Monday, 4 November 2013

Gear Review: Salomon Advanced Skin S-Lab Hydro 5

As regular readers of this blog will have learned, I really enjoy trying out new gear.  In some ways, this stems from a constant search for perfection.  An alternative view is that I've got a short attention span.  Perhaps the charitable view is that it's a bit of a combination.  Anyway, I'd been discussing race pack options with Keith at www.ULTRAmarathonRunningStore.com for a while, when he informed me that the S-Lab Hydro 5 was coming in.  I knew that I probably had a few hours to make a decision before demand started to outstrip supply.  I checked the details, compared the price of the full pack to the price of a different pack and the two Salomon squeezy bottles (which I really wanted to try out anyway), and bit the bullet.  Yes, I bought the pack (if anyone wants to send me stuff to try for free, I'll happily oblige!), with the intention of wearing it for February's Rocky Raccoon 100.  Now that I've managed to clock up some miles in it, I can finally offer my thoughts on it.

So many great things about this vest!

Features

This race vest is packed with useful features.  As an overview, it has a compartment and thermal sleeve for a 1.5L bladder (bladder not included), a reasonably large mesh main pocket, a variety of small pockets accessible while on the move, and a second stretchy mesh pocket that's ideal for a waterproof.  There are some loops and straps to hold your hiking poles, a foil blanket, and a whistle. (I'll never figure out how to use the pole loops, given I use sticks for about 4 days a year for walking, but there are instructions for them on the pack tags).  The variety of straps on the shoulders offer some useful fixing points for accessories like gloves and hats.  There are also front pouches for the 500ml Soft Flasks.  The straps are fantastically adjustable, so you've got a pretty good chance of achieving a good fit.

Pockets, Pockets, Pockets!
And More Pockets

If you really want it to, the pack can hold a lot. Here, it's holding 2L of water, 2 hats, gloves, windproof, spare socks, first aid kit, foil blanket, whistle, phone, food, and a pair of Fellraisers.  The lower mesh pocket is, however, starting to release itself ever since the stitches popped with a much smaller load.

Fit

The vest comes in three sizes, XS-S, M-L, and XL.  This was my first concern point - with a 37" chest, I typically fall into the S-M category, and fall between sizes.  After a quick check with Keith, I opted for the XS-S size.  With some trepidation, I put on the pack and was overjoyed that it fit perfectly.  After a bit of tweeking on the Twin Link straps, I was able to quickly get the pack to stay in place on the run.  In fact, when wearing the pack, I have found I don't need to tape my nips because there's no fabric movement across my chest.

I have noticed that, when wearing the vest, I heat up quickly and it takes a while to regulate as I would with a looser-fitting pack.  I think the mesh isn't as breathable as it looks like it should be.  Any pack will alter your temperature, so the key is to know you'll sweat a bit extra with this on and react accordingly.  Once the mesh is properly damp, the moisture does evaporate.  I've already noticed I like the extra layer in the wind, but we'll have to see how it gets on in the heat next year.

(Update from Rocky Raccoon 100)
In hot, humid conditions (relative to my normal training), I practically melted in the pack. I just wasn't able to cool down while wearing it.  I suppose throwing some ice packs in might have helped, but really the best solution was to not be wearing it.  I have to say that I saw quite a few other Salomon race vest wearers sweating buckets as well, so bear the lack of airflow on the skin in mind if you're planning to wear a race vest in the heat.

On longer runs, though, I was finding the end of the Twin Link plastic rods is pressing against my rib cage and leaving a bit of light bruising.  I'm getting better at making minor adjustments in the Twin Link setup to redirect that pressure, and by using the higher clip positions on the lower strap, I think that's now fixed.  As with anything hyper-adjustable, it takes a bit of trial-and-error to make improvements, but we're getting there.

Things I Like

Broadly, the fit is pretty good.  I'm happy that there's no movement whether I'm wearing one or two layers.  The body of the vest sits nicely on my back and there's sufficient clearance under my arms to clear the side pockets, although the zipper tangs can stick out and irritate if not correctly pushed down after use.

The Soft Flasks are great.  If there's a bit of sloshing, you just have to remove the air and they will go quiet.  It's easy enough to drink from the flask without removing it from its pouch, though the flask can slip down to the bottom of the pouch as it gets empty.

