52Posts (vol.1): Issue #2

The difficult second album blog post. Well, I have decided already that the first of my posts was too long. Apart from anything else, it takes a long time to write a couple of thousand words. And apart from a couple of people, it is unlikely to be read. So I’m going to be more succinct from now on. Anyway, on to …

Business

adidas and their PR efforts. This might be a coincidence but adidas seem to be having a very good time from a PR perspective. We have many magazines in the house that I always dive straight into as soon as they arrive. Amongst them are Wired UK and Monocle. Both of them this month have hefty pieces about adidas, focusing on the revival of the business through design and the technology they are using in footwear manufacture. Hats off to whoever is getting those pieces sold in to journalists.

China is leading but people want to be in the US and Europe. I love Professor Galloway and everything he produces at L2. I definitely advise you to sign up to his newsletters. In this video he talks to NYU professor Clay Shirky, author of Little Rice: Smartphones, Xiaomi, and the Chinese Dream about the differences between China and the US. Mainly from the point of view of business and particularly payment systems. What I found really interesting is when – about 16 minutes in to the video – they talk about Chinese students, studying in the US and wanting to stay there. Despite the fact that the majority of opportunities are probably in China. What is it about the US and Europe that means that bright, ambitious people from growing, optimistic, exciting economies (which the US and Europe do not have to the same degree) want to spend their lives there?

Running

From hero to zero. And back again. I have been thinking a lot recently about whether I can get back to running the way I was four years ago (the year I ran my marathon PB). I had an idea to challenge myself with my own person ‘two-forty-something while I’m forty-something’ That idea has not quite gone away yet. I keep looking at 6’29” per mile (the pace for a 2:49:59 marathon) and thinking that looks pretty daunting. But then if it was easy, what would be the point.

I know that they key will be finding some consistency. At the moment my training is all over the shop – 5 runs one week and then 7 days of no exercise, followed by a weekend with 150km of cycling and then nothing again. I need to slowly work running back in, so that I am running 6 days per week. Then add in a couple of double days. Make three of the runs sessions and one of them a long run. Squeeze out a bit more speed and a bit more mileage. Et viola! We’ll see I guess.

Cycling

Tour route revealed. ASO, the company behind the Tour de France, have announced the route for 2018. And Team Sky – with leader and 4x winner of the tour, Chris Froome – like it. Back is the iconic climb up Alp d’Huez (this BBC film is a brief little history of the climb, recognising its importance in the race over the years). Commentators are saying that despite being a relatively short Tour – a mere 3,329km – it will be one of the toughest. There is even a stage with 22km of pavé. Froome himself says that winning a fifth tour will be a big ask, but then what is new about that. And Cavendish – who is trying to match or exceed Merckx record of 34 stage wins (Cav is on 30 right now) has described the route as “brutal”. Let’s give the last word to race director Christian Prudhomme “We especially wanted to emphasise stage variety and the routes that may prove decisive, whilst combining legendary climbs with brand-new ascensions or ultra-dynamic formats, to provide a vision of modern and inspired cycling”. From 7 to 23 July next year. Personally I can’t wait.

Photography

Photoblock. One of the great things about living in London (which I will miss when we leave!) is the plethora cultural opportunities that exist. Take Photoblock for example. For a week the old Truman Brewery is filled with not one but five or six different photographic exhibitions. All for free. This week has been very busy and on Sunday I flew to Italy for three days on a business trip (few hours in Milan on Sunday for some street photography – I’ll take that!) That meant I only had a couple of hours on Saturday afternoon free. But that was enough time to get super-inspired by all the amazing work that people are doing. I love seeing other photographers’ work. It is really inspiring and educational. I especially love trying to work out why a particular photograph appeals to me and how the artist managed to create it. If you get a chance to visit Photoblock next year, I can’t recommend it highly enough.

And One Other Thing

Recent REI videos are next level. In case you don’t know, REI is an outdoor retailer in the US. Actually, scrap that – REI is probably the outdoor retailer in the US. Which almost certainly makes REI the outdoor retailer in the world. Happy to debate that.

