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…

Eat, Run and Talk – an evening with Scott Jurek

Bloomsbury Publishing is possibly most famous for taking a chance on a book that had been rejected by almost every other publisher in the land. It is all about a quiet, shy young boy who came from a difficult background which was full of challenges and who, it turned out, had magical powers allowing him to do things that no one else could. This shy young boy went on to do battle with fearsome foes and struggled with personal challenges, always giving his all in a pursuit of a higher ideal, whilst joined along the way by a cast of weird and wonderful companions who added colour to his already extraordinary life.

Who am I talking about? Well that description could apply to Harry Potter as easily as it could to Scott Jurek. This evening, however, it was Scott and not Harry that I was invited to see taking part in an interview at the Bloomsbury Institute in central London.

Eat and Run – My Unlikely Journey to Ultramarathon Greatness

IMG_0037Bloomsbury are the publishers of one of the most captivating and extraordinary books about the ultra running scene that I have ever read. Scott Jurek’s Eat and Run, describes the twin forces in Jurek’s life – his amazing ultra running and his conversion to veganism.

Scott appeared in the ultra trail running world with a bang in 1999, when he entered the Western States 100 and won it, beating ultra running legend Tweetmeyer in the process. In all Scott went on to win that race seven times.

Of course it wasn’t as though Jurek had never run a race before or hadn’t trained for the Western States – he had been turning himself into one of the worlds best ultra endurance athletes for years, through his tough, physical childhood, through a love of cross-country skiing and through a passion for trail running, driven to run ever harder by friends and acquaintances who saw the potential in him.

At the same time, Jurek had decided that he would run better if he modified his diet and ended up becoming a vegan.

Food and running – the perfect combo!

And this is what the book that Scott has written is really about – ultra trail running  and veganism, both of which he seems to be particularly good at. In each chapter of the book there is a story about running which runs through the entirety of Jurek’s 20+ year career along with a number of vegan recipes at the end of each section. This is what makes the book such a fascinating read – not only can you marvel at the incredible athlete and what he has achieved… you can also have the same lunch as him.

At the event tonight, Scott elaborated on a few things in the book. He talked about the fact that he has been driven to be the best runner he can be for over 20 years and yet it is only after 17 or so of those years that he was able to make a living from being a full time athlete. He also talked candidly about the fact that he will be 40 in a few weeks and that he thinks long and hard about when to stop competing at the top level – when he will allow himself to run in the mid-pack and simply enjoy the experience of running rather than having to compete. Don’t worry though, that is not going to happen soon: Scott revealed that at the very least he would like to take on a few more iconic ultra trail races, regain his US 24 hour record and challenge the world record and try his hand at a few multi-day stage races. So that’ll take him at least another few years!

Jurek on Jornet

But talk of retirement also included a discussion about the new talent emerging into the ultra trail scene and one question from the floor asked Scott what he thinks about Killian Jornet and his Summits Of My Life activities. Scott said that he understands the concern in some quarters about the things that Jornet is trying to achieve, but like other friends of Scott, including Alex Honnold the climber and Uli Steck the mountaineer, there will always be people pushing the boundaries and that those people are necessary.

Scott Jurek’s approach to racing

Scott talked a little about racing and his approach. This was all part of a discussion about his scientific approach to racing. Scott talked about the fact that many in the trail running community in the US frowned upon his interest in, and use of, scientific testing to try to improve his performances. Scott had extensive testing done, looking into his VO2 Max measurements (between 97 and 98 in case you are interested) and his lactate threshold measurements. The former was very high while the later was decidedly average, suggesting that Scott’s background in cross-country skiing had driven his VO2 Max up but his sport was always going to be based in the endurance sphere as he doesn’t have much in the way of top-end speed. He admitted that his marathon PB is 2:38 and that he has often beaten runners with 2:15 PBs once they get on the trails.

Jurek also talked about how he fuels his races, again taking a scientific approach. He sets his alarm on his watch to go off every 30 minutes and consumes 25 grammes of carbohydrate so that he feeds his neuromuscular system as if it was on a constant drip of fuel.

The end of the evening

And it was perhaps the need for refueling that brought the questions from the audience to a close, signaling the end of the evening’s entertainment.

