ASICS Beat the Sun… did they make it?

Ten days ago I wrote about an event that I had just been invited to in the Alps – the ASICS Beat the Sun challenge. The idea is simple – can a team of runners, in a relay, circumnavigate the Mont Blanc between sunrise and sunset on the longest day of the year?

Last year there were two elite teams of athletes trying to succeed in this seemingly possible, but extremely challenging task. One team made it (just) and the other team didn’t, but the narrowest of margins.

A year on and the idea had developed, so that now there would be five team, each representing a region: Southern Europe, Northern Europe, the Americas, Africa and Asia Pacific. And in each team there would be three pros and three amateurs, each running a couple of legs.

The set-up

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The mountains played their part perfectly. The weather was just right, there ws enough snow on the high passes to make for some epic legs and the views were simply spectacular.

The teams themselves all seemed to bond and there was as much love between the teams as there was rivalries.

The guests – me included – were treated to a really fantastic weekend where we had the chance to try out some of the current ASICS trail ‘Fuji’ range, run on the trails and follow the event as it unfolded.

So what happened?

2015-06-21-ABTS-Raphael Jacquemar-4349Well one thing that is for certain is that a Hollywood script writer would have struggled to fit in as many twists and turns as reality managed. Thanks to the tracking technology that for the most part worked perfectly, we (and the rest of the world) could track the runners online as they moved along the trails. And it seemed that as each teams stronger runners came into play the lead was swapping continuously.

Just one example was what happened to the race in Italy. As all the gathered guests waited in Courmayeur for the race to come through and the runners hand over the GPS baton, we understood that one of the Northern Europe runners had got lost. His team – led by the fantastic Holly Rush – was now in last place, well adrift from the other four teams and miles behind the sun. They were out of the race.

But suddenly the spare runner was being readied. Who was injured? What was going on? He sped off in a car and we watched the Americas, Asia Pacific and Africa runners come in, hand over the baton and send their team mates on their way. News arrived that Southern Europe – one of the strongest teams – has stopped. It was their runner, the amateur Virginia Nanni (who I must say I thought looked a bit too glamourous to be taken seriously as a trail runner!) who needed help. In the end, she had stopped because she had a stitch, but that is by-the-by. The question was, would Northern Europe suddenly be back in the race?

Nanni’s replacement came in to Courmayeur and their next leg runner, Xavier Chevrier, shot off like a man possessed. Leaving Lukas Naegele, from team Northern Europe, waiting like a jilted bride. And he waited. And waited. And waited.

Actually, that was dramatic and slightly heart breaking. Lukas is a fierce competitor and to see him have to hang around while the other runners disappeared off up the mountain, was terrible. Of course, like the true competitor that he is, when he got the GPS unit he went off like a rocket. But it all felt a bit pointless for the team who I thought had one of the best chances.

Coming soon

Once again the whole event has been captured by Sunset + Vine and there will be a film out soon. In the mean time I can say that Team Americas won the race and beat the sun, as did Southern Europe. Team Northern Europe battled hard but were a very distant fifth. While Asia Pacific and Africa raced every step of the way. There were wonderful moments of camaraderie. There was drama. And there was lots of champagne celebrations.

If you want a sneak preview, here is a first edit of the film. Personally I think this is a great challenge and I can’t wait to see what ASICS comes up with for the 2016 edition. My only request… make sure Iaza is there!

ASICS Beat The Sun returns to Mont Blanc

Imagine a challenge so finely balanced that after 15 hours of total physical commitment and days of planning the target is missed by a fraction over half a minute. That would be incredible, non? Well that is exactly what happened at the ASICS Outrun The Sun event last year. Two teams attempted to run around the Mont Blanc as a relay between sunrise and sunset – just over 15 hours. One team – Team Ultra Trail – made it with a few minutes to spare. The second team, Team Enduro – which included my wonderful friend Holly Rush – missed the official sunset time by 33 seconds. As I said in the film that Sunset + Vine made about the event, it is hard to imagine a better challenge: had the route around the highest peak in Europe been even 10km longer or shorter, there would have been no challenge.

But there you have it: a perfectly poised challenge that was great fun to observe. And having run the CCC – the same route but only from Courmayeur to Chamonix – I know exactly how tough the challenge was.