What is really interesting is how REI is tackling some very, very important issues through videos they are creating. Two videos in particular have really grabbed my attention: this one about skier Caroline Gleich and this one about ultra runner Mirna Valerio. Both are pretty shocking and uplifting and thought provoking. Please take the time to watch them.

What I am really impressed with is the fact that a retailer is taking a stance about issues that it obviously believes are important. There is no need for REI to put itself in the firing line. No need to stick its neck out in this way. The team at REI could simply focus on creating beautiful content and no one would criticise them for that (indeed just doing that would, I would argue, put them in a very, very tiny minority of businesses that are creating content that people want to consume and share). But obviously doing something that could make a difference is obviously important to REI. Perhaps more important than selling more gear. I can’t be cynical about this – it is too well done and too important in the wider debate that needs to be had about body shaming, trolling and online bullying. Hats off to REI.

My On-and-On Love of Photography

I have loved photography for as long as I can remember. I have really early memories of my Mum taking me through boxes of old photographs on the landing at home. I can still easily recall the smell of the 4 x 6 inch prints in their paper envelopes. I found the little plastic pots that the films were stored in absolutely fascinating – it was because I knew that they contained unseen stories. But more than anything, I loved being able to see history, even basic stuff like my parents or grandparents when they were young. I remember asking for the big cardboard box that housed all the photos to be taken down and just going through them for hours.

olympus-trip-35By the time I was 16, my interest in photography had changed but not diminished (though I was much less comfortable in front of the camera – good old body issues starting at that age). I somehow ended up talking about photography with a teacher at school who was, herself, interested in the art and science. She told me that there was a darkroom in the science block that I could use it if I wanted to. So armed with my parents Olympus Trip 35, I decided to do a GCSE qualification in the year before my A-Level exams.

It was great. The course – I was the only one in the school doing it – was overseen by the teacher who had introduced me to the dark-room. I had to study for an exam (which I sat on my own), learned some of the basic technical aspects of photography. I had to take photos, develop them and present them in a portfolio alongside descriptions of what I had shot and why. I took close-ups of tree bark, reflections in show windows, portraits of my brother and went to shoot the 1991 London marathon.

All the photography was in black and white. I still have the portfolio.

After that I let photography slip away. I had other interests. I didn’t have a camera for many years and I had not enough interest in photography to invest in one. Eventually in my late 20’s I bought a cheap point-and-shoot. It was pretty rubbish and only good for taking snaps at events. By the time I was in my mid-30’s smartphones all had cameras. I went to Peru with the woman I would later marry and we bought another point-and-shoot but one with a really impressive zoom, which was really useful for trying to capture the mountains.

In the last few years, however I have really fallen back in love with photography. Both learning about great photographers and photography technique, as well as taking as many photos as I can.

fujifilm_x-pro1For my 40th birthday, I invested in a really lovely camera – a Fuji X-Pro 1. It is a four-thirds mirrorless camera and I have a couple of prime lenses (18mm and 27mm) which came with the camera. The 27mm is 41mm equivalent on a full-frame camera and as a result, seems to be the perfect focal length for pretty much everything I want to shoot.

Because I believe that you learn by doing, I try to shoot as much as I can. And I particularly enjoy trying to make photos of people on the streets. Obviously I now have the benefit of a digital camera so there is really no limits to the number of photographs that I can take. However I like the idea of having to think about the composition and setting on my camera before I start shooting and then only taking a small number of photos (rather than putting the camera on burst mode and adopting a ‘spray and pray’ approach).