Scott, true to his nature, which is exemplified by his tradition of staying on the finish line of the races he runs to welcome home every other runner, agreed to sign as many books as required by the people in the room and allow each of them to have a photo taken. That meant that there was a steady stream of smiling people plunging from the Georgian splendor of Bloomsbury Publishers’ HQ into the cool night air, clutching their copies of the book and almost certainly inspired to do more – to follow in the footsteps of a man whose magical powers are actually not all that magical at all. Who really, for me, embodies much of what it is to be an ultra trail runner: modest, enthusiastic, a lover of nature as well as hard-working, competitive and determined whilst at the same time compassionate and friendly. I just wonder what he’d be like at Quidditch…

TNF UTMB CCC race report

It has been a couple of weeks now since I ran the furthest and for the longest that I have ever done before. It has almost taken me this long to get my head around the whole event and work out what I want to write about it. But before I get into the event, here is a bit of background.

How I ended up running the CCC

When I met my wife, Julie, she was not really a runner (well, she had not competed in races thus far) and I was an out-and-out marathon runner, constantly seeking the flattest and fastest courses and training to get into the best possible shape I could, to attempt to run 26.2 miles as fast as I could.

Start line of the CCC 2013
Start line of the CCC 2013

But, much as with our shared love of jazz, despite having very different favourites within that style of music, we found that we could happily do our own running and there would always be cross-overs. In running those cross-overs turned out to be over ultra distances and exclusively off-road.

Whilst Julie had never actually competed in races before we met, she did know all about competitive sport and in fact had hiked the Sierre-Zinal course a few times in her youth, as part of the walkers section of that iconic race. So it was no great surprise when we discovered that once we were in the mountains and moving for whole days, our running intersected and we found something we could do together.

Once you go down that route – and especially if the aim of doing the races is to spend time together being inspired in the mountains – it is not long before the iconic Ultra Trail de Mont Blanc comes into view. Before we were married we promised ourselves that one day we would give that race our best shot.

In preparation for that ‘one day’ that seemed to be coming around very fast, my wife enetered us into the ballot for the shortest of the UTMB weekend’s races – the 102km CCC from Courmayeur, via Champex to Chamonix. I was pretty sure we’d be safe because the ballot system meant that we were not likely to get a place, so you can imagine my (ahem) delight, when we received the email saying “felecitations” – we were in!

Training for the CCC

With the prospect of running 102km with 6,000m of vertical ascent through the mountains, I did think that some preparation would be required. However that is easier said than done to be honest and I was suddenly trying to convince myself that a marathon training programme, peppered with some longer races, would be sufficient. To be honest, I worried that my biggest problem would be the amount of time I would need to stay awake, so perhaps setting up our business, freestak, would be perfect preparation for that…

The best things that we did, as far as I am concerned, were three races and a weekend of running:

1) The Endurance Life Coastal Trail Series Classic Quarter – this was actually a DNF – my first ever – but it taught me that sleep is not essential, at least not in the short term. The day before the race I had some terrible news and as a result ended up getting 90 minutes sleep. By the time I dropped out at 22 miles, I had only had 90 minutes sleep in 40+ hours and whilst I felt terrible, I could have carried on physically. It was the emotions that I was experiencing that put an end to my race.

2) The Adidas Thunder Run 24 hours – in terms of total distance, this was, again, not really fantastic preparation, but I did run 40km and hard. And I really only had 4 hours sleep in two days, so again I had proved to myself that I could operate on very limited sleep. Plus, the mud was unbelievable so I knew that I could deal with less-then-ideal conditions.

3) The Montagn’Hard – a 60km mountain race near to Chamonix with 5,000m of ascent. This was real running in the mountain. It took me 11 hours to come 21st and I was really working the whole time. I learned about hiking hard. I learned that I am not all that good on the downhills. I learned that stopping occasionally and taking in the view is better than any performance enhancing product. I also learned what a 900m climb actually feels like… bloody tough basically!

4) The TORQ Trail Running Team weekend. This was something that we organised at freestak on behalf of a client, taking six winners of a competition to Chamonix for a weekend of running under the watchful eye of ultra runner and all round mountain expert, Julia Tregaski-Allen. This involved plenty of running and not a lot of sleep, over three days – the first day was a marathon with about 3,000m of ascent!