BTS_logoBut what next? Team Ultra Trail, which included a former winner of the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc, beat the sun. The next group attempting this would have learned from any slight mistakes the successful team made last year. And Team Enduro… well they would know that they just have to run 33 seconds faster. Obviously there is no way to artificially make the course tougher. I guess you could handicap the runners in some way. But that would be very hard to do fairly. So how about handicapping the team? Maybe by offering a non-elite athlete or two a place? Yes, that would work. And that is exactly what ASICS have done.

Next weekend ASICS Beat The Sun returns to Chamonix and this time they have decided to let amateur runners be part of the fun.

Holly Rush: friend, athlete and mountain goat rolled into one
Holly Rush: friend, athlete and mountain goat rolled into one

In fact this year ASICS have created five teams, one each from northern Europe, southern Europe, the Americas, Africa and Asia-Pacific. And each team has a contingent of amateur runners. For team northern Europe, which has Holly Rush, Christian Schiester (Austria) and Lukas Naegele (Germany) as the elite athletes, there will be Loughborough University Student Charlotte Love, aged 23 from Ascot, Finn Volger from Germany and Benjamin Druml from Austria.

The challenge remains the same – the six athletes have 15 hours, 41 minutes and 35 seconds to cover 148km which includes 8,370m of ascent and descent.

Honestly, knowing how hard Team Enduro worked to miss the target by 33 seconds, I think this is a big ask. Personally I would not rate my chances of running my leg fast enough to keep any team I was in, in contention. But thankfully that is not something that is going to be tested. ASICS have very generously invited me to go to Chamonix to watch the five teams take on the mountain paths, and I am sure there will be plenty of trail running for those of us observers who want to, but there won’t be any pressure. Other than to make sure we leave something behind the bar for when the thirsty runners make it back… hopefully just before the sun sets.

ASICS Outrun The Sun: Part Two

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

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

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The start of ASICS Outrun The Sun – will they make it?

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

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

We got to run

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

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

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

‘Lovely’ weather

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Xavier looking very hot at the end of his leg of the relay

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

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

Before they started running…

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

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

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

All the gear!

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Two of my favourite bits of kit from the weekend – FUJI packable jacket and FUJI Trabuco 3 shoes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Overall impressions

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

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

Sound body, sound mind… sounds fine: the new ASICS range for 2014

When it comes to running footwear, I think that quite a few brands think that if it ain’t broke they won’t try to fix it. But for ASICS, as I discovered at their recent AW 2014 presentation, tinkering and trying to improve on their range is an always-on activity. In fact they have a schedule for changing their shoes.

The ASICS footwear range includes shoes that are described as structured and cushioned (amongst other types of shoe) and they develop the structured shoes one year and the cushioned shoes the next year. For the late 2014 season it is the turn of the cushioned shoes and I was given a first look at the Nimbus 16 which is at the heart of that range.

IMG_0073The theme is pretty much that the shoes are getting lighter and more flexible. There is technology called Fluid Fit which is a mesh upper that flexes and stretches to give the runner the best possible fit with the least weight and warmth. On the sole there are also deeper and wider flexing grooves which make the shoe feel much less clunky in the hand and I guess will give a more responsive feel on the feet.

There is also new mid-sole technology being deployed for the autumn and winter this year – Fluid Ride. This is a way of layering spEVA and Solyte so that there is the optimum balance of plush cushioning and responsiveness.

I have not had a chance to run in either the Cumulus 16 or the new Nimbus, but if you are looking for a go-to shoe then these might be worth considering. I have tried a pair of the Kayano 20 and I love them for the everyday runs that make up so much of the mileage in a marathon training run. And the Super-J 33 is a great shoe for recovery runs where I was looking for comfort and a lack of structure. Mine have now gone to trainer heaven after at least 500 miles, but they were good while they lasted!

If I get to try the new shoes I will update this with a review. And if you have tried them, please let me know what you think.

ASICS Gel Super-J 33 and Muscle Support apparel reviews

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

The ASICS Gel Super-J 33

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The ASICS Gel Super-J 33

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ASICS Muscle Support apparel

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ASICS Muscle Support apparel… in space, apparently!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tight tops and loose shoes

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

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

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

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

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

ASICS returns to its Latin roots – the Muscle Support & Gel Super-J 33 launch

ASICS is a Japanese brand. This much was emphasised in the presentation I just witnessed at the launch of two new ideas from this heavy-weight running brand in Milan, which was a wonderful, swirling animation all based around origami – the Japanese art of paper folding. But the name ASICS comes from the latin phrase Anima Sana In Corpore Sano, which means ‘a sound mind in a sound body’ and so it was appropriate that we would return to the land of the Romans to discover the new Muscle Support apparel collection and the launch of the ASICS Gel Super-J 33 shoe: the first natural running shoe designed specifically for over-pronators.

