A race with no end – the Wings for Life World Run 2014

Do you crave something different when it comes to running? I think that personally I might be at a bit of a turning point as far as my running is concerned.

My marathon PB feels like something I achieved in a different life and getting in share to tackle that feels like it would be a long, long way off. Whilst I still feel a strong competitive drive and I want to test myself, I know that with all the fantastic opportunities we have at Freestak and the fact that Like the Wind magazine seems to have built up some momentum (next issue will be out towards the end of May, by the way) training to beat my time in London 2013 doesn’t seem feasible.

So I am increasingly finding myself attracted to ‘other’ races – different distances and different terrains in particular. I am probably going to run at least one mile race this summer. And I have booked myself into a series of off-road ultras this summer – in particular there a couple of meaningful races for me: the CTS Classic Quarter in Cornwall and the UTMB CCC in August.

So in the spirit of doing ‘different’ races, I was rather excited to be taking part in the Wings for Life World Run yesterday. This is a race with quite a few quirks:

  • The race is being run to support the Wings for Life charity, which has been set up to fun research into spinal injuries. Being backed by Red Bull, every penny of the entry fee goes to the charity, which I really like.
  • The idea of the race is to stay ahead of a catcher car – the ‘finish line’ is attached to the outside of a Landrover which follows the runners at a set pace and as the car passes you, your race is over. In that sense there is no finish line – you simply run as far as you can before the car catches you
  • The run was taking place simultaneously in 35 locations around the world – luckily for us in the UK, we started at 11am. In China, Australia, South America, etc they weren’t so lucky…

You can’t change a leopard’s spots

Screen Shot 2014-05-06 at 18.07.37So how do you approach a race like this? Well, Wings for Life sort of made it simple by setting up a ‘slider’ on the race website which allows you to work out how far you would get before the car reaches you based on distance or time. So I obviously looked to see how fast I would have to run to get to 26.2 miles before the car caught me. The answer: 3hrs 8mins. Not easy, but also not impossible. Well, so I thought!

Just before the race I spoke to my friend Tobias Mews and we agreed that we would run together at 3:08 marathon pace and just see how we got on. The morning dawned clear and cool but it was obvious that it would warm up and by 11am it was already t-shirt-only weather. In fact a vest might have been a better idea.

The gun sounded and off we went – at sub-6 min/mile pace! There was about 8km of running on the circuit at Silverstone and to be honest that is probably where my problems started, although I didn’t know it at the time. It was really warm and I was almost certainly dehydrated from working all day on Saturday at the Trail Running Team day and then running around on Saturday night and Sunday morning looking after the elite athletes that Freestak had invited to the race. I was sweating hard (there is NO shade around Silverstone for obvious reasons) and with Tobias and I clicking off 7 min miles, I only grabbed a few mouthfuls of water as we passed the aid stations. Worse was to come.

Off the track, into the unknown

After 8km we left the circuit and headed on to the roads. This is where the hills started. The course had been described as undulating and it certainly was that. In fact it was hilly. Tobias and I kept clicking off 7 or 7:15 min miles but the uphills and the heat were taking the toll.

The real problem for me came after about 16 miles. By this stage there were only 70 runners left (according to the results) and the water stations stopped. I had been trying to get water in but balancing this with keeping the pace up was a real struggle. I was sweating really heavily and getting very, very dehydrated. It was really hot by 1pm.

In the end I was reduced to walking a couple of the uphills and begging some water off a passing motorcyclist. I could hear the ‘catcher car’ coming and I pulled myself together for a final burst. In fact from that point the car took 15 minutes to catch me and I was really interested in the motivation that extending the time to getting caught gave me.

Sadly I didn’t get to the marathon. 22 miles was my lot. Tobias had forged ahead at about 21 miles as I was reduced to a walk and he managed 22.8 miles. We were 17th and 13th respectively in the UK.

Overall?

Overall I thought the Wings for Life World Run 2014 was a great idea. It was fun to race in a different way although I admit that the marathoner in my took over and I reduced my target to trying to run a very familiar distance in a target time (destination goals as described by Stuart Mills – there will be a post on this soon so keep your eyes peeled). I am sure that a few of the logistical challenges will be sorted in future years and this should be a great event with ever more people seeing how far they can go – after all why stop at 10km or 13.1 miles if you can keep going?

For a flavour of the day and how it all worked, check out the video below which was a live stream on the day and is now a record of the event.

