I just returned from a week in Chamonix where I was going to run the UTMB CCC and spend some time in the mountains, enjoying the atmosphere of this unique event. Since starting freestak, I have rekindled my love for taking photographs and Chamonix on UTMB weekend is an ideal place to try a few things out. So I set myself a challenge of capturing some on-the-fly portraits of people finishing the UTMB. I wanted to try to find the look that encapsulates the pain and exhaustion of running 160km with 9000m of vertical climbing, often over more than 40 hours, with the elation of finishing and seeing friends and family (and the prospect of a cold beer only a few minutes away!) Here is some of what I came back with:
The London marathon is less than three weeks away and it has really crept up on me this year. That is partly due to the fact that Freestak has been getting busier and busier and I have not been training as much as I should have been. But there you go – 13 April is the date and I have to accept that there are no miracles in endurance sports and especially marathon running: you get out what you put in and all the gels and stretches and last minute core session in the world will not make up for not training.
So my focus has changed – in previous years it was always all about the spring marathon. Now I am looking a little further ahead. I have got a few races in the diary that I am very excited about and my aim is to translate that excitement into action and get some spring training going, possibly starting with a 26.2 mile training run around the streets of London on 13 April.
Racing focus for 2014
The first race that I have got an eye on is the Coastal Trail Series Classic Quarter on 7 June. I am going to ask people to sponsor me for this race as I will be running it in memory of my Nan. It was as Julie and I were driving to the 2013 edition of this race that my Mum called to say that Nan had passed away. Unsure what to do, we ended up starting the race, but we had only had 90 minutes sleep before the gun went at the start and I was in a terrible state emotionally. At half way – around 22 miles – I was done and had to drop out. This year I am back to honour my Nan and give this race my best shot.
Then on 5 July Julie and I are in France for the 60km La Montagn’Hard which we both ran last year and we absolutely loved it. It is brutally hard in terms of elevation gain – there is barely anything flat and we will climb over 5000m in 60km. It is a wonderfully organised by the denizens of a small village called St Nicolas and has such a wonderful relaxed, informal atmosphere that I can’t wait to have a crack at it already. I just wonder whether my adversary Denis from last year will be there.
But both the Classic Quarter and the Montagn’Hard are warm-up races for the main target for the summer – the UTMB CCC. This was the race that Julie and I took on last year. We were doing really well together before Julie fell and cracked her already-damaged knee, which meant that her race was over by 78km.
This year I think we are both determined to have a really good go at the CCC. I want to get around in under 17 hours. Last year the winner finished in 11 hours while I took over 24 hours. 17 hours seems like a touch but acheiveable target.
Getting the kit right for 2014 Ultras
And one of the things I have to refine for ultras in 2014 is my kit. Specifically my shorts. Last year I wore a pair of tried and tested shorts that I thought would be fine. But it was very warm and after 9 hours of running in the heat, with slightly damp shorts from sweat and water that I had spilled on myself, my inner thighs were rubbing raw. The chaffing was agony. Honestly… I was really suffering.
So in the middle of the heat of the day I threw my shorts in the bin in a public toilet and pulled on my tights for the next 15 hours. The pain was still intense, but less bad in the tights. I was hot though and I felt really stupid: I was in danger of DNF because my undercarriage was sore!
So this year I am on the hunt for the ultimate ultra short. The team at inov-8 (thanks Lee!) have just sent me a pair of their Race Elite 135 Ultra Shorts and from only wearing them for a few hours around the house tonight, I think they are the business – I think they might be just what I am after.
inov-8 Race Elite 135 Ultra Shorts
The shorts have a really comfortable, high waist band. They come with a wide, double thickness gusset that will keep certain important parts of the anatomy warm. There are a couple of useful pockets at the front that are designed to take a gel or two. And they are made from a really comfortable, stretchy man-made material. Most importantly, they are tight and will stop my thighs and nether regions from rubbing (especially if I pair the shorts with the utterly amazing RunderWear from the team at RunBreeze).
Performance vs. appearance – what matters more?
However there is the aesthetics to take into account. Now the reason I started running in the first place was to try to reverse the effects of years of bad living. So my body-image has never been great. And tight shorts are never the most flattering look. Don’t get me wrong, the inov-8 shorts look great – it is just me in them that is the problem.
Some people – my wife included – have suggested that a pair of baggy shorts over the top make for a much more flattering look. But then I have done my best to get ‘shights’ – that is shorts over tights – trending and not for good reasons. I think that wearing something baggy over your tights – or you tight shorts – confers no performance benefit whatsoever and so must purely be a vanity thing. I want to be focussed on performance and believe that runners should not worry about how they look – just about how they perform.