Things I'd Like to See Improved

The first thing I noticed as I was deciding which pockets to use for which bits of kit was the lack of any waterproofing.  This makes for a light pack, but it also means I have to carry things I want to keep dry in a plastic bag.  Given that I live in the UK, I can be pretty certain I'll be training and racing in the wet for a significant portion of the year.  I suppose I could spend another £20 to buy a spare waterproof pouch for my phone - but that seems a bit unnecessary.  I normally use sandwich bags to compress spare Buffs, gloves, socks etc., so I guess I just need another one for the phone.

I'd prefer a closure I can manipulate on the move, and that fully closes the pocket.


The closure for the main pouch is effective, but I'm not entirely convinced by it.  If I've got anything heavy enough to bounce a bit in the pocket, there is a risk it will come out.  If the bag is mostly empty, I do notice my first aid kit moving more than is ideal.  Once the pack's a bit more full, the mesh fabrics hold things together much better.  A bit of a compression strap on the outside, like you find on so many other packs would be a big improvement in load management.  I may have to add one on myself...  I also struggle to open it while I'm on the move.  It's not impossible, but improvements are there to be made.

The Soft Flask doesn't seem as robust as I'd like.  One bite valve is already a bit drippy, which can be a irritating if it's chilly.  Given that the valve is one of the only solid parts of the flask, it should really be a more capable.

The workmanship on the outer stretch pocket could do with some help.  I asked Nic to stuff my jacket into it (easier than me doing it, since she was behind me).  Seconds later, the sound of a couple of stitches popping on the elastic of my rather pricey new toy made me wince.  The damage wasn't too bad, but it's probably best to have stretchy stitches at the aperture of a stretchy pocket, don't you think?

Things I Love

The outer "SensiFit" stretch pocket at the bottom of the pack.  My waterproof lives there for most runs.  I can get the jacket in and out easily enough (even easier, now there are a few popped stitches), and the stretch means it doesn't interfere too much with the loading of the main pocket.

The weighting of the Soft Flasks.  Splitting my water load on a longer run is great.  I love being able to take a load of drink with me without it all being on my back.

The size.  The pack fits everything I need for a full day out in almost any weather.  I've got other packs for days when I need to transport gear (e.g. route-marking days) or spare clothes (e.g. running back from somewhere that wouldn't appreciate my snappy trail outfits), but for racing I just can't see me needing anything else.

The pocket setup.  Having the side space divided into several pockets is great.  I find I run with lots of small stuff, so it's good to have it split up so it's all easily accessible (assuming I remember which pocket it's in!).

The snap-fit Twin Link straps.  I especially love the red hooks that call out "open this one, you dolt!".

Would I recommend it?

I've seen plenty of other race vests recently - they're all the rage, after all.  Every one has different qualities to it.  I struggle to see how one might find a better fit, given the adjustability.  The lack of any waterproof compartments means I've got to find a workaround for my primary running environment, so would always be a caveat in any recommendation.  If you don't care about that, then I'd say go for it - this is a great pack, and the longer I use it the better it gets.

Thursday, 24 October 2013

Bideford Bay 50K - Putting Demons to Bed

Nic's report on the BB50K


Not finishing the Hardmoors marathon in Saltburn this August was a huge blow for me.  I spent lots of time trying to figure out why things went so wrong, and concluded that lack of preparation was the biggest issue.  I didn’t spend enough time thinking about the race profile and my nutrition strategy.  I was, in short, a bit too relaxed!  My friend Roy said I should enter another race as soon as possible, that I should ‘get back on the horse’.  So when I heard about the Bideford Bay 50K in North Devon, I didn’t think too hard about entering it.  I love coastal trail running and North Devon is one of my favourite places.  It was an ideal opportunity to heal some wounds.

I hadn’t left myself much time to train properly in terms of running great distances, but fortunately I had some annual leave after our Cotswold Way Century, so I focussed on back to back runs, a strategy that has worked for me before both my other ultras.  I clocked up over 60 trail miles, mostly running with a little hiking, over 8 days on my holiday, in the Cotswolds, Peak District and Northumberland, then had a good week of rest.  I thought long and hard about my pacing strategy.  I’d had a chat with Adrian Colwill, the BB50K RD at our race and he’d briefed me about the course – 20 miles of hills then 10ish miles of flat as the course followed the river estuary.  I decided to abandon any kind of pacing strategy and just treat it as a nice day out, running where I could and hiking the hills.  I even decided not to wear my Garmin, so I could run on feel and not worry about keeping any kind of average pace.  At the Hardmoors, I ate too much sugar too soon and probably crashed.  This time I buried the sweet stuff at the bottom of my pack where I couldn’t reach it!  I planned to eat nuts, a cheese sandwich, fruit malt loaf (buttered), and some salty potato wedges, only reaching for the gels and shot bloks after 20 miles.  About a week before the race, my friend Chris suggested that we run together for moral support.  I wasn’t sure – I normally like to run alone.  And she is quicker than me on the flat – I didn’t want to be over-doing it trying to keep up, but I thought we could start together and see how it went.