I will definitely be back for more!

 

 

 

 

The Virgin Money London Marathon 2014: a personal view

I am increasingly of the opinion that to do something really well – I mean to the absolute best of your ability – you have to focus as much of your energy on it as possible. One hundred percent of your energy if you can. And I don’t just mean physical energy – although focussing that on your goal is essential – I also mean mental energy. Give everything to the challenge you set yourself and you have the best possible chance of achieving it. 

Mornington Chasers contingent in the VMLM Championship Start
Mornington Chasers contingent in the VMLM Championship Start

Which is why I went into the London marathon this year with very low expectations for the time I was going to run. Freestak has replaced running as the thing that I think about as I am going to sleep and the thing I am thinking about the moment I wake up, as well as all the minutes in between. BF (Before Freestak) I would spend most of my time thinking about running – my running and how I could improve and see how good I could possibly be. Indeed work was a rather inconvenient distraction from the important business of running.

But all that has changed recently (although not entirely. More on that in a minute) and I went to London to see what it was like to run this iconic, world famous race for fun. I had a partner in this endeavour – Mat Chataway, a 2:41 marathon runner now in training for the Comrades Ultra marathon – and I had no expectations. So we decided to set off at 3:20 pace and enjoy the day.

Changing my focus from racing to running

I enjoy racing and I remember feeling as relaxed last year, aiming for a PB, as this year with no pressure on my shoulders. After all, running is for fun and given my background, the fact that I am running at all is a wonderful thing, so I don’t worry all that much about my times. It is great to run times that you are proud of, but my feeling is that you can only control so much and if you have trained properly, all you need to do is execute your plan as well as possible on the day.

So I strolled across Blackheath with two friends who were also running the marathon, taking in the sights and thinking that the weather looked beautiful.

After an hour and a half in the Championship start pen (what a privilege that is!) chatting to friends, we shuffled to the start line, clapped and cheered for the elite field as they were announced and then we were off!

The first 10 miles just ticked by. Mat and I were striding along together chatting about ultras and plans for the summer. We caught up with a fellow Mornington Chaser, Ian Girling, who was aiming to run sub-3 for the first time, and we fell into rhythm with him, grabbing drinks for him and trying to be helpful. We were ahead of our scheduled pace within a mile of starting!

Approaching half way the route really starts to get interesting. Tower Bridge was amazing – a sea of charity flags and cheering supporters. I had briefly glimpsed my own band of supported – Julie, Mum and Dad – at the Cutty Sark, but the crowds were incredible and they were unable to get to the barrier. Still I knew they were there and that was lovely.

The run down towards the Isle of Dogs and Canary Wharf was still massively enjoyable and I was finding people I knew who were running – Hi, Chris Watt! – and saying hello and checking how they were. The only issues I had were a growing blister on the top of my big toe on my left foot and the fact that at 3 hour pace, we (that is Mat, Ian and I) were getting caught up in the peleton of runners following the official 2:59 pacer.

The best was yet to come

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Coming through the RDC CheerDem station at Mile 21. Photo © Candice

Coming past Mudchute, I thought that I might see Julie and my parents. I was actually well ahead of the schedule that I had told them I would run, so they weren’t quite expecting me when I did arrive. Suddenly I heard Julie’s voice and looked back over my left shoulder to see her sprinting along the pavement to catch me. I was in such high spirits that I impulsively u-turned in the road and ran back towards her for a kiss. She was clasping a bunch of spare TORQ gels that she had brought with her and was yelling at me to not run in the wrong direction and waste time, but I was so happy to see her and I wanted a kiss. After a few seconds with her, I was off, kicking along to catch up with Mat and Ian.

After mile 20 I started getting excited about the RunDemCrew cheering point at mile 21. There were posters on lamp posts in the mile or so before the ‘Crew and I was desperate to find some space so I could take it all in. Obviously the difference between this year and last year – at that 21 mile point – was that I was about 18 minutes slower and there were a lot more runners around me. But the ‘Crew look out for their own and despite me not wearing the right kit (I have to wear a club vest in the Championship race) I threw up my hands in a ‘gun finger’ salute and the CheerDemCrew went crazy! Charlie set off a confetti cannon and there was just the most immense noise. Absolutely brilliant!

After the RDC tunnel of noise, I passed the Mornington Chasers at mile 22. This was a much tamer affair – actually how could it not be?!?! – and trundled on towards the finish.