So what should I do? Well first thing’s first – ask you, my dear friends. Tights or tight shorts on men: fine or a crime? What do you wear when you’re running, especially for ultras? What is the worst thing you have seen? And should anyone – ever – wear tight white lycra? Help me out here, people, because the inov-8 shorts feel amazing and I think they are the solution to my problems and will almost certainly contribute to me achieving my newly-set summer goals. I just don’t want people to be laughing at me in the street as I smash those goals…
At freestak we have recently started working with Berghaus on a campaign that will be hitting magazines and computer screens near you soon. Now that we are part of the Berghaus team, we have been included in a few things that this great British brand have been organising. One of the big ones this year is their #AdventureList campaign which is an opportunity for everyone who loves the outdoors to get involved in some amazing adventures (and be in with a chance of winning some rather lovely stuff if they tell Berghaus about what they have been doing).
Hiking with Sir Chris Bonington
It was as part of this, that Berghaus invited Julie and me to join a group for a hike with legendary climber and adventurer Sir Chris Bonington in the Lake District. That was far too good an opportunity to miss out on, so late on Friday afternoon J. and I climbed in the trusty Matrix and headed north.
The Berghaus team were putting together a little film, that will be out in March, about some of the adventures that the people linked to the brand are embarking on. Hopefully Julie and I will make the cut – I will certainly post the video once it is out, because the group that Berghaus had gathered together were really fascinating and inspiring, so there will be plenty of moments to savour in the film even if yours truly ends up on the cutting room floor!
What is the #AdventureList?
The whole idea of the #AdventureList campaign is that people can create a list of the outdoors challenges that they would like to take on. The big difference between this and the idea of a bucket list is that it is specifically about outdoors adventures, so ‘seeing the Mona Lisa’ or ‘visiting the Taj Mahal’ wouldn’t be on the list… unless you cycled from London to see the Taj Mahal or ran from Edinburgh to see the Mona Lisa. You get the idea.
Hiking with Sir Chris Bonington for the day was an amazing opportunity to meet and talk to someone whose whole life has been about pushing his boundaries ticking off the things that are on his adventure list. To give you a flavour…
- He made the first British ascent of the North Wall of the Eiger
- Led the expedition that made the first ascent of The South Face of Annapurna, the biggest and most difficult climb in the Himalaya at the time.
- Led the successful expedition making the first ascent of the South West Face of Everest in 1975
- Reached the summit of Everest himself in 1985 with a Norwegian expedition
This is just a tiny fraction of the things that Sir Chris has done. There is much more detail here.
Knowing that I would be meeting a man who had probably done more last week than I have in my 38 years on the planet, I was a little nervous about committing my adventure list to paper. But that is what Berghaus asked us to do and I thought that it would be a really interesting exercise.
My twitter biog is “I run marathons. Everything else is a result of that” and one of the things I mean by that is that if it wasn’t for my fascination with trying to find out what I am capable of over 26.2 miles, I wouldn’t have the fitness, confidence and drive to attempt anything that I have now committed to on my dream adventure list. And I will admit that as I get older and I realise that I have to train harder and harder to shave time off my marathon PB, the attraction of the things on the list that are not trying to improve on my time over 26.2 miles, grows ever stronger.
So in no particular order (and most definitely subject to amendment) here is my #AdventureList as it currently stands:
- Run the UTMB CCC in under 18 hours
- Train for and race in an Ironman
- Climb Mont Blanc
- Complete the Patrouille des Glaciers
- Go free diving
- Do more ice-climbing
- Trek in Patagonia
- Ski to the South Pole
- Ride the Dunwich Dynamo
- Spend time training for a marathon in Iten, Kenya
The list goes on and on and on. I love reading books, magazines and websites about adventure so there is a constant stream of new ideas. The challenge is that whilst the list of things I’d love to do grows, the time and money to do all these things doesn’t!
The first item on my list – the UTMB CCC in under 18 hours – is actually only a few months away (August this year) and whilst the time target is going to be a challenge, I do think it is possible. Last year I ran the race with J. and finished a shade over 24 hours. But J. fell during the race and really hurt her knee which, combined with misjudging the start and really getting caught up in a lot of bottle necks at the start of the race, meant that we never really got into our stride. So this year I hope that I can push harder and be smarter and see how close to 18 hours I can get.
Some of the things on the list are really just pipe-dreams but one thing that I have learned since I started trying to get fitter, is that I am (and that means everyone is) more capable than I ever imagined. As far as I am concerned, what we need is determination, imagination, supportive people around us and a bit of luck to make any adventure list a reality.
As I take on the things on the list, tick some off and add others, I will update you as I go.