I also really enjoy getting inspired by other (often, but not always, well known) photographers. My current obsessions are people like:

  • Henri Cartier-Bresson – the original and still the best!
  • Bruce Gilden – I don’t really like how Gilden shoots on the street but I love that he has such a recognisable style
  • Garry Winogrand – shot in New York in the 1950’s / 60’s / 70’s capturing the spirit of the city
  • Martin Parr – I love the fact that Parr’s photos are so recognisable. Sadly he’s got a reputation for being a challenging person
  • Rebecca Lepkoff – another New York photographer who took amazing street photos in her neighbourhood
  • Joel Meyerowitz – an early adopter of colour film, Joel’s career continues to be amazing
  • Boogie – this guy really has guts and takes some incredibly challenging photos. I’d love to be 1% as brave as Boogie
  • Helen Levitt – starting in the late 1930’s, Levitt took amazing street photos on her Leica
  • Lee Jeffries – simply amazing photos of people living – rather than hanging out – on the streets.
  • Diane Arbus – the tragedy of Arbus’ life is perhaps reflected in the marginalised and ‘un-beautiful’ subjects of her work
  • Saul Leiter – yet another New York photographer who is really only recently getting the recognition he deserves

So that is me and photography. There has always been a thread of photography in my life. I never really pursued it so as a result I have never really been very good. But I’m trying to take photos as much as I can now. And my ultimate aim? End up having taken half a dozen really good photos in my life. That would be fantastic.

Could this be a signal? LVMH (maybe) in talks to buy Rapha

This post is about signals. Two signals actually. One is the change of this blog from a personal obsession about running a marathon. The other is about how the endurance sports and lifestyle / fashion worlds are colliding.

First: changes to this blog

When I started this blog (initially posting anonymously as the Red Squirrel) it was because I wanted to record my attempts to change myself. From an overweight, unhappy smoker into a runner. I thought that being a runner would fix many of my ailments. I would get fitter. Be happier. Have more self respect. Look better.

Little did I know.

In fact my interest (some might call it obsession) with running has completely changed the direction of my life. Apart from giving me a love of participating in endurance sports, I have also co-founded two businesses linked to running – Freestak and Like the Wind magazine. Now, through running, I have work that I love, a circle of friends that I am so grateful for and a personal interest in sport as something to do and as a business.

The change from fat smoker to runner and then cyclist, climber, mountaineer and triathlete was charted on this blog. The development of my interest in the history and culture of endurance sports, outdoors pursuits and adventure has crept in. And now, I am going to start writing about the business side of my passion.

How the business of endurance and outdoors sports is changing

The first thing I am going to write about might possibly represent a really interesting change in the industry. It has been reported that LVMH (that is Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton) is in talks to buy British cycling brand Rapha.

Now the fact that there are rumours about a LVMH x Rapha deal are just that – rumours. But LVMH has previous in this area. There is no secret that the mega-corp of luxury is interested in getting into the sports sector. Indeed as reported by Road.cc;

Earlier this year, LVMH together with the family holding company of CEO Bernard Arnault, took a stake in American private equity house Catterton, which specialised in investing in mid-market companies.

The new business, L Catterton, has investments in businesses including activewear brand Sweaty Betty and pet food manufacturer Lily’s Kitchen, while its holdings in the sports sector include compression clothing maker 2XU, the Peloton at-home fitness bike, sports drinks and supplements manufacturer X2 Performance, and the 360fly action camera brand.

And this is what is so interesting for me. Endurance sports have not traditionally been seen as sectors where luxury – or at least lifestyle – brands could play. It used to be the case that runners and cyclists wore kit that was all about function and as far from fashion as it is possible to be. Indeed the function-over-form mindset was ingrained to such an extent that there always seemed to be a race to the bottom as far as pricing was concerned. And it almost seem ludicrous to pay full price for kit, when everyone knew that at the end of the season there would be heaving bins of reduced stock that was no different from what had come before or what would come after, aside from the colour. And who cared about the colour, right?