Blackfriars underpass was as usual: a deathly silent, surreal place. I saw one of my training partners and at least a dozen other runners, heads bowed, walking through the underpass. By this stage I was feeling a bit tight in my hamstrings and glutes, but generally I was OK. I just kept motoring along.

The magic last three miles of the London marathon

The last three miles of the London marathon are magical. The crowds are amazing. The sights are incredible – the Millenium Eye, South Bank, Westminster Abbey, the Houses of Parliament. If you are still feeling OK at this point, it is the best end to the race in the world.

I was definitely feeling tired by this point. I had really not trained for this race and I was still knocking out 6’45” minutes per mile. But I was also grinning from ear to ear and happy to just run all the way. On Birdcage Walk I saw Catherine Wilding, a great friend and runners who has written a wonderful race report here, and gave her a wave.

And then the finish line.

It was a great experience. I love the London marathon – the crowds, the runners, the sights and the sounds. It was fun to run within myself and enjoy it rather than pushing as hard as possible for a PB. I must admit though, that my desire for a crack at my PB has not diminished. I’m not sure that I can balance two huge passions in my life – running and Freestak – in a way that will allow me to train hard enough to run as fast as I have in the past. But you never know…

Born Free: ten years of the Nike Free

I once heard someone say that the Nike Free is the best selling running shoe ever and whether or not that is true, this year Nike are celebrating 10 years of their iconic, floppy, flexible friend-of-the-foot.

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Sean McDowell, VP & Creative Director, Nike Running

As part of the celebration, Nike brought Sean McDowell, Vice President and Creative Director for Nike Running, over from Oregon to London and hired a space that they turned into a very cool museum and technology lab rolled into one in honour of the Free… and I was invited to check it out.

All cool and no fool either

It is undoubtedly the case that when it comes to ‘cool’ Nike are the kings of the runnerverse. Other brands might be purely dedicated to running or more likely to be worn by the fleet-footed speed merchants. But Nike will be on the feet of the trendy types and the fashion conscious.

And Nike also has some serious pedigree when it comes to running. The event that I attended last week really hammered that point home. The first and most immediate thing made it clear that Nike is a serious running powerhouse was the way in which I and my fellow invitees were made to wait on the pavement outside the space for quarter of an hour after the time we were asked to arrive, by big burly security men with ear-pieces. Apparently the Nike team weren’t ready for us… so who was getting themselves ready? None other than Olympian and marathon world record holder Paula Radcliffe, who was joining us for a run. And she would be accompanied by future stars Jessica Judd and Charlie Grice.

The irony was that once we were inside, Paula, Jess and Charlie were all absolutely lovely and down-to-earth: not a hint of the prima donna amongst them!

The running pedigree of the brand with the swoosh was also really brought home when we heard from Sean McDowell and he went through a brief history of the brand, illustrated with picture of Phil Knight, co-founder of Nike, standing with his coach and business collaborator Bill Bowerman – the man who invented the rubber waffle sole that revolutionised running shoes.

Whilst Nike has fingers in so many sporting pies, there is no doubt that running is deeply ingrained in it’s DNA.

Experiencing the Nike Free

Charlie Dark, founder RunDemCrew
Charlie Dark, founder RunDemCrew

The Nike Free Experience that I was invited to, was being run by Charlie Dark from the RunDemCrew – a very important man in my life as well as being a brilliant public speaker and motivator. He was the perfect person to get everyone invited to the event relaxed and receptive and was also the perfect partner for Paula, who clearly finds Charlie’s antics quite amusing!

After a quick introduction, Charlie had all of us go through a warm-up so that we were ready to head out for a run in the new Nike Free 3.0 that we had been issued with. As Charlie exhorted us to grab a foot and lift it behind us to stretch out our quads, you can imagine my surprise when I felt someone’s hand on my shoulder steadying themselves and I turned to see it was Paula – one of my all time heroes!

Out on the run in the Nike Free 3.0

After the introduction and warm-up, Charlie and his team had all of the invitees back out onto the pavement and off running.

IMG_1854I must admit that I was feeling a little bit worried about running in the Nike Free 3.0 two days before the London marathon. They are – to put it mildly – minimalist. As we were to hear later, that is the point. I was worried that a shoe with a very minimalist sole and a zero heel-to-toe differential might give me some Achilles grief, especially as I had pushed myself in my last few sessions and was feeling typically sore in my calves already. But running with Paula Radcliffe was too good an opportunity to miss!