Race week was a busy one, after a 9-hour drive home from our holiday in Scotland, and jumping straight into a manic week at work.  Friday evening came and we headed down to Devon.  We had booked a cheap hotel near Barnstaple so we had only a short drive to the start in the morning.  We were sad to find there was no nearby pub for a relaxing beer.  However, Kurt went on a beer run to the convenience store and found some Doom Bar – one of my favourite ales.  Unfortunately, we hadn’t thought to bring a bottle opener…. Some creative use of a teaspoon and a bath towel and we managed to prise open the tops and enjoy a nice beer.   Perfect race prep!

After an ok sleep, we made our way to the start at Hartland, via Bideford to pick up Mitch, who was also running.  Kurt was planning to spend the day helping out at the finish.  The facilities at the start were great, and there were even lovely ladies selling tea and coffee for those who wanted it at 7am!  I felt very relaxed and happy and enjoyed the pre-race buzz, thinking how lovely it was to be just a runner rather than having the pressure of being a race-organiser.  Chris arrived, somewhat harassed, having thought it was an 8.30 start, not 8.00 – oops!  She just had time to get her number on and we were lining up for the start – no chance to get nervous anyway!

The first mile or so was on the road, heading to Hartland Point.  It felt like it was going to be a beautiful day, milder and less windy than forecast.  The crowd around us all felt very amiable and Chris and I enjoyed a nice catch up.  It wasn’t long before we reached a sign for the coast path – and here was the first sticking point.  The route was not marked, and some people thought we had to run all the way down to the quay before coming back up the hill and then joining the coast path.  I was pretty sure I hadn’t read this instruction, and I’d been in the loo for the first part of the race briefing.  There was lots of confusion – some people hopped onto the coast past, some headed down the hill, some people were coming back up the hill in the opposite direction!  A little arrow here would have been very nice indeed.  We followed some people down the hill, wondering if there was another way onto the coast path.  It turned out there wasn’t and we came back up the hill and joined the path.  It all seemed a bit pointless and confusing.  There were a few p***ed off runners, but it didn’t really matter – I felt pretty happy just to be off the road and on the trails.  We were having a good chat with each other and those around us.  The views across to Lundy in the pink early morning light were stunning and my mood was very light-hearted indeed.

Sun and clouds over Lundy in the distance.
The next 20 miles were more or less the same.  We hiked up steep hills and then picked our way down them.  Again, and again and again.  We would climb up steeply for 500ft, then plunge right back to sea level, then straight back up again.  There were also some woods and some fields, but mostly there were lovely sea views and tricky paths.

New hill, new view!

Fruit cake! Score! (Picture by Roy)
Chris and I stuck together.  I’m sure she had to wait for me a bit on the flat, but we were pretty evenly matched on the hills.

Sea level?  Yeah, it's back there where the last downhill finished. (Picture by Roy)

Kurt asked me later what my favourite part of the race was.  My answer was the point about around 16 miles where we reached a checkpoint and found Chris’ partner Roy and his son Alex (and Idris the dog) there.  Roy said how good we were both looking, we tucked into some lovely fruitcake and agreed that yes, we were feeling good and having a lovely time.  It was my favourite part because it was at that point I knew that barring injury, I was going to finish this race.  I felt strong, had only another 5ish miles of hills to go and was full of positivity.

Always nice to be met by Idris the ultra-dog. (Picture by Roy)

Well, that good feeling didn’t last long.  We climbed out of the village checkpoint up a very, very steep ascent, with lots of steps.  It really took the wind out of our sails and every hill after that was hard.  We got slower and slower, and the downhills became harder and harder too, with too many steps to be able to run them.  In this race, the downhills were just as hard as the uphills, affording us no recovery whatsoever, we were concentrating so hard on not going head over heels.  After about 20 miles, we knew we should be almost done with the hills, but still they kept on appearing in front of us!

