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.

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.

 

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

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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!

Getting hydration right: SOS Rehydrate

Hydration is a key component of every marathon runner’s armoury when it comes to succeeding over 26.2 miles (or even further). I tend to think that for anything up to and including a half marathon, you can get away with being a bit haphazard during the race, provided you are well hydrated before you start (and that doesn’t mean gulping down a pint of water 5 minutes before the gun, that simply sloshes around in your stomach and can’t be absorbed). But for a marathon, especially if you are going to be out for 4 or 5 hours, you need to “Think Drink” (I just made that up, so any hydration brands out there who’d like to use it, you know how to contact me!)

I found out about that to my cost in the London marathon 2011. I was almost certainly a bit dehydrated before I started and it turned out to be a warm day – not stiflingly hot, but as I set off at the 6 min/mile pace that was required for me to hit my target time, I was quickly sweating and losing fluids rapidly.

By 18 miles I was in big trouble – my mouth felt like it was full of cotton wool and I was having trouble swallowing because my throat was so dry. I remember wiping my forehead and it was completely dry – just salt-crusted, but there was no sweat at all. At the big turn in Canary Wharf I came to an aid station and stopped.

The response from the crowd at seeing someone go from close to 10mph to nothing was really hard for me to deal with – everyone was yelling at me to get going again. But I was feeling worse than I had ever felt before. As I walked through the aid station, I took two bottles of water and drank them both completely. Then I took a bottle of Lucozade sport and drank all of that as well – so probably 750ml of liquid in 3 minutes.

At the end of the aid station I started jogging again. Within half a mile I was running. Seven or eight minutes after I stopped running, I was back to nearly 6 minute miles again. I had blown my target time, but I was able to regroup, recalculate and aim for a new target of sub-2:45. I finished in 02:43:37.

I also learned that in future I would have to figure out how to deal with staying hydrated. And you know, there are products for that…

I recently had the chance to talk to James Mayo, Co Founder of SOS Hydration about why hydration products are better than water and what runners should think about when it comes to avoiding dehydration.

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Screen Shot 2014-02-10 at 09.30.12Me: James, first of all, what was the inspiration behind SOS Hydration?

James: It was a simple lightening moment. Both my brother and I ran at a high level and whilst we had access to hydration products, the simply weren’t working so in a Heath Robinson fashion we would make up something that worked for us. My wife is a doctor and she knows about the side of rehydration techniques used in medicine. Between us we realised that no one had cracked the hydration question. So SOS is based on the World Health Organisation hydration guidelines. The truth is that everyone gets dehydrated – when I was in the Army – at same time as I was a runner – in Cheshire Regiment – where there were also problems with dehydration, so I have seen it from all angles and that inspired me to set up the business.

Me: There seem to be hundreds of hydration products on the market – how is SOS different to, or better than, other products?

James: There are a number of difference, but I believe that the main one are:

  • 27% more electrolytes and half calories and sugar that are in coconut water
  • no artificial sweeteners
  • low osmolarity which means that it’s as effective at getting fluid into the bloodstream as a drip
  • the formulation means you absorb water three times faster with SOS than water on its own – right balance of sugar and electrolytes means that sugar grabs sodium and sodium takes the water into the blood. The balance is crucial.
  • we have really shown that the product works: SOS athletes have swum the channel, won the America’s cup and achieved many, many other incredible feats
  • it is really portable and so great for athletes and people with a busy lifestyle

Me: What are the key reasons marathon runners should focus on their hydration?

James: The answer to this revolves around the fact that a 2% loss in body weight through dehydration can lead to a 20% loss in performance. So shoes and gels are enormously important factors in performing to your best, but hydration is the last bastion of performance that runners need to get right

Me: How should runners use the product? How about in a race?

James: We recently supplied the sailors aboard Oracle Team USA with SOS and they were going through 1500 packets a month between 28 sailors. The low osmolarity means less gastrointestinal distress and we recommend athletes use 1 packet for each hour of exercise, so runners could drink one before the marathon and a couple during the marathon and one after. SOS comes in silver foil packet so you could rip it open, pour into water bottle handed out on the course and drink it as you run. It can also be pre-mixed if you can get access to bottles during your race.

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As I said in one of my questions to James, there are seemingly hundreds of hydration products on the market and it is essential that if you decide you use one in a race, you figure out what is right for you by practicing with it well in advance.

For me, I have to say that I like the idea of using something that has electrolytes for ultra races seems like a great idea. For the marathon, the problem is that I can’t have pre-mixed drinks by the side of the course (not fast enough for that) and I feel as though I am running too fast to be able to open a packet of powder, get it into the neck of a bottle and then drink it – at 6 min/mile it is a matter of grabbing a bottle and taking a couple of gulps whilst trying to breathe!