We ran for about 45 minutes and there were lots of stops due to traffic and waiting for the group to come back together so I was absolutely fine in the shoes and didn’t feel that I was stressing my foot or lower leg all that much. And in terms of how the shoe felt on, I think the Nike Free 3.0 is exactly what it sets out to be. As Nike say:

Our the most flexible and natural ride, the Nike Free 3.0 Flyknit Running Shoe features a lightweight, supportive Flyknit upper and an ultra-flexible, low-profile outsole…

Personally I don’t enjoy running on hard concrete in a shoe with so little cushioning and I must admit that I was pleased when I found myself running along next to Paula and we got on to the subject of what she wears and she pointed out that while everyone at the Nike Free Experience was wearing the new Flyknit Free 3.0, she was wearing a pair of Pegasus. She explained that with all the foot problems she has encountered, nothing would dissuade her from wearing the best shoes given her injury and the Free was not the best shoe in that situation.

The science and the application of the Nike Flyknit Free 3.0

Me, Paula and Like the Wind magazine!
Me, Paula and Like the Wind magazine!

Perhaps inadvertently, when Paula was talking to me – and by the way, what a privilege to spend 10 minutes one-on-one, running and chatting with such an amazing athlete – she predicted everything that we would hear later: that the Nike Free is a great addition to a runners collection of shoes, but it can’t be the only shoe you run in. When Paula is running on hard concrete pavements she does not wear the Free.

Having returned to the Nike Free Experience space, we were invited to listen to Sean McDowell from Nike talk about the development of the Free. And what was so refreshing was the open and rational way that Sean talked about the shoe; the fact that one of the shoes that Nike developed and which ended up as the Nike Free was in response to Mike Parker’s challenge to make a shoe that fits like a t-shirt for the foot; the fact that the Free was developed after meeting a running coach who had his athletes do bare-foot strides on the grass after track sessions; the way that a series of shoes – the 3.0, 4.0 and 5.0 – were developed to allow runners to choose the Free with the right amount of cushioning for them. It all made a lot of sense to me and there was very little of the bombastic “Just Do It” messaging that Nike can sometimes resort to.

My thoughts about the Nike Free 3.0

Personally, I think the Nike Flyknit Free 3.0 is a bit too minimal for the vast majority of running that I do. It was fine for 5km with lots of stops on Friday, but anything more than that and I think I would suffer from the lack of cushioning and the minimal heel-drop. I could adapt but frankly at my age and with as little time available to train as I have, I don’t want to put in the time required.

However I do think this shoe might come into its own when I was to want a pair of shoes to do strides in after a session or if I am looking for a really light shoe for track sessions.

The Flyknit upper is great – really light and highly breathable so these will also be a great shoe for the summer when feet can tend to get a bit sweaty, which can cause rubbing and blisters.

I would say that the shoe is a great addition to the shoes that you probably have at home and would be great for shorter stuff on forgiving surfaces where you want to give your feet a good work-out. For people who are dedicated to minimalist running, this might be an all-round shoe for miles and miles on the pavement, but that is most definitely not me.

And finally, to confirm what I have heard so many times before, Paula Radcliffe is really one of the most friendly, engaging, fascinating and easy to talk to people I have met. She is a great ambassador for the sport and for Nike and it was a real privilege to meet her – thanks Nike!

 

 

 

The Nike Flyknit Free is available now – here – for £125.

Sound of mind, sound of ears…

I am not a really regular wearer of headphones when I am running. However I do like some music when I am out training on my own from time to time, usually when I am on a recovery run, which to be honest I often find a bit boring. Music can help me relax and enjoy the time that I am out, rather then running fast to get what should be a slow recovery run over and done with. I also discovered the wonder of music on a long run when I borrowed my wife’s iPod a while ago – her jazz mix was like audio-EPO! I was massively pumped up and ended up flying along faster than I know I would have run sans sounds. But I don’t reach for the MP3 player every time I go out. I quite like the sounds of the street and my breathing and listening to the internal dialogue as I plod along.

