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.
But 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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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!
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 Gel–Fuji 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.
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…