Looks like an estuary. Does that mean the hills are finally over?

The view to the south of the coastline we’d conquered was stunning, but we were so desperate to see the river estuary to the north!  Seeing Roy, Alex and Idris again just before Westward Ho! was a lovely blessing as they were able to reassure us that all the hills were done.  In actual fact though, for me this was where the hard part of the race began.  I thought some flat would be welcome, but it really wasn’t.  I struggled far more than Chris to keep grinding out the miles.  But somehow, we kept ticking along.

My biggest down point in the race (quite literally) came about about 31 miles in, when we had to make a decision whether to follow the coastal trail along the low tide or high tide route.  As we had a few miles earlier taken the low tide route along the lovely, firm sandy beach at Appledore, and the tide was clearly out, we opted for the low tide route.  What a mistake!  The mud was ankle deep and properly squelchy.  I slipped on an uneven camber and fell onto my side, bruising my hand, shoulder and hip, and getting very muddy.  I wanted to cry, and I’m sure if I hadn’t been with Chris, I would have wallowed in my misery!  After trudging through the mud, we had to do an about turn as we reached an impassable channel – grrrrrrrr!  We really didn’t need that so close to the end when we were so tired.  But never mind, we were almost at the end and I was bound to fall down at some point – at least I didn’t do it on a steep, rocky downhill!  After another 10 minutes or so, we finally had the end in sight.  Dodging the locals during their Saturday afternoon stroll, we crossed the line hand in hand, all smiles.  It took 8 hours and 40 minutes, was around 5,000ft of ascent, and we were almost last, but it didn’t matter.  For me, I had well and truly put my demons to bed, with a pretty hard race.  Running with Chris worked well, as we helped each other – I dragged her up the last few hills and she dragged me the last few miles on the flat.  I discovered that it is also much harder to have a proper low patch when running with someone else – I don’t like to lose face by showing too much negative emotion so I had to keep my positive face on all the time.  The old adage of ‘fake it till you make it’ worked for me in this race!

So I had a few issues with this race, in terms of its sometimes vague markings and instructions, but I would do it again, and I have total confidence in Adrian to fix these issues for next year.  It was properly hard, but I think with some solid hill-training, and a couple more ultras under my belt, I would be able to do a bit quicker.  And the main thing is, I feel positive and confident about my running again.

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

The Long Trail to Recovery

Joy, it's another post about his darned feet, you say?  Well, only in as much as they're in good enough shape to let me get back into some proper running.  I may soon even be able to do a bit of racing, albeit at a reduced pace.

After losing most of July, August, and September to a combination of foot issues (hurrah, mostly trauma-induced, rather than just too much running!), it looks like I am back on the trail to recovery.  Just in time, too - there's a rather tasty 100-miler in February that's got my name on it, and I need to get some training in.

When restarting training after a long layoff, it's easy to do too much and re-injure yourself.  So, I've been breaking in gently, until last week.  We had been planning some R&R after the Cotswold Way Century, and after weighing up all the options, learning some new trails in the Peaks and Northumberland sounded ideal.  We looked for some races, but there were none that suited, so it became a chance to explore and enjoy the great footpaths on our own.

Day 1 was a relaxing 10mi around Edale, taking in the boggy joys of Kinder Scout and the southern end of the Pennine Way.  Although a bit chilly and breezy at the start, we got a sunny day to take in some excellent ghyll scrambling and the occasional chance for a bit of actual running.  It was a great way to test out my foot and ankle strength, as we weren't on particularly forgiving trails.

A few rocks here and there denote the path up.


A sunny look over Kinder Downfall

The route included some spectacular views in all directions.  This was my first time to the peaks, and I can understand why the area is so well regarded.  I wouldn't say the climbs were longer than what we normally get to run on, but we were certainly spoiled for choice!

I'm used to running in an area heavily populated by waymarkers, so it was good to get some experience running in what's best described as a sparsely marked area..  I can't say there's much scope for following an actual footpath on Kinder Scout.  Had we not encountered a local out for a hike, I imagine we would have taken quite some time to get across the bogs attempting to follow the bearing shown on the OS map.  He kindly pointed us about 10 metres to the left where a streambed offered firm footing and a quick way through the bog.