On top of that, I did manage to get some great runs in, while Julie and I were in Chamonix: the Vertical Kilometer course a couple of times:  a 48km training run one day: quite a few two-hour runs before breakfast up the sides of the valley: a few runs up to the Brevant and back down. It all added up.

To the start line

image-6So by the time I was on the start line for the CCC, I was feeling reasonably confident. Sadly the same was not true for Julie, who had fallen whilst on a training run a month before and really smashed her knee, almost certainly trapping and bruising soft tissue under her patella, which was causing quite a lot of pain. We just had to hope that things would be OK.

The start of the CCC, like the UTMB and the other races in the series, is a triumph. Extremely well coordinated, but without feeling contrived, there is Vangelis and waving of hands and sticks and crowds and a general feeling that something really epic is about to begin. As we crossed the start line, I was as excited as I was nervous, which is a wonderful feeling to have.

The race is underway

image-3The CCC broadly follows the route of its bigger brother, the UTMB, with one major exception – the first climb up to Tete de la Tronche. Having decided to start slowly to try to give Julie’s knee a chance, we found ourselves right at the back of our wave – the second of three. That was fine, except that those at the start of the third wave, made up the 15 minute handicap that they had and were soon trying to get past us on very narrow, very technical trails. That was made worse by the fact that at a couple of points, the trails were so technical and narrow that we were queuing to get through pinch-points, which for a competitive type like me, was torture.

Still, once that first climb was out of the way (it took 4 hours by the way!) the field started to spread out and we were able to start moving at our pace.

Sadly, like a car stuck behind a tractor on a narrow country lane, which suddenly opens out into a dual carriageway, once the trail flattened slightly and we were able to start moving, we hit quite a decent pace, but there were still many runners around us, and Julie caught her toe on a rock or root and tripped, landing slap bang on the knee that had been injured before and winding herself at the same time. That, to be honest, would probably have finished most people’s races there and then. We had been running for 5 or so hours and now Julie was hurt again. Impressively after a couple of minutes, Julie was up again and moving as fast as before, with me running behind constantly urging her to take it easy and give herself space to the runner in front so she could see obstacles on the trail.

On we go

image-2The race continued in a pretty familiar fashion after the fall – up a huge climb, over the top and down the other side. Aid stations and check-points came and went. We chatted and admired the view and wondered about the night ahead. And Julie’s knee continued to get worse.

After a while, other things started to ail us. The first couple of aid stations did not have the anticipated food that seems to be the norm for ultra trail races in the Alps. By the second stop we had been on the go for eight hours and we were hungry. TORQ bars and gels were great, but they weren’t all that filling and we were getting hungry.

My naïve kit choice suddenly started to cause me a problem. I had stupidly forgotten to pack my RunderWear for the trip and had elected to run in a pair of normal shorts and no underwear, just the liner of the shorts. Despite slathering on Bodyglide, the liner started chaffing and within a couple of hours, went from a slight irritation to a raw burning in the nether regions which was extremely painful and distracting.

By the time we were climbing up to Bovine, it was pitch dark and we were hiking up through thick mud. Julie’s knee was really painful on the downhills and we had three more of them to come, each probably being well over an hour. My chaffing was a bit better since I ditched the shorts and exchanged them for tights, pulled as low as I dared to avoid any skin:fabric interface. But it still really hurt. I think both of us  started to want to stop.

The big difference was that Julie’s knee was a potentially very serious injury that was getting worse and worse. My complaint was sore nuts. Sadly Julie decided that she had to take the sensible decision and pull out at the Trient aid station.

A real low point

As we approached Trient, I did something that I am really not proud of. I was concerned that if I was to carry on – and apart from the aforementioned chaffing, I felt great – I knew I needed to get in and out of the aid station before the cut-off and I felt we were perilously close to that. So I urged Julie to speed up on what would be her last downhill, so that I could check she would be OK and still have time to carry on. Selfish in the extreme.

By the time we arrived at the check point, I had made Julie cry. It was 3am. I was tired, she was in pain. And I was not thinking about her as much as I should have been. It is all credit to Julie that she made sure I felt that she was not too upset and allowed me to head off for the last 28km.

