreds of applicants was the publicity of being on the team and in Trail Running Magazine, a weekend away in the Alps on a trail running weekend run by Julia Tregaskis-Allen  from Tracks & Trails and some pretty lovely kit from the team sponsors.

The runners all arrived on Thursday and whilst some knew each other from having been to the same assessment day in London or Church Stretton, really they were strangers. So we had a meal, cooked by yours truly, at the Gite Michel Fagot, where the team stayed, and got to know one another with the help of some lovely French wine!

The team was made up of the following six (click on their name to find out more about them)

Within that group there is an amazing range of experience and lifestyles, but three days in the mountains, with 60 miles of running, 5500m of altitude gain and 3800m of ascent, as well as an overnight stay in a mountain refuge, meant that the team really bonded. It was great to see people who share a love of trail running bring such passion and positivity together and that is what I have enjoyed about the weekend: getting to know other runners. Most of the group said at some point that they are used to running alone and in fact most of them enjoyed that aspect of trail running: the opportunity to be with your thoughts and enjoy some solitude. But at the same time, the experience of learning and sharing experiences together seemed to be a really positive.

Night running with the Trail Running Team. Photo © Roy Belchamber

A quick mention should go to the sponsors who supplied the team with some great kit. Apparel, backpack and footwear came from Mammut and their new trail running range. Nutrition was all from TORQ Fitness, including gels, bars and recovery shakes. The team also had headtorches from LED Lenser, sun-glasses from Tifosi and calf-guards from Compressport. There will be a kit review on here in the next few days, but for now it is safe to say that all the kit performed really well, all the more impressive given the tough test that it all got from the amount and type of running we did.

Trail Running Team rules

All in all, the weekend was a really wonderful experience. We laughed, struggled, learned and experienced together. I have been really inspired by the six runners that I joined for the weekend and I can’t wait to see what they all achieve in the future. And I think that my focus on road marathons has definitely taken another step backwards while I have been taking forward steps along the trail.


Hot dang! An ashmei merino wool product review

Disclaimer – please read this: I want to make it really clear from the very start that as the co-owner of freestak, I work for ashmei supplying social media marketing services. Stuart, the owner of ashmei, was very generous and sent me some ashmei kit to try out and run in. However this blog is very much an “all views my own” thing and I don’t allow my work at freestak to influence my writing here, so this review is my honest feeling – I don’t write about what I don’t like!

ashmei product review

I recently received a rather lovely package from the team at ashmei – a white fabric bag containing a Running Merino Sweatshirt, a short-sleeve merino + carbon jersey and a pair of 2-in-1 Shorts.

I have been wearing then quite a bit since they arrived, but on Sunday I had the opportunity to really give the short-sleeved top and the shorts a proper outing – the 28 mile Endurance Life Coastal Trail Series marathon on the Flete Estate in Devon. You can read my race report here.

Perfect conditions

Due to a bit of disorganisation (freestak has been very busy!) Julie and I ended up getting up at 3am to drive to the race start. This all added to the sense of adventure and the brilliant, golden sunrise, as we passed Stonehenge – shrouded in mist – with a massive, forlorn-looking moon hanging in the sky in front of us, is something I will remember for a long, long time.

The sun came up and there was not a cloud in the sky. It was going to be a beautiful day. It was also going to be warm. Hopefully my ashmei kit would cope.

ashmei performance

Screen Shot 2013-05-28 at 21.34.53As we started I was wearing my ashmei short-sleeve jersey, arm warmers, the 2-in-1 shorts from ashmei, Runderwear from RunBreeze, calf guards from Compressport, socks from ASICS and Mizuno trail shoes. I also had my fantastic new pack from Ultimate Direction (a present from Julie). Finally I had on a running cap from Sugoi and my Naked Runner shades. Sorted, ready to go!

It was warm by the time the gun went at 8:50am and within a couple of miles the arm-warmers were in my pack (Julie did say ‘I told you so’!) but apart from that, my kit choices were spot on.

The merino jersey was great. It is reasonably fitted without being skin-tight, which meant that there was no rucking and the top grabbed any sweat and wicked it away, without restricting breathing or showing off my love handles. The heat didn’t bother me and the top was entirely itch-free. Even my back – which is usually very damp after running for 5 hours with a rucksack on, felt drier then normal.

The shorts did benefit from the Runderwear (please check it out – I think it is utterly genius!) and the merino inner shorts gave a nice level of compression without cutting off the blood supply. Despite the heat, there was no chaffing at all. As we passed another runner in our ‘marathon’ race who was wearing the same shorts, I thought how nice the shorts looked, which is an added bonus.

Race result, kit result.

In the end Julie and I took just over 5 hours for the 28-odd miles. That is quite a long time on your feet and especially in the heat.

I was worried before I started that being hot for that long would make for a pretty uncomfortable run, but not so. The merino seems to do exactly what it says on the tin and wicked the sweat away nicely. I didn’t itch and there was no chafing.

So I would say that for long, slow runs and ultra marathons, the ashmei kit is great. The shorts would be too heavy for me to race anything up to a marathon in. but for hours on the feet, I think the ashmei kit is an ideal choice. Once I have washed it, I’ll post an update. And in the mean time if anyone else has any experiences with or thoughts about merino wool for running apparel, please let me know.