A few nice rock formations added to the stoppage time.
Because the goal of the day was to get to know somewhere new, the pace was pretty relaxed, with quite a few picture stops.  The green, yet rugged landscape on a bright day caused repeated deep-breath-and-smile stops.  It was simply stunning.

I was curious about what we'd find when we finally joined the Pennine Way, at Kinder Downfall.  The National Trails that I'm familiar with are pretty well marked (SW Coast Path, Cotswold Way).  This section of the Pennine Way, not so much.  There weren't a large number of options, so as long as we headed in the right direction and were on something vaguely trampled, I was confident we would be fine.  Off the tops, the signs began to reappear, so we could be certain of the final few miles back to Edale.  As we approached the ankle-breaker of a staircase at Jacob's Ladder, we met with several of the runners racing the Edale Skyline (~20mi).  With 15mi under their soles, they were looking tired and ready for the pub at the end.  When we arrived ourselves, it was a veritable runners' haven.

Day 1 finished - at the southern end of the Pennine Way

Day 2 was scheduled as a slightly more "runnable" day out, with 10mi near Ladybower Resevoir.  Once again, the day was dry, if a bit cooler.  The run along above the resevoir was very pretty, and quite a joy to run. Once we got up to Derwent Edge, though, the vast expanse of heather and random rock formations made for a rather spectacular run.  On greyish days, pictures of rock and heather (and the occasional picture-hungry red grouse) don't really say much.  If you've not been in the area before, and you have a chance to go - get out there.  Our jogs from one cool set of rocks to the next was a real joy.

Look: Rocks & heather!


Salt Cellar, I believe.

The Wheel Stones, with a rather tiny Kurt in front.
The plan for Days 3&4 was to rest and do a bit of walking around Durham for a day and then get back on the trails.  Still time on feet, but a chance to recover a bit and let the shoes dry before taking on another 10 miler along Hadrian's Wall.  In weather terms, it might have been better to risk the feet and do the 3 days in a row.  We had rather fine weather for our walking tour, and then had a proper Northumbrian day of wind and rain on slippery rock for our trip along the wall that is meant to be keeping my in-laws at bay.

Hey look - there's actually a bit of wall!
It wasn't a great day for pictures, although there were some excellent views when the sun briefly pushed through the driving drizzle.  Originally, we were going to take a circular route including some of the local moorland, but with a combination of starting from the wrong point (navigation error) and tired legs, we decided not to go bog-slogging in the rain and enjoyed an out-and-back that included some very slippery steps.  It's great to use rock to keep the path from significantly eroding, but since they were almost like ice in the rain, it was a high-concentration effort.

We had planned for a bit of running in Scotland for the next day, but in the end, decided that the opportunity to undo all the good healing was a bit too strong, and cut the running part of our break.  Still, 30mi over 4 days without any significant aches and pains lead me to believe that I will actually be able to do some proper training in the next few months so I'm ultra-fit for 2014.





Sunday, 18 August 2013

Keep your feet happy, and you can pretty much run forever

Keep your feet happy, and you can pretty much run forever.  That's my theory, anyway.  Forget runner's knee, ITB pain, sciatica, weak core muscles, and all the other things that get in the way of a good run.  If you can’t put weight on your feet, you’re scuppered, but if you can, then you can rehab all the other stuff.

Why am I writing about feet?  Well, for a start, my feet and ankles have been a mess for months, resulting in a couple of missed races this glorious Summer.  My feet are the weakest link in my running chain, and they have been for decades.  When I hit a plateau in my running, it’s my feet that give way first.  If I do too much hill work, my glutes and hamstrings burn, but my plantar fascia complain for days (weeks/months).  If I do too much speed work, I may well strain a calf, but if I really overdo it, it’s the feet that suffer for the longest.  This is pretty consistent regardless of my capabilities at any particular time.  So what have I learned about feet in the past few years, as I progressed from 10k to 100mi?  First, if you want to improve as a runner, remember the tiny muscles in and around your feet and ankles.  Second, if you want to run off road, strong feet and ankles are the difference between enjoying the scenery and enjoying the run.

Enjoy the short videos of my feet.  Sorry about the toenails, but I like to think they're in great shape for an ultra runner... You should see the other foot.  I took these videos shortly after my first 100 miler, when feet, ankles, and calves were still pretty hacked off and I was just starting to rebuild some strength and mobility.  As a result, you can see how a relatively weak foot fares with the exercises.