MHISRTIEBKCAV2_128474_PKG_01When I do run with music, though, as a music fan, I realise that more than ever, digital files and cheap players and headphones mean that audio quality can take a nose-dive. So going for a run with a digital music player can be a pretty low-fi experience. But not so much for me after I was introduced to Monster headphones

Monster is actually a brand that started off making really high quality interconnectors or cables for audio systems. The thinking is that having a great amp and equally fantastic speakers is pretty pointless if you have cables that don’t allow the sound through well enough.

More recently Monster have started making headphones, including the Beats by Dre ones that you see adorning so many heads in London’s cooler neighbourhoods. In their own range, Monster have a huge range of headphones, including a £320 Miles Davis Tribute in-ear headphone. That must be a bloomin’ good set of headphones.

They also now have a range of sports headphones – three in-ear (Strive, Intensity and Victory) and one on-ear headphone, the Freedom which is a wireless bluetooth headphones.

Meeting the Monster

I was invited to meet the Monster team and try out the headphones this week and it was quite an astonishing experience.

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Me and Pete from Fitness Playground not talking to each other!

When I arrived, I was fitted with a pair of the Victory – an in-ear headphone with a curl of rubber that hooks into the curves of your ear and comes with a clip and a microphone / controller on the cable. The fitting process is actually really simple and very effective – there are literally dozens of ear-buds and hooks in the box and you can even go for different sizes in different ears if you are uneven in the aural department.

The plan for the evening was that we would be going for a run led by the team from Fitness Playground – actually in the end my love of sprinting up and down hills mean that Pete from FP was saddled with me for the run back to the meeting point. I think he got the short straw: sorry Pete!

Out into the fading light of Covent Garden, we all plugged in and set off at an easy pace. We were warned that because it would be busy on the route we were taking to the Mall, we should keep the volume low and one ear-piece out and I must admit that I found trying to stay in touch with a group, keep an eye on the traffic and have music in my ears was challenging. But then I never run with music in company.

Once we passed under Admiralty Arch and on to a relatively traffic- and pedestrian-free Mall, I popped in the second earphone and upped the volume. My word! What a sound.

Big sound

MHISRTIEBKCAV2_128474_GLAM_01Don’t get me wrong – we are still talking about low-grade audio files on a cheap iPod shuffle. But the noise that I heard was like nothing I have experienced from an in-ear set of headphones before. The sound was crystal clear and the bass almost made me jump.

As for comfort, well these bad boys really stay in your ears! I was worried that because the headphones hang on equal length cables at the front rather than asymetric length cables where one loops behind your neck, they might fall out. But despite some mid-run drills and even a series of hill sprints, they stayed put perfectly.

And what about afterwards – well unbelievably the Monster Victory headphones are washable so if you do get a bit sweaty, you can just wash them off under the tap. Nice and fresh!

As I guess you will realise by now, I like these headphones. I will say for now that I have never invested in decent headphones for running before so I don’t have much in the way of comparison. But I love music and I will now be taking much more care about what I download to my iPod shuffle because for the first time I think I’ll probably be able to hear it well. And bass… I must remember lots of bass!

Book & talk about ‘Faster: The Obsession, Science and Luck Behind the World’s Fastest Cyclists’ by Michael Hutchinson

Running is such a simple sport. The common wisdom is that all you need is a pair of shoes and enough functional clothing for the weather / legal requirements of the place you are running in. Some even argue that you don’t need shoes. Or clothes.

But that is also, perhaps, one of the downsides of running. I don’t think there is much that science can do to help runners go faster. Certainly the footwear and apparel brands are doing their best with shoes that give more return or weigh less and clothes that are designed to wick sweat and support muscles. And nutrition brands undoubtedly create products that are scientifically superior to the beer and butties that our running forefathers trained and raced on. And of course there are GPS devices and heart rate monitors that mean that training can be more and more specific and controlled. And yet…

Despite all the technological advances, runners in the UK and Europe are – on average and at every level – getting slower. Not only slower than the runners coming from the distance-running powerhouses in east Africa but also slower than the aforementioned beer-and-butty fuelled runners of the past.

Maybe in cycling it is different? Well Michael Hutchinson is certainly obsessed with finding out.

On 6 May, Michael will be at the Bloomsbury Institute to talk about his new book;

Faster_image001Faster: The Obsession, Science and Luck Behind the World’s Fastest Cyclists

Hutchinson will explain why cyclists do what they do, what the riders, their coaches and the experts get up to in preparation and why the idea of going faster is such an appealing, universal instinct for all of us.