Then over the last decade or so, the attitudes have started to change. Rapha started creating elegant (and still very functional) cycling apparel that allowed riders to express their love of cycling through the way they looked. Nike started creating running kit that looked as good as it performed – the Nike Gyakousu range is a case in point. Lululemon arrived with functional apparel that men and women wanted to wear all the time, not just at the gym. Other running brands that were as much about looks as performance have appeared; Soar Running. Iffley Road. Tracksmith. In cycling there are so many beautiful brands; Isadore. Huez. ashmei (which is in running, tri and cycling). For mountianeers and adventurers there are abundant brands that strike a perfect balance of style and function; The North Face. Arc’Teryx. Patagonia. The list goes on.

And the point is … ?

So why does all that matter? Well on a very personal front, this all means a couple of things. Firstly, I believe this signals a maturation of the endurance-sports-as-lifestyle trend. That people are looking for beautiful, stylish kit in which to do their sport has to be a good sign that they are going to continue with said sport. And that makes me very happy because I believe that the more people there are running, cycling, swimming and climbing, the better the world will be.

Secondly, as the co-founder of two businesses that need people who are passionate about endurance sports in order to thrive, the fact that mainstream brands and brand owners are looking to get in on the act is great. LVMH is a huge business – €35.6bn revenue in 2015 and 120,000 staff at the last count – and if they get involved in cycling, that is not just a signal that the sector is growing. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy.

So I believe that the rumours that LVMH and Rapha are in talks is great. Whether or not the whispers are true, there is no smoke without fire and it might not be long before we see other fashion, luxury and lifestyle brands getting involved with endurance sports and outdoors brands.

It might even end up the case that the MAMIL will become a fashion icon. Maybe.

My runners prayer

Recently I was talking about the words of the Lord’s Prayer – something that I don’t think about all that often, but having sung the words every morning at chapel in school from the age of 11 to 18, I had no problem recalling them.

In the prayer there is a line

thy will be done on Earth as it is in Heaven

This line popped into my head today as I was on a group ride – my second such morning in the last week – as I considered the spirit of cycling versus running.

Back on the bike

Screen Shot 2016-03-26 at 12.14.32It’s been many, many years since I have been on a bike for fun. A while ago I dabbled in triathlons and I used to ride to get fit for them. But I was always more into the running and to be honest I have always been very nervous about cycling. Or more accurately, nervous about falling off a bike, at high speed, whilst wearing thin Lycra kit.

But since the London marathon three years ago, my focus has moved away from racing marathons. I have run some trail ultras and loved them, but I didn’t have the drive and motivation to train intensively for them. So I have lost my way. In the last few months, however, I have really started embracing variety. I’ve been running, certainly, but I have also been hitting the gym. And trying yoga.

Then last Sunday I joined a local group of cyclists for a group ride. It was very friendly and we waited for the group to come back together several times. We managed 43 miles in a little over three hours. Then a friend, Ben, suggested that he would organise a ride for today – Good Friday – out to Essex, followed by a couple of hours at the Olympic velodrome, watching a track race meet. I was super excited about this, not least because I knew the riders today would be of a higher standard and the planned route was longer than last Sunday.

Despite my enthusiasm, though, my concerns about cycling remain firmly in place. A faster, longer ride with better cyclists would only serve to increase the chances that I would either hit the wall (or bonk in cycling parlance), get dropped by the group, crash… or all three.

If it’s so scary, why do it?

So if cycling is so scary, why do it? Well I think that part of the answer to that lies in the way many cyclists are passionate, knowledgable and excited about the sport, not just the activity. Undoubtedly I am drawn to cycling because I love the physical challenge – that is what got me so excited about running. But I am also drawn to the way that seemingly so many cyclists are into the sport of cycling, not just the activity.

Certainly there will be many, many people who cycle for fitness and leisure and have no, or only very superficial, knowledge of the sport of cycling. The same is true of running. But today on the ride, the other members of the group I was with all had matching jerseys. I saw dozens and dozens of similar groups, all proudly sporting the same kit as one another. I don’t see groups of runners out on a Sunday long run, all wearing the same tops to identify them as a group.

I also loved the way that the group I was riding with talked about past and present athletes. They seemed to know their sport quite intimately. I wonder how many runners care about heroes of the road and track from the 1950s and 60s or in fact from any era in history?