Stronger Feet

To get stronger feet, all you have to do is exercise them – simple, right?  For some runners, it’s as simple as going for a run.  For the rest of us, though, a little extra work is required.  Here are two exercises I use as the basis for all of my foot pre-hab and re-hab.  I'm a pretty simple guy, and I like simple exercises.

Toe Crunches
You’ll find a variety of descriptions of this exercise, which is the foot equivalent of making a fist.  I typically see things like “put your foot on a towel and scrunch it up with your toes”, or “pick up a pencil with your toes”.  That’s all well and good, but not particularly handy if you don’t have a pencil or towel to hand (like on the bus, train, or in that boring meeting while you read this, pretending to be looking up an important e-mail).  I tend to do this pretty much anywhere.  If you have shoes with a decent toe box, you don’t even need to take them off.



The key to the exercise is to isolate the movement, so keep your leg, heel, and ball of the foot still.  Then, you are working all the small muscles that support toe movement and stability.  You can see in the video that the simple motion of curling the toes works quite a lot of the foot.  Start with 10 and work your way up over several days.  When you can manage 100 (~90 seconds), it’s time to just drop them into daily life while you’re waiting, standing on the sidelines or sitting still.

Toe Raises
I find that the top of my feet can also suffer when I’m doing a lot of trail running.  Often, when you turn your ankle, it’s the soft tissue across the top of the foot that gets the long-term damage.  After an ankle sprain (my last one was about a monty ago), focusing on the little toe can really remobilize the muscles that got the tweek.


Again, by keeping your leg, heel, and ball of the foot still, you focus the movement on the micro-muscles that support your toes.  As with the toe crunches, start with a few and work your way up to 100.

Stronger Support Structure

Once your feet are a bit stronger than they were when you started (all of these things are relative), it’s time to think a bit more about how to keep your foot well supported.  Trail running in particular involves frequently landing on uneven ground.  To keep your foot right-side up, you need to build up the supporting musculature.

Standing Still
One thing I often notice is that runners are notoriously bad at standing still.  When we meet up before a race, at club runs, in the supermarket, etc., we fidget, stretch, pace, flex, and generally cause the non-runners in our lives to wish we would just stay in one place.  Why do we move about so much?  I suggest it’s at least partly because standing still puts a strain on a very small set of very small muscles that we tire out regularly when running.  So, how do we make them stronger?  Stand still.



More specifically, get barefoot and stand on one leg.  This isn’t really a convenient thing to do (yes, I have done it in the office while making a cuppa, no it wasn’t received as normal behaviour).  Fortunately, most of us have a particular activity in the day that is perfect for standing still.  Try this exercise while brushing your teeth.  Why while brushing your teeth?

  1. you have top teeth, you have bottom teeth, you have two feet – left foot, top teeth, right foot bottom teeth is a really simple way to work; 
  2. nobody cares if you’re not wearing shoes when you brush your teeth;
  3. the amount of time is suitably short for when you’re starting out and suitably difficult to give you some benefit;
  4. and this is probably the key benefit of the tooth brushing activity – there’s just enough movement in your upper body to make you work to keep your balance.

The joy of this exercise is that not only does it require no additional equipment, but it works your entire body as you maintain your balance.  From your toes to your neck, you are working the whole chain that you need to work well when you step on one of those nasty rabbit holes as you run through a grassy field.  When it’s all strong and working together, you have a chance of remaining upright.  When it’s not, you may well find yourself looking up and hoping you didn’t land in that big cow pat you had been trying to avoid when you found the rabbit hole.

Once you find this to be nice and easy, splash out and find something uneven (wobble cushion, bosu ball, dog toys) to stand on and keep developing that support structure.



With these basic, low-maintenance exercises, you will quickly build/rebuild strength in your foundation, making all things running just that little bit easier.  You can add more reps, more time, more wobble, or more difficulty (try standing on one foot and then lifting your heel).  A few minutes here and there during your normal day will make hours, days, or weeks of difference in your uninjured training time.

Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Hardmoors Saltburn Marathon: It had moors. It was hard


Nic's review of the Hardmoors Saltburn Marathon

Moors.  Beautiful moors. Hard moors.

We entered the Hardmoors Saltburn Marathon at the start of the year, after I said I wanted a trail marathon to look forward to.  We like to use races as an excuse to visit new places, and Kurt had never been to North Yorkshire.  Then, a couple of months later, we entered Endure 24, and this marathon became something of an afterthought.