This examination of what it takes to get faster on two wheels has garnered high praise already from none other than the man who has made cycling fast a national obsession: Sir Dave Brailsfor. He says of Faster,

Fantastic. An intelligent and personal insight in to the world of elite cycling

There should be no surprise that Michael has written a good book on the subject of cycling fast. Hutchinson is a former professional cyclist and won multiple national titles in both Britain and Ireland, represented both countries internationally and rode for Northern Ireland at the Commonwealth Games in 2002, 2006 and 2010. He also has writing-form having already penned an award-winning book, The Hour: Sporting Immortality the Hard Way.

So I would say that this is going to be a very interesting read. And if you can get to the talk, then I think it will be a fascinating discussion around the subjects in the book. I went to the Bloomsbury Institute for a talk by Scott Jurek about his book Eat and Run as well as a talk by Graeme Obree for his book A Training Manual For Cyclists (I still need to post my review of that book… sorry!) – both were utterly brilliant! If you want to go to this latest talk click here and book a ticket (in case you need to copy and paste it: http://tinyurl.com/oqa9fgo) – it’ll be a very worthwhile £10 I assure you!

 

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…

Nike Flyknit Lunar2 review: light, cushioned and bright!

I was recently sent a pair of Nike’s latest Flyknit creation for runners – the Nike Flyknit Lunar2. This is the first Nike shoe that I have had the chance to try out for quite a while and I was excited to see if this would be the Nike shoe for me.

Me and Nike

The thing is, I like many things about Nike. I like the company’s philosophy. I like the history of the brand. The athletes that they support are usually heroes of mine (well the runners at least – the cheating cyclist and philandering golfer not so much). And I like the design of so much of the Nike gear.

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But since my first ever pair of running shoes – a pair of Nike Pegasus that I had to take back after they started squeaking as I ran (annoying in the extreme!) – I have not found a pair that I really liked running in. The Nike Frees have all been a bit too unstructured. The Marathoners were almost a bit too hard. The Flyknit Racer was almost too light and the midsole felt a bit too narrow for my trotters.

But what about the Flyknit Lunar2? How would they work out?

The Nike Flyknit Lunar2 review

Well straight out of the box and on to my feet, they felt great. If you haven’t experienced the Flyknit upper, you should. It simply confirms to every contour of your feet, fitting like a glove (I know that is an overused analogy, but in this case it is actually true!) and not leaving any voids that can crease and rub.

The Lunarlon midsole is now nothing new – it has been in Nike shoes for a while – but it still feels remarkable when one hasn’t run in Nike shoes for a while… which I hadn’t. It is a beguiling mixture of cushioned plushness and firm lightness, especially in this shoe. And for a runner like me, that has developed a mid-foot landing, it provides just the right amount of cushioning to deal with concrete pavements on longer runs. Which brings me on to the real review…

Erm, the Real Review

After wearing the Flyknit Lunar2s for a few steady pre-breakfast runs, all around an hour or so, I decided that I would see how the shoes felt on a proper run. I had 2 hours with the last 30 minutes at marathon pace in my training plan. That would end up being a touch over 20 miles and I wore the Lunar2s to see what they would be like in a simulated race situation.

The short version of the review – which is all I’m going to give bother you with – is that they were great. One slight criticism is that I did get a little bit of rubbing on my achilles tendon from the shoe’s collar. But if I am trying to hold on to 6 min/mile pace for half an hour after 90 minutes steady running, the odd rub is to be expected.

photo 2The shoes felt light, cushioned and stable and I would say that they would probably make a rather decent marathon shoe if you are looking for something that will give your feet a good amount of protection from the constant pounding and don’t weigh too much. Having completely woven uppers also means that no matter how far you run and no matter what the temperatures, my feet have not overheated in these shoes.

So there you go – the Nike Flyknit Lunar2. I reckon this is a rather good shoe from Nike. It is still not the racing shoe that I am looking for, to wear in half-marathons and marathons. But for me, this is a great choice for many of my runs from an easy 45 minute recovery run to a proper marathon preparation long run.

adidas Supernova Glide Boost review: from cold & wet to warm & sunny!