In running as it is in cycling

So this is my fervent wish – I would love many more runners to get into the intellectual and spiritual side of the sport. It would be fantastic if  runners knew about the history of the sport and celebrated that. I would be over the moon if retailers used their intimate interaction with runners to educate them. I would love brands to spend far more of their time and the invaluable attention that they have, on what it means to be a runner and why running is such a fantastic sport. Of course, these fervent wishes are the basis of Freestak, where we spend all of our time telling brands about storytelling, and Like the Wind, where we try to reach more and more runners with stories about why we run, rather than how to run.

So here is to cycling – I hope that the sport of running looks at its two-wheeled cousins and decides to take a leaf out of its book.

The North Face might have just changed my life

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

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

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

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

But today it feels that I reached a tipping point.

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

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

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

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

And finally…

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

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

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

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

Not The North Face.

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

We were randomly assigned to a channel.

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

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

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

For one minute.

Then we swapped.

Twice.

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

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

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

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

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

Royal Parks Foundation Half Marathon – the return of the red squirrel

This morning I went to the launch of the Royal Parks Foundation half marathon ballot.  You can register for the ballot here: www.royalparkshalf.com and there is also an ultra, the details for which are here: www.royalparksultra.com

The press release from the Royal Parks team is as follows:

Sara Lom, Chief Executive of the Royal Parks Foundation, the charity behind the race, says “The Royal Parks Foundation Half Marathon races through four of London’s amazing Royal Parks, and has raised more than £15million for around 400 charities all over the UK since it began in 2008.

“This year’s field is set to be the largest ever with 16,000 runners from around Britain and more than 30 countries across the world taking part. Signing up will be the perfect boost to your New Year’s fitness resolution.”

Super-fit squirrels looking for an even longer distance challenge can sign up today for the Royal Parks Foundation Ultra, a 50k ultra marathon, partnered with Scope:  www.royalparksultra.com

 

 

Do shoes make you more efficient?

A great opportunity to feature a shapely pair of legs on this otherwise boring blog

As the bare-foot vs. shod running debate continues to rumble along, one of the arguments that I have come across was the idea that running barefoot is more efficient because as we add weight to the foot, the effort required to run increases and therefore efficiency decreases. The conclusion is often made, therefore, that if you are wearing nothing at all on your feet then you must be as efficient as it is possible to be.

But now a study by Jason Franz, Corbyn Wierzbinski and Rodger Kram published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, seems to refute this assertion entirely. The report, entitled ‘Metabolic Cost of Running Barefoot versus Shod: Is Lighter Better?’ suggests that in fact running with lightweight shoes is more efficient than running barefoot and that whilst adding weight to both a shod and an unshod runner’s feet does indeed make them less efficient – as measured by oxygen consumption at a fixed pace – to the tune of an extra 1% more oxygen required for every 100g added to each foot, the efficiency both types of runners deteriorates at the same pace from a starting point where shod runners are more efficient.

The report goes on to suggest that one positive effect of running shoes is that:

the runners spontaneously took slightly longer strides (by 3.3% on average) when they were wearing shoes. These longer strides may have allowed them to be more efficient, thought it’s unlikely to account for the whole effect. (Runners World US)

The other positive impact of shoes that the report suggests might be a factor is the cushioning: without cushioning, the researchers argue, the runners’ leg muscles have to expend energy absorbing the impact of the stride, which in itself requires increased oxygen consumption.

There are a few points to remember about this report. The runners chosen for the report were experienced barefoot or minimalist runners (they were running at least 5 miles/week barefoot) in order to avoid the data being skewed by the runners needing to learn to run barefoot.

The Nike Mayfly - better than nothing?

Another important point is the type of shoe that the runners wore – Nike Mayfly. These are super-light (Runners World US suggests 139g for a UK size eight) and probably not the sort of thing that people wear regularly. But the researchers showed that even when 450g had been added to the runners’ feet, the shod runners were not less efficient than the barefoot runners, so it might be inferred that even the weight of shoe is irrelevant.