And if you have something on your adventure list, please tell me – I might want to add one or two to my list. Finally while you are inspiring me to do more interesting stuff, make sure you tell Berghaus (they are on twitter @therealberghaus and you can use #AdventureList) not least because there is a chance to win some of their very, very nice gear if you do. Oh and if you have a twitter account, Sir Chris Bonington is @ChrisBonington – well worth a follow.
Here’s to a future full of adventures.
One of the things that I love about running is the simplicity of it – if the weather is kind, all you need is a pair of shoes, a t-shirt, shorts and a pair of socks and you are ready to go. If you want to be really comfortable you could add a cap and sunglasses. And you might want a GPS watch. But there are no bats, balls or bikes involved, so really the kit requirements are very low.
However the further you go, the greater the requirement (or the temptation) there is to take stuff with you. And once you start running ultra distance trail races in the mountains, the kit requirements are really extensive. I realised this as I packed for the UTMB CCC the day before the race wondering if I would really need all the kit I was taking. I would find out as I attempted to run Over 100km in the mountains. (Click on the image to the right for a closer look).
What you need to take and why
The first thing that I would like to state for the record is that I am not all that concerned about how much kit I am required to take for a trail ultra. I am not one of those people who is constantly trying to game the system and take less and less and less. To be frank, the few grams I would be saving by spending a fortune on the lightest possible waterproofs or by trying to get away with not carrying everything on the kit list, seems pointless to me when I know that the real problem is that I have probably not trained enough and I am carrying too much bodyfat. So I just take all the kit.
The justification for my attitude to taking more rather than less was brought home to me a week before the CCC when Julie and I were in Chamonix. We decided to run up to Planpraz as a pre-race training run, carrying all our kit to give it our rucksacks good test. It was a beautifully sunny day and we were warm climbing all the way from Chamonix town centre to around 2000m altitude at the top of the Vertical Kilometer course.
As we arrived at the top and decided to stop for lunch, a bank of clouds rolled in and obscured the sun. Suddenly we were freezing – it was not raining and it was lunchtime. But the drop in air temperature was immediate and significant and the moment we stopped moving, we were cold! Suddenly we were hauling jackets and over-trousers out of our backpacks to keep us warm. Point hammered home!
So the UTMB CCC obligatory kit list is relevant and here is what everyone is obliged to carry for the entire race:
- mobile phone
- personal cup
- stock of water
- two torches in good working condition with replacement batteries,
- survival blanket
- adhesive elastic bandage
- food reserve
- jacket with hood made with a waterproof breathable membrane which will withstand the bad weather in the mountains
- long running trousers or leggings or a combination of leggings and long socks which cover the legs completely
- additional warm midlayer top
- cap or bandana
- warm hat
- warm and waterproof gloves
- waterproof over-trousers
My personal kit list
I had all of the above plus a couple of other bits and here, for the record, is a what I wore and carried during the race:
ashmei merino carbon running jersey – this was a simply brilliant bit of kit. It wicked sweat and kept my temperature regulated. The top never rode up and there was no rubbing at all. It just felt like the ideal thing to have next to my skin, it didn’t start to pong after 18 hours running and the zip neck allowed me to cool down more when it warmed up and keep my neck warm when it cooled down.
Nike shorts – an old favourite pair that I have run in at least 100 times and I thought would be great. Ended up causing the worst chafing I have ever had and ended up in the bin in a public toilets in Champex Lac. Will only wear tight cycling-style shorts for this sort of thing in the future.
ashmei merino trail socks – one pair, 24 hours and not a blister or even a hot-spot in sight. Brilliant!
Headsweats visor (won in a competition earlier this year) – super-comfortable, kept the sun and the sweat out of my eyes. And visors make you look like a trail runner… which is important
Naked Runner sunglasses – really light weight, the right level of darkness to the lenses and the most comfortable glasses I have ever owned – they never bounce on my nose! Basically brilliant for the price.
Scott T2 Kinabalu trail shoes – I had to choose between these and the inov-8 RocLite 315 which I really love running in. But in the end I wanted as much cushioning for the 20+ hours we would be on our feet and the Scott’s offered more than the inov-8s. In the race the Scotts were truly amazing: light, cushioned, grippy and just about roomy enough. A perfect choice for a race this long.
North Face Base Layer Light (long sleeve) – this top was recommended to me by none other than Jez Bragg when I met up with him at the North Face shop in Chamonix. It came out when the temperature dropped in the early hours and it was really super-comfortable giving me just enough warmth for the early hours.
Adidas Supernova tights – I pulled these on earlier than I thought I would because I had to take my shorts off, due to the searing pain of chaffing from the short’s liner. They were great, but I probably wouldn’t have worn them if I had made a better shorts choice.
