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…

Getting ready for the CCC

In a few hours I will be setting off on a bus from Chamonix where I am staying to travel through the tunnel under the Mont Blanc to Courmayer, Italy. From there I and Mrs. F. will run back to Chamonix via Champex Lac in one of the races making up the UTMB race series. It is 100km, with around 6km of vertical ascent. It is going to be fun, tough, inspiring and challenging. I can’t wait!

This week in Chamonix

The trail running world – or at least the European part of it – seems to arrive in Chamonix for the UTMB week. Everywhere you look there are man and women sporting amazing looking running kit and very little body fat, parading through the town and generally consuming enough calories to power an army for a year.

For someone relatively new to the ultra trail running scene like me, this is an astonishing and inspiring place to be at this time. And one of the amazing aspects of trail running – and perhaps running in general – is the way that the best in the world seem happy to rub shoulders with those starting out and simply trying to finish the races. So it has been an increadible few days of meeting running royalty for me this week…

First up it was Anton Krupicka, who wandered into the restaurant where I was having lunch. He seemed only too happy to pose for a photo and chat about what will be his first UTMB this week.

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Me and Seb Chaigneau

The following day I decided to run to the summit of the Brevant with a friend Rob Gabbie. It was a tough climb that took us a couple of hours, but despite the clouds which obscured the view across the valley, for me it was well worth it when I arrived at the summit and there, sitting on a rock, was Sebastian Chaigneau.

He too was happy to pose for a photo and talk about the UTMB. What I didn’t expect was his answer when I asked if he thought he might win:

I don’t care. I am here to run in the mountains and be humble and enjoy myself

Great advice that I am going to adopt for my race tomorrow.

On the way down from the Brevant, I bumped into Shona Stephenson, from the inov-8 team, running uphill. I stopped to say hello and whilst Shona didn’t remember me and made no attempt to hide it (!) despite meeting me only a few weeks ago, she seemed to be pleased to have been recognised. For her, the UTMB is an exciting race: it’s her first attempt at it and it falls on the day of her 35th birthday. She has spoken to the inov-8 people about the race and you can see what she thinks here.

After that, I had the running-celebrity equivalent of shooting fish in a barrel when Mrs. F. won an invitation to a breakfast at the Northface store in Chamonix and knowing what a running geek I am, offered her place to me. Within moments of arriving I was talking to Jez Bragg, who I have met before and Lizzy Hawker (who I have been corresponding with recently and it was great to finally meet her in person). We were talking about Lizzy’s injury woes and how Jez would approach the race after his epic New Zealand escapade, when we were interrupted by someone wanting to say hello (to Jez and Lizzy I hasten to add, not me!) – Timmy Olsen!

So there I was in a group of four talking to Jez Bragg, Lizzy Hawker and Timmy Olsen. Surreal!

Chamonix is ready – am I?

So after immersing myself in the ultra trail world for the past few weeks, it is now time to get down to business. I have felt better prepared for races. But then again, I think that something magical happens when you get on the start line of a huge challenge like this. I am really excited about what is going to happen and the fact that I will be running with Mrs. F. The weather is set fair and I have had enough inspiration and positivity to fly me to the moon. I’ll let you know how I get on…

Meeting Anton Krupicka

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It would not be hard to argue that Chamonix, France is the spiritual home of trail running and ultra-trail running, at least in Europe (though I would say that it is the global hub for trail running) and one of the strongest pieces of evidence for that, is that this tiny town, tucked in the bottom of a valley bang up against the foot of the Mont Blanc massif, with glaciers towering above it, is home to some of the greatest trail runners in the world: Killian Jornet, Lizzy Hawker, Sébastien Chaigneau… and me for a few months this year.

So I was not hugely surprised – but I was hugely delighted – to see none other than Anton Krupicka strolling into the café where I was having lunch today. I am afraid that I was not about to allow the chance to meet him slip by, so I introduced myself and we chatted for a few minutes about the up-coming UTMB race which will be the first time Krupicka has tested himself on this course.