So where does this leave us? Well, I like the idea that barefoot and shod running are two sides of the same coin. I believe that running barefoot or in minimalist shoes (and certainly wearing nothing or very light shoes when walking around) is a great way to strengthen feet, but I am also pretty sure that I couldn’t run as fast with nothing on my feet as I can in a pair of lightweight racing flats. What are your thoughts?

Brooks Racer ST5 – the future’s bright, the future’s orange.

Through my association with Ransacker I was recently invited to a party (erm, well it was called a party, which was unlike any party I’ve ever been to) to view the new products being launched to the running community by Brooks.

It was a really interesting evening and the Brooks team in the UK are really lovely people – knowledgeable and enthusiastic. And Brooks produce a very wide range of products to cater for all types of runner. However the thing that caught my eye was the Racer ST5.

Having long been a fan of the ASICS Tarther, I don’t really feel the need to try to find an out-and-out racing shoe, but what I was lacking was a middle ground between my workhorse Mizuno WaveRiders which I use for everything and the Tarthers, which I reserve exclusively for racing. I hoped the Brooks ST5 would fill the void.

The shoes arrived from Brooks this morning. I immediately pulled them on (breaking the tag at the heel with the first tug, but they were free so I’ve little cause to complain!) and stomped round the flat for an hour. I appreciated the wide toe-box, snug heel, flat profile and light weight. These, I thought, could be interesting…

So tonight I ran home from work in them. 45 minutes easy is what Nick, my coach from runningwithus, has suggested and that seemed like the perfect opportunity to try these ‘racer-trainers’ out. The run home was lovely. The shoes are as comfortable as any I have tried. They provided great grip on the slimy wet pavements through central London and the things I had liked when I tried them at home all remained – roomy forefoot, snug heel, low profile and super light weight for a trainer with quite a bit of cushioning. So you can tell, I am pretty delighted with the ST5s.

And then the story gets better.

What I haven’t mentioned yet is that the Brooks ST5 incorporates a propriatory material in the sole called BioMoGo – the world’s first biodegradable midsole (unless you count the sandals worn by the likes of the Tarahumara of course – they’re pretty biodegradable). The fact that some of the technology from Brooks Green Silence is filtering through to their other shoes is a reason to jump for joy. The fact that I seem to have found a shoe that fits between my super-light racers and my heavy protective every day shoes, that happens to give a shit about the planet is a reason to run and jump for joy. So thanks, Brooks, you’ve made a really lovely shoe and I reckon I’ll be giving them an outing at the Great Bentley half marathon in 10 days. I’ll report on how me and my new orange movers get on.

Thoughts on the Florence marathon 2010

This weekend I ran in the 27th Firenze Marathon, in beautiful Tuscany.This is some of what I thought of the race.

The weather forecast promised rain and it delivered. Man, did it deliver. I have to admit that I tend to be a cynic when it comes to weather forecasts and this isn’t inspite of being a geographer and meterologist – it is because of it. I know how susceptible weather systems are to winds and pressure systems, how a small pressure system dictating the weather can suddenly veer away thanks to a change in temperature or wind direction. So it was no surprise that in the week leading up to the Florence marathon today, I could find every forecast from torrential rain to clear skies. Sadly however, by Saturday morning all forecasts has coalesced on one certainty – rain. Oh, and low temperatures and a fairly stiff wind.

So how was it that here I was, atop a hill with what should have been a magnificent view of the beautiful city of Florence (or Firenze to give it is proper name) in a total downpour that ran off the plastic poncho we had been given and poured down my shivering legs to soak my shoes as thoroughly as if I was standing in a bucket of water?

Well those who have read these ramblings before will know that in August this year I started training with a coach – Nick Anderson from Running With Us. Nick suggested that we target a few races of varying distances culminating in a marathon before the end of the year to give us a benchmark. He suggested Firenze because it is a race he knows and if there is going to be decent conditions anywhere in Europe for a marathon at the end November, there is a good chance they’ll be in Tuscany.