Compressports calf guards and thigh guards – the calf guards remained around my ankles until about 50km when my calves started aching. Once I pulled them up, they made my lower legs feel great. Essential kit as far as I am concerned. The quad guards went on at the start of the day and I kept them on all the way round. They seem to support my quads on the downhills, my hamstrings on the uphills and stop any rubbing between my thighs. Another essential bit of kit as far as I am concerned.
Montane gilet – this is a minimalist masterpiece. It is made from pertex, so it crunches up super small (the size of a tangerine) and keeps the wind completely at bay. I wore this for the start of the race when it was a bit chilly and then later, once the sun went down and I was feeling cold again. One of my favourite bits of kit.
Ultimate Direction PB Adventure Vest – this was a present from Julie and in general I love this bag. It is really well thought out, with some great features. I especially like the fact that it will carry masses of kit without swinging around. In fact whether it is full or empty, it fits like a glove. I do have an issue though which is that the finishing is poor – zip pulls have popped off and can’t be replaced. The bungee holding the water bottle on one side snapped and Julie had to unpick the edge of the pocket to try to reattach it. So generally great, but frustratingly badly finished.
Black Diamond Carbon Z-Poles – OK, not something I wore, but these were not in my pack very much. They are brilliant. Light, sturdy and easy to stow away thanks to the folding mechanism. I think that poles are essential in the mountains and this model ticks every box for me. The use of poles helps take the pressure off your legs and back, making very long races feel much more manageable. And the winner of the UTMB used poles, so they must be right!
Suunto Ambit – this is a new bit of kit for me and I absolutely love it. The level of accuracy and detail is like nothing I have ever had on my wrist before and I especially love the accuracy of the altimeter. The watch is really, really easy to read and the backlight is superb, so it is great for running in the night. Best of all, is the battery life. I had this running for almost the entirely of the 24 hours and 20 minutes that I was running the CCC, with a little break in the middle because I was worried that I’d run the battery flat. Oh and as I like a chunky watch anyway, the size of the Ambit does not put me off in any way. All in all a superb bit of kit!
Here is the kit I carried:
Inov-8 Race Elite 260 Thermoshell – this is a great bit of kit, that I took to the CCC as my mid-layer. It is really light and compact, but when you take it out and pull it on, there is instant warmth and protection. I would never venture out into the mountains without this again. During the race, I didn’t need to use it, but I have on other occasions and I knowing it was in my pack, was extremely reassuring.
Mountain Warehouse waterproof trousers – really compact and lightweight and with taped seams, these trousers fitted the bill as far as the obligatory kit was concerned. But they are not breathable, so I’d never consider running in them. They were for emergency use only and thankfully we didn’t have reason to pull them out.
Norrøna jacket – I bought this for trail running from one of the outdoors shops in Covent Garden – it was the last one on the sale rail and reduced by 75%. It fits me perfectly, is really comfortable, has useful pockets and pit-vents and is extremely waterproof. Whilst it is not the lightest jacket available, from a cost vs. functionality point of view, it was the best I could get and is definitely small enough and light enough for me.
LED Lenser headtorch – this is the business. It is really bright and whilst it can feel as though there is a bit of a lump on the front of your head, that is easily off-set by the huge pool of light that it provides. In the pitch dark it was perfect. I’m not sure about battery life and mine seemed to be on some sort of setting that meant that it would not stay on the dimmest setting, which would have been more than enough. But that is probably user failure, rather than a problem with the torch.
I carried quite a lot of nutrition products with me and I was rather glad I did. My main sources of fuel were TORQ bars and gels. I had 12 gels and 8 bars (I was basing that on one TORQ unit an hour for 20 hours which is only a third of what they recommend you take, but I couldn’t carry 60 bars/gels and thought that as I would be operating at such a low intensity level, that I would be OK just topping up glycogen levels with what I had). I also took some fruit blocks that are sold to kids in French supermarkets– they are essentially fruit juice and sugar in a jelly-like block.
I also intended to eat at the aid stations but tried to limit myself to as little fat as possible (that worked for most of the race!) so I was eating white bread, a clear broth with pasta that we found at some aid stations, ham and occasionally salami. I did eat the odd piece of cheese, but I was getting hungry after 8 hours of running.
We also had a bowl of pasta with tomato sauce at Champex Lac about half way round.
Towards the end of the race, I had used all my TORQ gels and only had one bar left, so feeling a bit worse for wear I sat in the aid station and had three cups of black tea with sugar and three chocolate chip cookies. I felt fantastic after that and whilst I know that was not ideal nutritionally, the psychological boost and the sugar really got me going again.
Overall thoughts about the kit
So from a kit and nutrition point of view, that was my race. I think I had just about the right stuff. The shorts were a disaster, but then I know that I still need to learn and improve, so there was bound to be one thing I wouldn’t get right. And everything else was really perfect. I will certainly not be making many kit changes for next year…
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.
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…
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.
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.
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!