I had been struggling to recover after Endure 24, finding that I tired really easily and feeling like I’d lost strength and power when trying to run hills.  The first couple of runs after our Georgia trip were hideous.   I doubted I’d be marathon-fit by August 11th, and contemplated dropping to the half.  We’d already booked the hotel room, or we probably would have pulled out altogether, as Kurt was injured.  But then I suddenly found my mojo again at the end of July, while out trail-running with a friend.  It was like a switch had been flicked – I felt full of energy and running was enjoyable again – phew!  I was also loving running the Cotswold Way, recceing it in preparation for the Cotswold Way Century race in September.  With Kurt injured, the task of running the trails, map in hand, checking out the tricky bits, fell to me.  I ran the final leg of it, into Bath, last Wednesday.  We thought it was about 13-14 miles, but I went wrong big-style in the last few miles and added a couple of extras, eventually doing 17 miles.  I wasn’t too worried about this.  I wasn’t that tired at the end, I was uninjured and still full of energy.  I actually felt pretty confident about the marathon, I just needed to take it easy and make sure I ate regularly.

The weekend came and we made our way North.  After a pleasant evening, a nice Italian meal and a good sleep, we made the short drive to Saltburn by the Sea.  It was a beautiful morning – sunny and fresh, and the scenery looked very promising.  I didn’t feel particularly ‘up for it’ but that’s not unusual – I put it down to nerves.  In fact, I think I was the most nervous I’ve been about any race in the last few years.  The following few hours did not go well.

The route took a short road section out of Saltburn and before long hit the trails.  There was plenty of uphill in the first few miles, which I quite happily hiked.  I was keeping an eye on my average pace though, as I really wanted this race over and done with in around six hours.  I didn’t really feel all that good, but it has been taking me ages to warm up lately.  I figured I could always turn off at the half marathon split if I felt that bad, but it came after less than three miles, which was a bit soon to be making a decision to bail really!  I had some jelly babies at the checkpoint and carried on.  The trail was pleasant, very firm underfoot with some lovely views out to sea.  I was starting to feel a bit better as I loosened up and enjoyed the scenery.  The going started to get very hard at Guisborough woods, as the trail took a very steep gradient up the side of a hill, through some very overgrown (and sharp) vegetation.  This was really tough and unpleasant.  We continued to climb, eventually coming out on Stanghow Moor.  It was beautiful.  The heather was in full flower and the views were magnificent.

The calm before the storm

Running through a very narrow trail though bushy heather brought its own challenges though.  The trail was too narrow to run naturally, I had to trot along putting one foot very firmly in front of the other to avoid tripping on heather roots.  This took a great deal of concentration and didn’t feel good at all.  And, I was still going uphill.  I did however discover that heather is an excellent exfoliator.  Eventually, the downhill came.  Were it not for such a narrow trail, the downhill would have been a delight, as the trail was firm and the gradient was pleasant.

Lovely heather, narrow single track

Ten miles in was the next checkpoint.  All the checkpoint volunteers and marshals were so lovely and there was a nice array of snacks.  I had a couple of cups of coke (heavenly) and a chocolate cornflake crispy thing before hiking up a steep road and coming to the next section, uphill again on Skelderskew Moor.  I was really starting to fade at this point.  I felt exhausted and had no idea how I was going to complete.  The hills felt brutal.  At the high point on Skelderskew Moor, the heavens opened with some proper Yorkshire rain – cold and horizontal.  I pulled on my waterproof and ploughed on, grateful to find some downhill.  The trail here was made up of hard rock – it looked like slabs of rock had been laid to make a trail.  It made a change from fighting with the heather, but it was hell on tired sore feet.  After a mile or so of this, it was back to the heather.  I can’t tell you how many times I tripped and stumbled and almost fell down.  I was really struggling and as I reached the checkpoint at fourteen miles, three hours in, I phoned Kurt and said I wanted to stop.  He was busy at the finish, helping with timing, so I decided to keep going.  I really didn’t want to quit but I had no confidence of finishing without killing myself – either through falling down or plain exhaustion.  Another three hours felt out of the question.  Thankfully, the route did get a little easier over the next couple of miles, but I felt awful and after a couple more conversations with Kurt on the phone, I told him just to come and find me at a road crossing.  I’d had enough.  In those last few miles, I really tortured myself trying to make the final decision as to whether or not to quit.  I’d never quit a race before.  But I don’t think I’ve ever felt so bad in a race before.  Kurt picked me up at 17 miles in, four hours after the start.  I cried and cried but I’ve never been so relieved to stop running.