The truth is that I decided the moment I first met Nick for a coffee in the cafeteria of a gym in west London, that I would trust him completely and follow his suggestions to the letter. I reasoned that he is an excellent and well-proven coach and that to do anything other than exactly what he said would be a futile exercise – better to give it a year and see how we go and then pack it in if it didn’t work, than half-heartedly follow a diluted programme and then never know if I was able to improve under his guidance.

I have to say though, that at 8.30am on 28 November under the rapidly emptying leaden skies of Firenze, I was starting to question whether my faith in Nick should be this total.

As expected from a mid-sized marathon with an over-zealous organising committee with questionable professionalism, on a day with such nasty conditions, the start wasn’t exactly smooth. We were herded into overcrowded pens at least 45 minutes before being lead down to the start line. By the time the barriers were removed and the line of linked-armed stewards lead us to the start line proper, I (and everyone around me) was completely drenched and shivering quite badly. We were then stopped again 50 metres from the group of elite and celebrity runners actually on the start line, before the marshalls finally stepped aside and a minute later the gun went and we were away.

The race follows a road downhill for the first mile and I was really aware of Nick’s advice that I should run conservatively and not get carried away by the overzealous Italians determined to break the 10 second barrier for the 100m as a primo piatto to the main course of the marathon. I suspect that as we reached the bottom of the descent I was probably somewhere between 200th and 300th place – I was confident I would see quite a few of the sprinters again.

Nick and I had discussed a plan for the race that would see me aiming for 6min/mile to 6:10min/mile – or 3:45min/km to 3:50min/km in Eurozone marathons – running conservatively to 16 miles and then attacking the last 10 miles. As is often the case for city marathons in order to get the miles in, the course tracked north and then west to the Parco della Cascine to eat up the first half, then tracked out east to take up another 10km before we headed back to the city centre for the cobble-y finale.

I was careful to not get caught up running with people too quick for me in the first 16 miles and indeed I struggled a bit with the fact that I couldn’t find a group at my pace so ran long stretches alone. Luckily the wind wasn’t too bad and I was so wet that there was no way the rain could affect me. I passed half way in 1:21:33 and decided to hold off my attack on the end of the race for a little longer. In fact even when I got to 27km I was still a bit concerned about over stretching myself, but a plan is a plan and I had to see whether I could do what Nick asked of me, so I pushed as hard as I dared. My average pace from 25km dropped from 3:53min/km to 3:46min/km.

As ever the last few miles were really tough and there were a few lonely stretches where I really zoned out and felt quite ‘out of body’. I was convinced that I had hit the wall and was staggering along, whereas in fact my pace only increased the closer I got to the end. Finally around 39km I remember snapping back into reality and realising that I had barely 12 minutes of running left. I started to focus and work out that I had a new personal best in the bag – I just needed to keep doing what I was doing.

And so I did keep the pace and suddenly I rounded the bend into the magnificent Piazza san Croce and the inflatable finish line. Time: 2:40:49 – a PB by 3 minutes, a negative split by 2 minutes and 48th place. Job done!

I find it difficult to describe how cold I felt at the end. I had to grab a foil blanket and a cup of tea and get back to the hotel as fast as I could for a 20 minute hot shower. But nothing – not the cold, nor the state of my feet or the fact that I knew I had no time to relax before I needed to head to the airport – could dampen my elation. I was really proud of myself!

So what does this all mean. Well I think that the conditions and the super-twisty nature of the course cost me a couple of minutes so I think that on a different day I would have gone under 2:40. This means that I am another big step closer to the next target for spring next year and it also validates 100% the faith that I have put in Nick. I am sure of one thing and that is that without his input I would not have run that time in those conditions. So I am looking forward with relish to the next phase of our training. But in the mean time I have two weeks off running and I am determined to enjoy that time and recharge so that when I start to build again towards London next year I am in shape to make me proud of myself again!