He was charming, not at all annoyed to be accosted by a complete stranger and really happy to talk tactics (and amazingly about his concerns) for the UTMB. Anton, if you are reading this, I hope that the race goes really well and that your first foray onto this iconic course is a huge success.

Meeting the inov-8 team in Chamonix

I have long been a fan of inov-8. And not just the shoes, though it is worth saying that I think their shoes are ace and since I tried on a pair of the Road-X 233s I realised how much more there is to the inov-8 range than just trail shoes. But also what I perceive to be the philosophy of the company. I like the ‘challenger’ attitude that the company started with and the way that innovation (see what I did there) is at the heart of what they do.

So I was absolutely chuffed when Lee Proctor, from their marketing team, got in touch and asked me if I’d like to review some of their products. I was even more chuffed when, on discovering that inov-8 were taking their newly formed international trail running team to Chamonix for a training retreat and a chance to tackle a couple of iconic races out there, I was invited to come and meet the team at their chalet. I jumped at the chance.

The inov-8 story

To provide some background to my meeting an international team of top quality trail runners, it is worth taking a moment to reflect on the history of inov-8, which is 10 years old this year.

Inov8_logoThe company was founded by Zimbabwean Wayne Edy, who had been working for some time as a consultant to the outdoors industry. Based in County Durham, Wayne decided that there was a gap in the off-road running shoe market which at the time was dominated by Walsh.

Wayne was advised against heading into muddy territory, but persisted by designing and manufacturing the first inov-8 shoe: the mudroc 290, ordering 2,500 pairs from China. With a house full of pairs of shoes, Wayne started calling retailers and trying to drum up orders for his shoe. As good timing and luck would have it, Wayne was the right man, with the right product in the right place at the right time and the notoriously close-knit off-road and fell-running communities started to talk about his shoes – word spread and sales grew.

The story of inov-8 is one that shows how important a great product, along with a charismatic team and a strong philosophy is. Soon Edy had done a deal with the most influential retailer in the UK fell running scene: Pete Bland Sports. And from there, as demand for the new inov-8 shoes grew amongst runners, the retailers became more and more receptive.

Then inov-8 struck real gold…

Melissa Moon and the mudroc 290

In 2003, the year that inov-8 launched, a runner by the name of Melissa Moon was training hard for the World Mountain Running Trophy in Gridwood, Alaska.

Melissa has travelled to Gridwood in advance of the big race to train on the route that the race would take. She had given herself eight days to get familiar with the course. Nothing was left to chance in her preparations and as Melissa knew that it hadn’t snowed during the summer in this part of the USA for the last 15 years she had the right racing flats for the day.

Shockingly, on the day of the race the assembled athletes awoke to find a blanket of fresh snow all over the course! Luckily for Melissa the English team came to the rescue and offered to lend her a pair of inov-8s. As you will probably have guessed, the shoes were perfect and Melissa went on to win the race and the World Champion’s crown. It was perfect PR for inov-8 and kicked the brand into the limelight.

The story since then

Since hard work and a little bit of luck both played a part in helping to make inov-8 a worldwide force in off-road running, the company has expanded to create products for a range of committed athletes. There is not an extensive road-running shoe range as well as shoes designed specifically for ‘functional fitness’ athletes (cross-fit crazies as I like to call them).

And inov-8 has a range of running apparel and accessories to go with the shoes it produces.
You can check out the entire range of products on the inov-8 website here.

The latest chapter in the inov-8 story, at least as far as trail running goes, is the creation of an international team of trail runners, who came together in the last few weeks and travelled to France to a chalet near Chamonix, for a week of bonding, training, learning, product testing and racing. And I was lucky enough to get to meet up with them…

The inov-8 trail team

Screen Shot 2013-07-04 at 17.53.58The members of the inov-8 team in Chamonix included:

Brendan Davies from Australia – recently the winner of TNF 100km in his native Australia after a magnificent 5th place in the 100 mile Ultra Trail Mount Fuji, Brendan is a really lovely chap and a teacher to boot! Check out more here.