There is much to say about both the apparel range and the footwear, but with a transfer to the airport sat running (pun intended) outside the hotel, a few pictures will have to suffice for now. A longer report will be forthcoming.

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The ASICS Muscle Support range and the ASICS Gel Super-J 33s
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The great Stefano Baldini – winner of the Athens marathon and on hand to show us the new ASICS range
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ASICS Italy CEO and Stefano Baldini at the big reveal… ta da!

 

ASICS x Lakeland Trail Series

My first pair of off-road running shoes were ASICS Gel Trabuco. I bought them because at the time I was an ‘ASICS Man’ – every pair of shoes I owned were ASICS. So when I needed something tough and grippy for off-road ultra marathons that my best friend and I were going to run, I went for the brand of sound mind and sound body.

The shoes were wonderful and almost indestructible. I must have run close to 1000 miles in the first pair I got, through rain and snow and mud for hours at a time, before they finally gave in and went to trainer heaven (the back of a shed in the garden of the flat I lived in, I think!)

But ASICS never seemed to be about trail to me. For me, they were about nice, clear, flat road races, in Japan, on the feet of lithe, lightweight high-mileage monsters. The trail was reserved for the European brands such as Salamon, inov-8, Walsh or La Sportiva. Indeed once I returned to ultra distance trail running with my wife a couple of years ago, it was those brands (well, maybe with the exception of Walsh) that seemed to be on most feet.

ASICS award winning Fuji Trabuco
ASICS award winning Fuji Trabuco

But now ASICS have stated their intention of becoming a player in the trail running scene. They have got an enhanced range of shoes including the Gel Fuji Trabuco and they have just announced that they will be the sponsor for the Lakeland Trail series, which includes races from 10km up to 42km and all in beautiful and hills bits of the UK.

So I for one am excited to see what ASICS can bring to trail running. I reckon the shoes are pretty good and I am hoping to have a pair or two to test out as I start to prepare for the 100km CCC race around Mont Blanc this summer. If that happens, expect a review on this here blog. In the mean time, here is a gratuitous shot of some runners in the hills… lovely!

Runners. On trails. In ASICS.
Runners. On trails. In ASICS.

 

ASICS Gel Lyte 33 review

A while ago, the good people at ASICS invited me to go to Berlin with them for the launch of the new Gel Lyte 33 shoe. Unfortunately work commitments meant that I couldn’t go, but my friend and collaborator Catherine Wilding was able to take my place and enjoy some Germanic hospitality. Her write up of the weekend is here.

The whole focus of the weekend was to promote the new Gel-Lyte 33 shoe, which is ASICS’ offering to the natural running sector of the market. Unashamedly targeted at the more serious runner, I was very excited to get my hands on a pair (at least that might make up for not getting to go to Berlin!)

Initial impressions

The Men's version of the ASICS Gel-Lyte 33. Hard to miss it in the dark!

This is actually quite a deceptive shoe. It looks very simple and feels very light, but there is more to it than meets the eye.

The main thing that impressed me from what the ASICS team have told me, is the way that the sole has been developed to take into account the way the foot moves. This is the antithesis of the shoes that are available which try to counteract pronation or supination. This is a shoe designed to go with the flow. There is a groove running all the way along the length of the out-sole which ASICS calls the FluidAxis, which means the shoe allows the subtalar joint to move in any way it wants.

How do they feel on the run?

Catherine and I met up once my shoes had arrived for a run around the Serpentine in London’s Hyde Park. It was a really beautiful morning and being a weekday, not too busy.

Catherine was looking elegant and very sporty in her new ASICS gear (lovely jacket for any of you looking for a new one for running this winter) and she said immediately that her Gel-Lyte 33s felt great. I must say that mine did too, but at that stage I had only walked in them.