I am unashamedly a fan of the adidas Boost midsole material technology. In case you are not up to speed on what it is all about, my understanding is that adidas have developed a midsole material (the springy bit that provides the cushioning in running (and indeed most other sports) shoes) that replaces the EVA that is usually used with something made up of millions of little balls of material fused together – this is Boost. From my point of view, I think that the Boost material has a couple of advantages:

  • It is very light. I am not sure how the weight-to-cushioning ratio compares to EVA, but the Boost shoes I have feel like they have a really decent amount of cushioning but are as light as a feather
  • It is really resilient – the boffins at adidas say that because the Boost midsole is made up of many individual balls of material, the cushioning remains for longer. What I do know is that the first pairs of Boost shoes that I tried out feel as responsive now as the day I got them, well over 500 miles ago

Screen Shot 2014-02-17 at 14.08.46The latest shoe to receive the Boost treatment is the Supernova Glide. This is a new shoe for me. I have run in the adidas Bostons before and I love the adiZero Adios. But when I was looking for a reliable, everyday training shoe – which is what I consider the Supernova Glide to be – I always opted for the Mizuno Wave Rider. But my head has been turned by this new adidas shoe.

The team at adidas invited a few of us to the Highbury Fields Parkrun (in case you didn’t know, adidas are a supporter of Parkrun, the free weekly 5km runs that have sprung up all over the UK and further afield) to find out about the Supernova Glide Boost. Sadly the courier that was supposed to deliver a pair the day before the Parkrun didn’t, so the first I saw of the shoes was as I arrived 20 minutes before the run. Being tender-of-foot I had to decline the opportunity of trying the shoes that morning, sticking instead to my trusted adiZero Adios. But the shoes immediately impressed me straight out of the box.

First, the race

Screen Shot 2014-02-17 at 14.08.08There has been some controversy recently with the editor of Athletics Weekly and the people who manage Parkrun disagreeing on whether the events are ‘runs’ or ‘races’. I think that the distinction comes down to how much Parkrun wants to help UK Athletics hit its participation targets set up Sport England (or something like that – I can’t really figure out who is who and what is what when it comes to all the politics) and so they call their events a ‘run’ to avoid elitism and get as many people involved as possible.

However as far as I can concerned, there is a start line and finish line, the course is accurately measured, the organisers time how long it takes you to get around the 5kms and there are other people trying to get around said course faster than me. That is a race.

However training has been patchy recently and I have never been very useful over relatively shorter distances, so I had lowly ambitions for this race. My plan was to set off and stay as close to the leaders for as long as possible. The anonymity of Parkruns means that it is often difficult to tell who is who and whether someone is going to hammer out a 15 minute 5K. We will see, I thought!

The starter got us under way and immediately there was a group in front – probably 5 or 6 runners ahead of me. The first 200m were uphill and I tried to stay steady and make my way around the first of five laps as close to them as possible. By the end of the first lap, I was second.

The chap in front looked determined. I could tell that from the back of his head. He wanted this win and all I could hope was that I could make it as difficult as possible for him. So I closed up behind him on the hill at the start of lap two and by the top, as we headed into the wind on the downhill side of the park, we were working together to try to get around as fast as possible.

By the end of the third lap I was in trouble. My heart was in my mouth and I had a horrible raw feeling in my lungs, as though I was sucking in really cold, harsh wet air. Which I was. I hung on grimly and even managed to take the lead for the penultimate uphill section at around 4km.

Then ‘Determined Man’ put in a surge. We turned at the top of the park to start the last downhill into the wind and he pushed on. The string between us snapped. I was finished. Then I noticed a runner on my shoulder. It was Harry Benyon, one of the team from adidas’ PR agency who were there organising us bloggers. Now I know Harry is young, fit and enthusiastic, but when I grunted “Go Harry, GO!” he took off like he’d just started the race (sorry, run!) in pursuit of Determined Man.

For me, the world closed in. My great friend and the coach on the day Tom Craggs had jumped in with 1000m to go and was pacing me, 5 meters ahead. All I could do was stare at the back of his head and hang on. For the last two laps we had been running through back markers and now, as we hit the uphill for the last time, it was rather crowded. I couldn’t see D.M. or Harry. I didn’t care.

I crossed the line in third in 17:20. Not bad seeing as I am out of shape and it was a difficult course on a very windy day. D.M. won dipping under 17 minutes for a PB. Harry barely looked out of breath (bastard!)

What about the shoes?

So unfortunately I didn’t get to try the shoes in the race. Maybe if I had been in them I’d have stayed with D.M. and Harry. Maybe not. But since that cold, wet, windy Saturday, I have been running in the adidas Supernova Glide Boosts quite a bit. I’ve brought them on holiday with me and have been running in them between bouts of eating and relaxing (the balance of running to eating/relaxing has not been ideal, but I feel great!)