As I climbed out of Trient, I felt like shit. Physically I felt fantastic and I was hammering up the hill, passing people by the dozen. But I felt really awful for being so mean to Julie and I texted her to say so. She called me – she told me that it was OK, that I was forgiven and that she had managed to get a lift back to Chamonix after the total failure of the organisers to get the buses to the aid stations that those dropping out so badly needed. As with every year, the drop out rate for the CCC was about 40% so this was not a surprise for the organisers!

The final climbs and descents

After Trient, I climbed. I want to push as hard as I could. As hard as my sore crotch and increasing tiredness would let me.

The only frame of reference I had was the pool of light from my headtorch and there was silence. All I could hear was my own breathing and the click, click of the sticks on the rocky ground. Occasionally I would pass another runner and quite often I would pass a few in a group. There was nothing said either by me to them or visa versa.

After a while I lost track of what I was doing. I reached the top of Catogne and started decending. The fatigue and soreness plagued me but after the summit I started to feel as though, with one more big climb to go, I might just make it.

The climb from Vallorcine to Le Tete Aux Vents was excruciating. I hit the bottom of the climb in darkness and looked up to see the snaking line of head torches disappearing ever upwards, but I knew I had to keep calm and simply hike as fast as I could. As I neared the top the horizon started to lighten and looking across the Chamonix valley towards Mont Blanc, a thin, white line appeared as the sun rose on the other side of the mountains. By the time I finally reached the checkpoint at 2130m, I could turn off my headtorch and try to run towards La Flegere in the pale morning light. I really wished that Julie was with me to see the sun rise and know that we only had 12km to go.

The final section of the race was unfortunately one of the low points for me. I was very sore and worried about how close I was to the final cut-off. The chaffing was really bad now and I couldn’t even make little decisions like whether or not to have my jacket on. Worse, probably half a dozen runners passed me as I struggled down the long winding path towards Chamonix.

We finally reached the bottom and hit the roads near to the apartment where Julie and I were staying and where I imagined she was asleep in bed. I was so tired I could hardly think. But with only 1km to go, I tried to be as upbeat as possible and being cheered into the town centre by crowds or people gave me a boost that I really needed. And then finally a friendly face: Dan and Jen from Xempo were there and Dan stepped out to take a picture of me as I rounded the final corner before the finish line.

24 hours and 20 minutes for 102km.

image-5I think that psychologically the CCC is the hardest thing I have ever done. The uncertainty about whether I could finish stayed with me almost to the very last 3 or 4km. Julie dropping out and my reaction to that, was really hard to deal with. The feeling of wretched tiredness was like nothing I can remember having to deal with. But all that made the moment I crossed the line and received my finishers gilet all the sweeter. I had done something that I never thought possible.

And I really feel as though I became part of something special. As I am sure is obvious to anyone who has read this blog before, I love running and all the things that come with it – especially the way that it brings people together and seems, in the main, to bring out the best in people. In Chamonix, during the week-long festival of running that is the Ultra Trail de Mont Blanc, that positivity is amplified by a factor of at least a million. It must be the epicenter of positivity and shared respect for the entire global population.

The UTMB CCC challenged me in ways that I really was not expecting and that is what made it such an incredible experience. I am certain Julie and I will be back for more pretty soon!

 

 

 

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 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…

 

Shoe review: Saucony Peregrine 2

At the moment I am having a great time in Chamonix, spending time running in the mountains and exploring all the trails on offer. Just before I left to come out here, the lovely folk at Saucony UK sent me a pair of their Peregrine 2s to go running in and I recorded a video review of what I think of them:

I actually have had a couple of pairs of the Peregrines before and I really like this shoe, mainly because it is:

  • lightweight
  • grippy
  • low-profile
  • has a 4mm heel-toe differential
  • provides a decent amount of toe protection
Image taken from iRunFar
Image taken from iRunFar

I think that the Saucony Peregrine feels fast thanks to the fact that it has so little bulk. Other trail shoes that I have run in seem to be massive. There is an increasing trend, as with road running shoes, towards less bulky trail shoes, but I would say that the Peregrine was one of the first to be so stripped back and light. That said, there is no compromise on cushioning or grip… so you have a comfortable, responsive, light shoe which has enough grip and a decent amount of toe protection: what’s not to like? The shoe even has a ring at the bottom of the laces for a gaiter to clip on to if you are running in very wet conditions or on trails where there is masses of loose debris. Small gaiters can mean the difference between a lovely run admiring the views and pushing your limits versus stopping every 400m to remove another stone or piece of wood from your shoe!