As we headed off on the run, we started chatting about all the things we had to catch up on. It was probably only after a mile or so that we both thought we should probably think about the shoes we were wearing. And here is the rather pleasing thing for me…

Why I really like the ASICS Gel-Lyte 33s

… I hadn’t really noticed the shoes at all. They are really lightweight so there was no feeling of clumpiness that I often feel with more traditional built-up running shoes. The upper is very light and open, so there was no hot-feet feeling. There is no heel-counter (the rigid plastic bit that sits around the heel in most running shoes) so nothing to irritate the Achilles tendon.

 

A cool-looking diagram showing the Fluid Axis groove... groovy, baby!

And the FluidAxis groove in the sole meant that there really was no interference with my foot strike. The shoe is cushioned so I didn’t feel like my feet were being hammered by the tarmac we were running on, but not so cushioned that I couldn’t feel the ground.

So my review is this, really: the ASICS Gel-Lyte 33 is one of the few shoes I have run in that does nothing to interfere with my natural gait.

To compare it to other shoes I have run in: the Saucony Kinvara (especially the most recent third version) has a very similar feel to the Gel-Lyte 33 and I love the Kinvara. The Nike Free always felt to squishy underfoot to me and has been relegated to a shoe that I wear when I’m out and about, but not when I am running. The inov-8 Road-X 233 is really hard underfoot – almost too hard for anything longer than 45 minutes for me.  And racing flats? Well I think they are something different.

The ASICS Gel-Lyte 33 is going to become a staple of my running shoe collection – a shoe that might not be for beginners or heavier runners, but for those of us looking for a light shoe with some cushioning but not too much, this might be the shoe for you.

But don’t take my word for it, what does Catherine think…?

Asics Gel Lyte 33 Review by Catherine Wilding

With the trend for lightweight minimalist running shoes it’s no surprise that all the running brands are competing with each other to launch a revolutionary shoe with the most innovative technology.

The Asics Gel Lyte 33 is the latest of these minimalist shoes from Asics and they are promising a revolution in natural running with the launch of their Fluidaxis.

To find out more I was privileged to be asked to test the shoes ahead of their launch this month.  I considered myself the ideal person.  Firstly, in my eight or so years of running I have been loyal to only one shoe brand.  I have tried different types of shoe but they have all been Nike.  I stuck with what I knew, liked and looked good.  Secondly, having had many foot and ankle injuries – all on the same foot –  I was interested so see if Asics technology could be the solution to an undiagnosed problem.

The women's version of the ASICS Gel-Lyte 33

The one thing the Gel Lyte 33 (and other minimalist shoes) does is allow the foot to move in every direction and therefore pronate.  The Fluidaxis that Asics have developed and introduced with this shoe is based on the natural movement of the foot.  Most running shoes allow the ankle joint to move only in an “up and down”  movement,  however the foot also rotates around different angles and the subtalar joint in the foot controls the side to side movement.  When both these movements are combined the ankle and the foot are allowed to move completely naturally.  The Fluidasxis is designed around a deep groove in the sole of the shoe which is aligned directly with the subtalar joint axis.  This allows the foot to pronate naturally and give the runner a more natural movement in the foot.  The design of the Fluidaxis is also based around the re-design of the mid and outsole, where the deep grooves fan out allowing the foot to strike the ground more naturally.

So with the technical stuff out of the way, I was keen to try the shoes – especially as I was easily convinced that there was some intuitive sense to allowing the subtalar joint to move.

The shoe immediately felt nice and light on the foot and the lower heel drop of just 6mm was instantly noticeable.  The foot felt much lower to the ground and even just walking around there was a feeling that the foot was moving more naturally.  Being a lightweight shoe with no support, I was sensible enough to test the shoe with an easy, recovery run.  My running mate (aka: Simon Freeman) and I went for a jog around the Serpentine in Hyde Park.  At an easy conversational pace we were able to compare notes.

The Gel Lyte 33 has enough cushioning to enable runners to feel that they have adequate protection and also a little bit of support for the foot, whilst still being able to feel the ground.  This gave me more confidence for running in the shoes.  Having already been schooled in the motion of the subtalar joint by Asics, I was aware that there was noticeably more movement in the foot and ankle. Rather than being scared by this, I actually liked the more free movement.  On a 30 minute run I felt no twinges from any muscles that may have been activated by a change in running gait.  However, I would caution any runner and certainly a less conditioned runner to be wary of using these shoes for distance.  As with any minimalist shoe with a low heal drop, there is a risk of aggravating the Achilles.