Shona Stephenson (also from Australia) was third in TNF 100km recently and won her first 100 miler: the Northburn 100

Alex Nichols is from the United States of America and races anything from 5km to 50 miles.

Scott Dunlap, also from the US, is a full-time executive and masters athlete who manages to boss the trails as well as training for and competing in triathlons. Busy chap! Check out his biog here.

Oli Johnson is the first of a clutch of home-grown UK athletes running for inov-8, with a particular appetite for fell running and orienteering. Check out his blog here.

Robbie Simpson is a Scottish athlete competing for inov-8 and a big fan of technical routes in trail races.

Ben Abdelnoor seems to have an affinity with the stranger races available and is also stepping up in distance this year. It will be interesting to see what he can do, especially in the 50 mile races he has planned.

Anna Lupton is a fan of the Three Peaks race and has competed at the World Long Distance champs, so she is no stranger to the sorts of longer races that are so popular in the Alps. Check her out here.

Sarah Ridgway is the last of the UK athletes who joined the team in Chamonix. I have saved her for last because I really love her blog and there is a wonderful video of her that is well worth checking out, here.

Florian Reichert is the only German athlete on the team to come to Chamonix, Florian (known as Flow) is another teacher and he runs for Arc’teryx as well as inov-8.

Meeting the team

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Shona getting ready for (another) run!

When I met the team, they had only just come together and were all nervously anticipating a weekend which would test them all the the limit – for many of them, they were hoping to take on the Kilometre Vertical on the Friday and the Mont Blanc Marathon on the Sunday. And they were all going to race it!

I was shown around the chalet that the team were staying in by Lee Proctor from inov-8’s marketing team and then invited to stay for lunch as I heard the athletes plan their races, talk about their favourite inov-8 products and share their recent racing stories.

While I was with the inov-8 team, the sense of excitement at being in Chamonix, surrounded by the mountains, was palpable. In fact I heard that the two Australian athletes had arrived at the chalet in the dark after a flight around the world and were still excited enough to want to go for a run with their head-torches on!

I was also really happy to be given some inov-8 shoes to try out. The first was F-lite 262 and I was given a pair of the Trail Roc 235. It was great to have not only Lee’s thoughts on the shoes along with inov-8’s official line, but I was also able to discuss the shoes and the best distances and conditions in which to use them with the elite athletes who use them day to day. Along with the Roc Lite 315’s that I have with me in Chamonix, there will be product reviews on here in the next few days.

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Brendan relaxing after lunch

For now let me say that I have tried all the shoes and love them all. In order of weight and substance…

The Roc Lite 315s are amazingly stable, grippy and almost seem to be a bit water-resistant, so great for long days out on the trail, racing over rocks and roots, hiking up inclines and splashing through the streams that wash down the mountain sides.

The F-lite 262 have an amazingly comfortable upper – almost sock-like – with a grippy and cushioned sole. These could become my favourite trail shoe for shorter races up to 40km or so. They also look great in my opinion!

The Trail Roc 235 is similar in feel to the F-lite 262, but the three different materials used in the out-sole make this a super-grippy shoe and I will be interested to try this in a variety of races, possibly even some cross-country races when the season starts back in the UK this autumn.

Great for inov-8

So I would like to say thanks to the inov-8 team for making me feel so welcome and for the shoes to test. There are some very exciting things happening at inov-8. While I was there, one of the team, Matt Brown, showed me some prototype elite kit that looks utterly amazing, while Lee and most of the team paraded around in a two-way half-zip duvet jacket that is immediately on my ‘most coveted bit of kit’ list (yes, I do have one of those!)

Along with the quality of athletes that Lee and his colleague Natalie have brought together – three in the top ten of the Mont Blanc Marathon, by the way – the new products and the way that the people at inov-8 are treating trail running, means that this young company, with modest roots in the UK, could go on to become a powerhouse in trail running, taking on the more established ‘mountain brands’ from the Alpine countries and beating them at their own game. It’s certainly going to be interesting watching what happens next…