But it is definitely worth thinking about your strategy and practicing what you are going to do on race days. If you want to try SOS it is available from Sweatshop* – let me know if you try it and what you think.

 

 

 

 

 

 

*disclaimer: at freestak, the company I co-own, we do work with Sweatshop on social media marketing campaigns but not as yet on SOS and we don’t work for SOS.

 

 

 

Jingle, jangle no more: the Keybud answer to loose keys

I am happy to say, that very little annoys me when I am running. The moment I am out running my tolerance for things that would ordinarily have me drafting a “Dear Sir…” email to the editor of a national newspaper, dissipates and I am the epitome of calm. Drifting, floating, easing along. Even when I am working hard, the rhythm of my feet on the pavement or track and my breathing allows me to drift away to a head-space where everyday irritations can’t reach me. And then…

The arhythmical jangle of keys, never seemingly in time with anything, will snap at my brain like the most irritating sound in the world. And I always have the same reaction

WHY???

Why would you put an unsecured bunch of keys in your pocket and go for a run. In fact why take a bunch? And why not carry them in your hand so they don’t make a noise? Argh, irritating beyond belief!

Screen Shot 2013-11-26 at 16.17.20So I am rather taken with a product that is being developed by a team in Sweden called SportBud. They are currently working on a new offering called the Keybud – a neat little wrist strap which allows you to slip a single key into a secure pouch and head off. No jangle. No jingle. No chance of wearing a hole in your shorts’ pocket. No chance that I will try to decapitate you with a handy road-cone or something.

The Keybud is currently looking for funding through Kickstarter and if you are interested, you can find details here. All joking about my annoyance with key-janglers aside, I think that having a key tucked away in a Keybud is a great way to keep your hands free, your key safe and your shorts jangle-free, whether you are running, gym-ing (is that a word?), swimming, cycling… whatever so this may be a great opportunity to support a cool company and get in on a great new product. I’ll be going for a Keybud for sure – I just need to then start going for a run more than once or twice a week!

‘The Runners’ and the Good Gym: a review

Screen Shot 2013-11-15 at 08.02.27I have been aware of the Good Gym for a while, although I will admit that I have not been on one of their runs yet (mainly for reasons I will get on to in a minute) but thankfully a friend of mine has been on one of their runs and was told about the premier screening of a new short film called The Runners. He got a couple of tickets and he invited me along.

The film is short, only 10 minutes, and was made by two chaps: Matan Rochlitz and Ivo Gormley and it is essentially a documentary about them asking people amazingly challenging and wide-ranging  questions while they run around Victoria Park in east London. For example: “Are you in love?”

Can you imagine, going for a run around Vicky Park and having two chaps, one on a bike towing the other around in a little cart on the back, while the one in the cart asked you deep and difficult questions about life?

Well as preposterous as that sounds, it really works. The film opens with a couple of rather less successful attempts to extract something deep and meaningful from east London’s pavement-pounders but soon moves on to people who are clearly happy to let whatever is going on in their minds spill out of their mouths and straight into the film-makers camera.

I won’t spoil the film, not least because it is only 10 minutes long and it is now available to everyone, so make a cuppa and take a break to watch this:

And it is also available on the Good Gym website, which neatly brings me on to that organisation.

The Good Gym

The Good Gym was set up by one half of The Runners’ team, Ivo in 2009 and the idea is that people meet, run to a location together, do some work for free and then run back to where they started. A good example as the message my friend Richard – who got us the tickets for last night’s screening – received on his phone: the run was 45 minutes to an overgrown garden, pruning, chopping and pulling-up to make the garden usable for an elderly resident and then a 45 minute run back. You can see more details here.

After the film there was a panel discussion / Q&A with three rather interesting people: Alexandra Heminsley (journalist and author of Running like a Girl), Martin Yelling (coach and presenter of Marathon Talk) and Greg Laybourn who is one of the runners who appears in the film.

The questions for the panel were really about what they think about when they are running and the physical and psychological benefits of being a runner. There was one particularly interesting comment from Alexandra, however, that I made a note of. She said:

I think that if you are a runner and you constantly set yourself targets, then that is self-hatey

And I think that is probably the reason that the Good Gym didn’t appeal to me when I first heard about it. Unlike my wife, who will interrupt her runs to pick up litter, help people out, look at something interesting, smell the flowers, etc, my runs always have purpose because I always have a target in mind: at the very least one for the run I am doing and one longer term goal like my next race. Primary amongst my targets for any run is not stopping unless absolutely necessary, so the Good Gym idea has not really appealed to me.