These seem to be a good shoe for training perhaps once a week to transition to a more natural running style.  I certainly liked the feel of them and having felt no adverse affects in my foot or ankle following the run, I would be inclined to think that allowing the movement of the subtalar joint is a positive thing.  I would happily add these as an additional pair of shoes to my collection.  Interestingly, or unsurprisingly, my running companion drew the same conclusions.

My only other minimalist shoe is the Nike Free which I consciously choose not to run in.  However, I definitely feel comfortable running in the Gel-Lyte 33.  For long training runs, I wouldn’t be tempted to veer from my heavy stability shoe – certainly not yet, but maybe it’s a process of adaptation.

Finally, we compared notes on appearance.  There was no debate. The light silver-grey and blue of the women’s shoe definitely scores more highly than the men’s for aesthetic appeal.  But when it comes to aesthetics, the Nike Free wins hands-down.

 

 

Running Naturally In Berlin by Catherine Wilding

Be Careful What You Wish For

There is a well known saying be careful what you wish for because it might just come true.  I have said many times that I would like to visit Berlin for a weekend.  It’s a city known for its incredible history and culture, but for a runner it is best known for its world record Marathon course and the opportunity to set a PB.  After a chequered couple of years of running, my PB moment hasn’t arisen and my trip to Berlin has slipped further down my travel agenda.

So, when I received an invitation from Asics to visit Berlin it was as if the genie had just popped out of the lamp and my wish had been granted. It wasn’t to run the Marathon but to discover Asics interpretation of natural running and get a sneak preview of their new Gel-Lyte 33 shoe to be launched later this year [ please check back in a couple of weeks for a review] It also happily coincided with the Asics Grand 10K.

Natural Running

The big topic for discussion in running circles in the last couple of years has been barefoot running and natural running.  Natural running – as distinct from barefoot running – enables the body to move in the most efficient way enabling the runner to move in a motion that most accurately mimics how one would naturally run barefoot, whilst protecting the feet by way of running shoes.  It’s entirely reasonable of running brands to assume that most of us do need to wear shoes when we run.  The majority of people live in an urban environment and therefore barefoot running simply isn’t practical. What we need therefore is a shoe that allows natural movement whilst providing adequate protection from the hazards of urban living.

If you look carefully you can spot Catherine in this shot!

The clever people at Asics have recognised that the trend for natural running is gathering apace and have therefore tried to open it up to all levels of runners by developing a range of shoes that help the runner transition from running in heavily cushioned stability shoes to a minimalist shoe.

Asics have worked with Dr Matthias Marqaurdt to develop a range of shoes to enable the runner to best experience a natural running technique.  Dr Matthias is – by his own admission – Germany’s leading expert in all matters relating to natural running.  He has dedicated his entire working life to researching ways of making the runner more efficient and able to run injury free.  He has developed his theories by studying movement analysis and performance diagnostics of both athletes and regular runners. And by studying how man runs barefoot.

Doctor’s Orders

On a sunny Saturday in Berlin we are privileged to have the man himself explain what natural running is.  He begins by telling us a series of facts including that between 30-50% of runners will be injured every year.  As a Doctor and serious runner himself, his goal is injury prevention and he believes that by perfecting our running technique we can minimise injury.  So his aim is that we achieve the most effective running gait – and that is one that closely approximates the natural human motion sequence.

He helpfully explains the difference between a heel strike; a mid-foot strike and a forefoot strike.  If we all ran barefoot as we did for the first 180,000 years of mankind then we would all be forefoot strikers.  However with the advent of shoes and latterly cushioned running shoes, the majority of us have become heel strikers.  Mid-foot strikers are the least likely to become injured and ideally we can learn to become efficient mid-foot strikers and (re)-learn how to run efficiently.   This involves activating and strengthening the right muscles; paying attention to technique and of course wearing the right shoes.

Dr Matthias (as he likes to be known) does however add that natural running isn’t for everyone and requires a fairly high level of conditioning of the body. The average over-weight runner who may have experienced Achilles issues is probably not ready for natural running and is better sticking with their cushioned stability shoes.  He also stresses that natural running should not be practised on all training runs and natural running shoes should be an addition to regular training shoes.

So – in summary – a serious runner who is well conditioned should have a second pair of training shoes to help achieve a natural running technique on shorter training runs.  And this is the shoe that Asics has developed with the Gel-Lyte 33.