Anyway, I hope you like the video and please give me any feedback you can… good, bad or otherwise! And let me know what your favourite trail shoes are. I am out here for five weeks so maybe I will get to try them out too!

 

The hills are alive, with the sound of running: a trail running weekend in Chamonix

I think that one of the amazing things about running is the variety of ways that an athlete can out one foot in front of another and attempt to cover an given distance as fast as possible. Whether you are a 100m sprinter or an ultra-ultra distance runner, you are a runner. And that means that everyone can find the type of running that suits them.

The reasons that a person finds themselves drawn to one type of running over any other are many, varied and complex. To some extent the choice will be dictated by the proportion of fast vs. slow twitch muscle fibers one has. Opportunity, motivation and peer pressure also play important parts.

For me a range of factors have led me to become fascinated by the marathon and especially road marathons. I have had an inglorious and short (one race) attempt at track racing (3000m in my case). But time and time again, I come back to 26.2 miles of tarmac. But that is slowly changing…

Trying on the trails

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Running in the Alps with the Trail Running Team ©Roy Belchamber

Increasingly, thanks to the influence of my wife, I am finding myself drawn to running on long-distance trails. Over the last few years, my summers have been spent in the Alps taking on long races, multi-day running trips and even longer ‘fast-packing’ trips.

And last weekend that culminated in a weekend of running with six other trail runners who make up the Trail Running Team in the Alps around Chamonix.

Getting to know you!

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© Roy Belchamber

The Trail Running Team are a disparate bunch, who came together as the result of a social media campaign. Their ‘prize’ for being picked from the hundreds of applicants was the publicity of being on the team and in Trail Running Magazine, a weekend away in the Alps on a trail running weekend run by Julia Tregaskis-Allen  from Tracks & Trails and some pretty lovely kit from the team sponsors.

The runners all arrived on Thursday and whilst some knew each other from having been to the same assessment day in London or Church Stretton, really they were strangers. So we had a meal, cooked by yours truly, at the Gite Michel Fagot, where the team stayed, and got to know one another with the help of some lovely French wine!

The team was made up of the following six (click on their name to find out more about them)

Within that group there is an amazing range of experience and lifestyles, but three days in the mountains, with 60 miles of running, 5500m of altitude gain and 3800m of ascent, as well as an overnight stay in a mountain refuge, meant that the team really bonded. It was great to see people who share a love of trail running bring such passion and positivity together and that is what I have enjoyed about the weekend: getting to know other runners. Most of the group said at some point that they are used to running alone and in fact most of them enjoyed that aspect of trail running: the opportunity to be with your thoughts and enjoy some solitude. But at the same time, the experience of learning and sharing experiences together seemed to be a really positive.

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Night running with the Trail Running Team. Photo © Roy Belchamber

A quick mention should go to the sponsors who supplied the team with some great kit. Apparel, backpack and footwear came from Mammut and their new trail running range. Nutrition was all from TORQ Fitness, including gels, bars and recovery shakes. The team also had headtorches from LED Lenser, sun-glasses from Tifosi and calf-guards from Compressport. There will be a kit review on here in the next few days, but for now it is safe to say that all the kit performed really well, all the more impressive given the tough test that it all got from the amount and type of running we did.

Trail Running Team rules

All in all, the weekend was a really wonderful experience. We laughed, struggled, learned and experienced together. I have been really inspired by the six runners that I joined for the weekend and I can’t wait to see what they all achieve in the future. And I think that my focus on road marathons has definitely taken another step backwards while I have been taking forward steps along the trail.

 

A love of running in the mountains

When I met my wife, I was an unashamed pavement-bashing flat-land runner. The less corners and hills the better as far as I was concerned. But my wife’s love of running in the mountains has started to work it’s magic and whilst I am still aching to set a new marathon PB, I also love running off-road, up and down, over rocks and grass and through streams and snow-fields for hours on end. I am grateful for my wife’s influence in this.

So suddenly this film has resonance with me – I know exactly what Sarah Ridgway is talking about and I am more inspired than ever to don a pair of grippy trail shoes and hit the rough stuff. Enjoy…

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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.