My impression is that the Supernova Glide is a great training shoe. Like all of the Boost range that I have tried, the shoe is light, but in this shoe there is a really good amount of cushioning. I will happily pull this shoe on for my mid-week steady runs. The upper is really well ventilated: a mesh with some welded overlays which forms Screen Shot 2014-02-17 at 14.08.29a nicely generous toe-box. The heel is well cushioned. And the outsole has Continental™ Rubber which means there is no slipping and sliding in the wet (it has actually rained out here in the last couple of days!)

All in all, I think the adidas Supernova Glide Boost is a great all-round running shoes. It is slap-bang in the middle of the price range for similar shoes at £100 and I think that given the responsiveness and the long-lasting cushioning that the Boost delivers, this is a good choice if you are looking for a reliable, everyday training shoe and possibly a comfortable option for longer races.

Now you must excuse me, I have some essential eating and relaxing to do.

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.

 

 

 

With age comes great wisdom: the ASICS Kayano 20 review

How do you work out the age of a dog in ‘human years’? The rule of thumb is that you multiply the age of your faithful hound by 7. Seven dog years for every human one. Actually that is not particularly accurate because different breeds of dogs live for very different amounts of time. But seven years is not a bad average.

But what about running shoes? Is it fair to suppose that a pair of running shoes lasts about 6 months? Well in that case a ‘shoe year’ is a lot shorter than a human year. So why am I trying to work out the equivalent of a shoe year? Well the ASICS Kayano is on its 20th version and was launched in 1993. According to all the animal year calculators, that means that the Kayano is the equivalent of 650 years old. That is like Yoda-old.

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Old Skool running technology

The shoe is named after its designer and has been sold as a high-mileage shoe since its launch – a marathon runners favourite. The first edition (right), actually called the ASICS GEL-Kayano Trainer, was no feather-light offering. But it did incorporate the latest technology. And it was white. Very white.

Fast forward 600-odd years and the Kayano has evolved. It still retains many of the things that the first edition – and every subsequent edition – aimed to do. But as L. P. Hartley wrote;

the past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.

Now the Kayano incorporates technology that it’s forefathers could only dream about.

I have to say that when I opened the box, the first thing I thought was “Wow! They look heavy”. This is a reflection of the anti-minimalist nature of the Kayano and also the colour. Ironically I think that black, when it comes to running shoes, adds the impression of weight rather than reducing it.

Screen Shot 2014-01-15 at 21.15.04However as I lifted the shoes out of the box, I was really impressed. For such a significant shoe, this is as light as you could hope for. At the same time, the lack of weight does not compromise on cushioning. I remember pulling on my first pair of Kayanos at least seven years ago and thinking how amazingly cushioned they felt. The 20th edition does not disappoint on that front. The technology that provides the smooth ride is called Fluid Ride and is based on a 2-layered sole which it is claimed gives the runner improved cushioning and high levels of bounce back.

The top of the shoe utilises ASICS’ Fluid Fit technology, which means the shoe fits like a glove. There are very few seams and the mesh is great for keeping my feet cool and dry (except when it’s raining, obviously!)

ASICS also say that their Dynamic DuoMax technology gives extra support and stability for overpronators and that the Guidance Line guides the foot from impact through to push-off providing a more efficient running style. I usually think ‘bullshit’ when brands make claims like this about their shoes correcting the way people run: a runner hits the ground and a force equivalent to 2.5 times their body weight goes through their foot. So for me that would be 150kg. I struggle to believe that a little bit of plastic embedded in the EVA midsole is going to make much difference to 150kg of me crashing down on the ground. Still, what do I know?

What I do know is that these shoes do exactly what they promise. Exactly what they have always promised. They are super comfortable and perfect for everyday easy runs and long runs, when what you are looking for is the most cushioning for the least weight. The shoes are super-comfortable around the foot, with a lovely padded ankle collar. And they grip really well, even in the wet conditions that we have been enjoying of late. I even took them off-road for a trail run and they coped with the mud admirably. So overall, I’d say that the ASICS GEL Kayano 20 is a great shoe for all your everyday training. I suppose that should be no surprise – they’ve had the best part of 650 (equivlent-human) years to get them right!