The discussion last night and learning more about the Good Gym has started to convinced me that some of my runs could start to be less about running and more about doing good. If you received my newsletter thingy this week, you will know that I have got the London in my sights for next year (5 months and 4 days from today!) and so my running will only become more purposeful over the next 20 weeks or so, but perhaps there is a chance every so often to take the foot off the accelerator and allow a run to be about something other than just training.

But mainly in response to Alexandra’s comment, I disagree: I think that setting targets is the opposite of self-hate. I think it is about wanting to become the best you can be, rather than settling for less: which in my book is much more closely about self-respect (possibly bordering on narcissism and selfishness in some cases).

But I do like the idea that by adding a purpose to going for a run, more people will do it. If that works for you, then get involved and please let me know what you think.

Back to the film

So a final thought about the film. One of the things that Ivo and Matan said after the film which I really liked, was the idea that people are off-guard when they are running. Provided they are not doing a session and can talk, the film makers found that the very act of running provided some sort of distraction for the brain and meant that the questions they were asking – very deep and personal questions – bypassed the usual filter that might have most of us changing the subject and diving in to small talk. Or maybe us runners are all really deep thinkers all the time and always happy to share our inner-most philosophies with a stranger in a cart being towed around Victoria Park behind a bike. Maybe.

The power of inspiration and the Buxton Adventure Festival

I believe that to be the best runner you can be – indeed to be the best anything you can be – there are some ingredients that have to come together. In running, hard and consistent training is the first and most important one. Then there are plenty of other things like strength and conditioning work, nutrition, etc. And there is also the need to get your brain in the right shape – that is where inspiration comes in to play.

Increasingly I believe that the brain has a huge part to play in achieving the most you can as a runner. And for me the inspiration to train harder and race to the maximum of my ability comes from a range of sources: meeting inspiring people, reading blogs, reading books about great runners, athletes and explorers. And films. I love sports and adventure films. Which is why I go to as many adventure film showings and festivals as possible.

The most recent film that me and Mrs. Freeman saw was the new movie from Sebastian Montaz “Petit Bus Rouge” for which we were lucky enough to get tickets for the global premier in Chamonix. It was an amazing film – if you can see it I wholeheartedly recommend that you do – and 10 minutes into the showing the cinema door opened a crack and someone crept in and sat on the stairs at the end of the row we were in. I peered through the dark at the interloper and was a little surprised to see Killian Jornet sitting there!

We also went to see the Banff Film Festival at the Union Chapel in London. An evening of great films in a really extraordinary building in London.

And now we have booked tickets for a film festival that I am very excited about – the Buxton Adventure Festival which runs on 2 and 3 November at the Pavillion Arts Centre in Buxton, right in the heart of the Peak District.

The idea is that over the two days that the festival is on, there are ten different 2 hour sessions with tales of adventure told by by world-class speakers followed by epic films to inspire every cell in your body. What could be better?

The sessions that I am looking forward to are all on the Sunday starting with Heather Dawe, ultra runner, climber and cyclist talking to Claire Maxted, editor of Trail Running Magazine followed by the movie The Dragons Back.

Jez Bragg looking mean!
Jez Bragg looking mean!

Then I will be hearing the one and only Jez Bragg talking about his epic 3,054km journey along the entirely length of New Zealand, completely under his own power, including a kayak crossing of the notorious Cook Strait. This is then followed by a couple of amazing short films.

Rosie Pope-Swale
Rosie Pope-Swale

And then finally there is Rosie Swale-Pope, the only person, man or woman, to have undertaken a solo, unsupported run around the world. Her tale will be followed by another two films, The Celtman and the Penguin Runner.

Obviously I am only going to see three of the festivals talks+films and there are many others, on Saturday and Sunday that you can go and see. I reckon they all look pretty amazing.

I cannot wait for the weekend. The organisersHeason Events – which is Matt Heason and Lissa Cook have not only pulled together what looks as though it will be an utterly incredible weekend of inspiration, so hats off to then (and my personal thanks for allowing me to attend more sessions that I would have otherwise been able to) so I hope that if you can, you will come along and get your fix of inspiration. I am sure we can also find somewhere nice to go for a run if you want some physical preparation to go along with your brain training!

 

 

Tickets for the individual sessions are £10 and you can book here.

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:

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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.

Nutrition

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…

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

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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!

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© 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.

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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.

 

A love of running in the mountains

When I met my wife, I was an unashamed pavement-bashing flat-land runner. The less corners and hills the better as far as I was concerned. But my wife’s love of running in the mountains has started to work it’s magic and whilst I am still aching to set a new marathon PB, I also love running off-road, up and down, over rocks and grass and through streams and snow-fields for hours on end. I am grateful for my wife’s influence in this.

So suddenly this film has resonance with me – I know exactly what Sarah Ridgway is talking about and I am more inspired than ever to don a pair of grippy trail shoes and hit the rough stuff. Enjoy…

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