Dr Matthias is certainly a fine specimen of German engineering and if we all had bodies as highly conditioned as his we would all be perfect mid-foot strikers running with the prescribed natural running technique, in perfect unison, and all running injuries would be eradicated. However, a conditioned body like his takes weeks, months and years of dedication and the average obese German – which he keeps referring to –  will probably never achieve it.

Testing The Techniques

However some of us keener runners can aspire to a natural running technique and we are therefore kitted out in some rather fabulous new kit and a pair of the new Gel-Lyte 33 shoes to test our aptitude for natural running.

Our master class in natural running involves some fairly simple calf muscle activation exercises; bench step ups to activate the gluteus maximus muscles and some side plank leg raises to activate the gluteus medius.  We are then encouraged to try some exaggerated poor running techniques to emphasise what the correct technique looks and feels like. We finish with some arm exercises and a group exercise to get a feel for running cadence.

It certainly made me pay attention to technique and get a feel for how one can improve efficiency and speed through small adjustments in form.  The natural running shoes definitely felt different to my usual heavy stability shoes.  The obvious but only word I can think of to describe the experience:  natural.

Berlin Asics Grand 10

After a late Saturday night I woke up on a Sunny Sunday morning in Berlin ready to run the 10K.

This was the icing on the cake or the cherry on top of a weekend dedicated to running.  Conditions were perfect and for anyone in PB shape it was a dream come true.  With little time to prepare for my 10K and well off PB shape I was only here to have fun.  But it was a great opportunity to try out the techniques I had learned the day before.

The race was started with Germanic precision by Jan Frodeno –the 2008 Gold medal winning triathlete.  Sadly, he was also well off PB shape having fractured his fibula head after a spectacular fall in a race.  Still wearing his natural running shoes, he hobbled on crutches.

The Berlin Asics Grand 10 should definitely be on the racing calendar for anyone aiming for a PB. The loop course consists of wide, flat roads with only a couple of very minor inclines and a short cobbled stretch to hinder the pace.  The only drawback is the lack of timing along the course.  I was running without a watch and the only split I got was at 5K.  However I somehow managed a metronomic pace. I ran a perfectly even split, keeping what felt like a steady pace.

I was clearly enjoying myself and having a little bit too much fun.  At the 7K mark I decided it was time to implement the arm movements I had learned under Dr Matthias’ tutelage and see how long I could maintain the action.  I also observed my push off and noted that as I extended my back leg I did seem to increase my speed.  However I quickly reverted to just running which is what I think I do best.  I also took a moment to think about what I think about when I am running in a race which appeared to be nothing more than whether I think I can realistically go any faster.  I observed my thoughts to see how much of racing is in the mind and how what we tell ourselves affects our performance.  Once I saw the 9K mark I decided it was time to stop thinking about my arm movements and observing my thoughts and just start trying to run a bit faster.

I was a long way off the leaders. At the front of the field was Leonard Komon in a very fast time of 27.46.  He holds the current course record of 27.12 set in 2010 and his time is the 10th fastest recorded for the 10K this year.  The womens race was won by the 22 year old German Anna Hahner in a very respectable 33.50 only one week after running 2.30.37 in the Chicago marathon.

 

Let Simon Wheatcroft show you what is possible

Simon Wheatcroft should be familiar to anyone who has ever said “I can’t”… and let’s face it, that is pretty much everyone in the world. I think next time you are about to allow the words ‘I’ and ‘can’t’ to cross your lips, take a look at this video and rethink what you think you can and can’t do:

Simon and Simon - and I did ask for a box to stand on, but one was not forthcoming!

I was very fortunate to meet Simon recently along with Jay Watts from Born To Plod which is really worth a read as soon as you have finished here! We were invited to meet Simon as guests of ASICS, but it was not like any PR stunt or event I have ever been to. It was one of the most inspiring and heart-warming afternoons I have ever spent for one thing – no disrespect to PR people and the events that put on, of course!

Jay and I were collected from Doncaster station and driven to Simon’s house. He is happy to have complete strangers in his house asking him daft questions because – as you will now know from having watched the video above – Simon needs to be in familiar surroundings (just in case you haven’t seen the video, the most amazing thing about Simon – aside from taking on ultra marathons whilst studying for a degree and supporting his wife and child – is that he is registered blind).

Whilst in the house I had a chance to ask Simon a whole range of questions before we were due to go out for a run and Simon was happy to answer pretty much everything!

I started by asking Simon if he had always been a runner and his answer was not what I expected. Simon told me that he has only been running for two years and before that he wasn’t really into sport although he did train in a cross-fit gym and lift weights. Like so many people, Simon started running because it is cheap and accessible and it was something that he could enjoy by running with friends. When it came to choosing ultra marathons, Simon said that the last book he read before his sight deteriorated to the point that he couldn’t read, was Dean Karnazes’ book and that was an inspiration to him.

I asked Simon if Karnazes was a personal inspiration to him and he said that he was along with athletes such as Jenson Button – the Formula 1 driver and accomplished triathlete, Randy Couture and George St Pierre, from UFC and indeed any all round athletes.

Running blind

One of the most amazing things about Simon – and let’s be clear there are a few! – is that he has memorised a route that he can run unaided. I asked Simon how he memorised the route and he said that he started running the route with a guide and was familiar with the area as he has lived in that part of the country his whole life.

As we would see later, Simon uses this uncanny ability to remember every inch of a 6 mile route along with physical clues like the grass verge or the change in texture due to the paint used for yellow lines on the road, to get around his route. He told me that he also uses RunKeeper which provides audio feedback on distances covered. Stuart Miles at Pocket Lint (@stuartmiles) wrote a brilliant piece about meeting Simon and his use of technology that you can read here.

Kit list

I asked Simon what his favourite and most useful bits of kit are. Obviously he said that his iPhone, loaded with the RunKeeper app, are essentials. He is also a big fan of the ASICS 33s – of which ASICS were kind enough to send me a pair, so there will be a review coming soon – which Simon loves because they offer sufficient cushioning whilst being lightweight and low-profile enough to allow Simon to get the feedback from subtle variations in pavement surface or yellow lines, that is so essential for his non-guided running.

The other bit of kit that Simon is reliant upon is his treadmill that dominates the conservatory at the back of his house. This allows Simon to do speed sessions and intervals and even hill sessions and frees him from the need for his wife to drive him to his route or for him to call on friends to accompany him.

Pounding the pavements

After a really lovely opportunity to ask Simon all our questions, Jay and I, along with Mark from the PR agency, headed off with Simon to accompany him on a run along his memorised route. We drove to a parking spot on a turning off a very busy country road. From there, Simon was really unerring.

He runs with a very economical style – perfect for ultra marathons but also the perfect stride for someone who has to feel the ground as he runs. But unless you knew that Simon was blind, there really is no indication that he can’t see anything: he never faltered. Indeed this is part of the reason that Simon developed this route which involves quite a bit of running on the road – when we ran in populated areas and along busy pavements, people had no clue that he was blind and would expect him to get out of the way, which of course he didn’t.

As Jay and Mark and I ran with Simon, he kept up a stream of conversation which only goes to show how well he knows this route, but I can only imagine how scary it must be to be running completely alone without being able to see and not knowing if there will be bags of rubbish or road-cones or lumps of wood on the pavement. For Simon he only becomes aware of such obstacles when he hits them.

The future

As we ran Simon talked about what he has got planned – a sandwich run where he was going to run 26.2 miles, then a local half marathon and then another 26.2 miles to make a sandwich, all in aid of a local charity.

Simon is also in a team for the Thunder Run because a woman called May asked Simon if he would like to make up a team with her. Simon obliged and now there are 9 runners of every ability.

And further into the future, there is Simon’s ultimate ambition – the record for the fastest Badwater ultra by a blind runner. At the moment two US-based brothers, Geoffrey and Miles Hilton-Barber, hold the record at around 40 hours. Simon wants to lower the record to more like 30 hours.

Badwater is a huge undertaking, whoever you are. Hours and hours and days and days of training will have to be done. Hard choices will have to be made. Deep fatigue and injuries will have to be endured. And that is before you consider doing the race without being able to see where you are going. It seems like a monumental task.

But you know what? I don’t think Simon Wheatcroft will ever say “I can’t”, in fact having spent just a few hours in his company, I am firmly of the opinion that Simon Wheatcroft probably can’t say “I can’t” and I for one will remember what he told me at the end of our few hours together for the rest of my life

a little bit of belief can do amazing things

Well, it has certainly allowed Simon to do amazing things and I think that is a lesson we could all do with learning from time to time.