So what happened?  Simply, I failed to prepare properly.  I got a few things wrong.  I don’t know how much impact the 17 miles four days before had, but I don’t think that was the cause.  My legs didn’t feel tired after that run, and I felt physically fresh on the morning of the race.  But I suppose it could have had some impact. I had eaten well in the run up to it, but I did get my food strategy all wrong on the day.  In my other marathons, I’ve eaten things like Clif Bars in the first couple of hours, which has worked well.  In this race, I went straight to sugar, eating Shot Bloks, gels and jelly babies instead.  I just didn’t think about it enough, reaching for what was convenient rather than thinking about what works for me best.  So I sugar-crashed.  Not good.  The other thing I failed to do was actually look closely at the route map and the elevation profile.  If I had, I would have realised that the first 13 miles of the route are uphill and I would have paced myself better.  Instead, I was so worried about keeping my average pace around 13 min/miles, I pushed too hard and blew up.  I should have taken it much easier in the first half, knowing the second half was so much easier, and I could have made up time then.  But I failed to avail myself of this information and I paid for it.  I also think I am probably not fully recovered from Endure 24.  I do wonder what I would have done if Kurt had also been running, and unable to rescue me from my hell.  I probably would have plodded on and ‘deathmarched’ to the end.  It would not have been pretty and I probably would not have been able to run the lovely little trail run I did today.  So all in all, bailing out was a sensible decision.  My friend Roy says I must find myself another marathon to run so I can get rid of the demons – I think he is right – onward and upward is the only way!

Friday, 9 August 2013

Gear Review: Osprey Verve 5 Hydration Pack

Proof, if proof were needed, that wandering through an outdoor store is fraught with hazards.  Here's Nic's review of her new spontaneous purchase, the Osprey Verve 5 Hydration Pack.


For a long time now, I’ve been searching for the perfect running pack.  I’ve tried out several backpacks and a couple of waistpacks, with mixed results.  I am very short and fairly small-built, at only just 5ft tall.  Apparently I have a particularly short body, as I could not find a backpack with straps that were adjustable enough to pull tightly and avoid bounce.  I tried Inov-8, Deuter and Salomon packs, and none of them were good enough.  My Inov-8 RacePro 4 waistpack was an adequate compromise, as it obviously didn't bounce on my shoulders.  However, when the bladder is full, the bounce on my hips is uncomfortable and messes with my centre of gravity.  It occurred to me that there might be such a thing as a ladies’ fit backpack and I hit upon the Osprey Sirrus 24 pack.  As well as being pleasingly purple, it is extremely adjustable and comfortable to wear – for once I could tighten the straps enough to eliminate bouncing on my shoulders.  My favourite feature is that it is built on a frame, so the fabric of the pack sits away from one’s back, so sweat can evaporate.  Unfortunately, this pack is big.  Nearly as big as me, according to comments from other runners.  I was carrying around a large pack which was mostly empty, even with all the required kit, food and water for a trail marathon.  You could probably happily use this pack for a mountain marathon!

The Osprey Sirrus - more than enough pack for a coastal marathon. It did rather catch the wind, though.

I had given up on finding the perfect pack, accepting a compromise with a too-big but incredibly comfy backpack.  Then, during a browse around an outdoor shop, I saw the Osprey Verve 5  pack.  I was immediately excited as this seemed to be everything I’d been looking for, for at least two years.  A ladies-fit pack, the Verve is a deep purple in colour.  It is small and compact, with 5 litre capacity.  It has a large bladder pouch, which contains an Osprey Hydraulics bladder; a small waterproof pocket, which is big enough for phone, keys and Vaseline and probably a few other small items; a larger pocket on the front, which is big enough for quite a lot of snacks; and a mesh pouch between the front and back pockets, which is ideal for stuffing extra layers or a waterproof into.

The Verve 5 on a hot and sweaty trail run.

In terms of space, it is plenty for my requirements for most training runs and races.  The small first-aid kit and foil blanket that I normally carry will easily fit into the bladder pouch.  The only thing it lacks is a side pocket, which is really handy for easy-access to food.  It does have a small elasticated mesh pouch on the left hand shoulder strap – perfect for a phone, camera or a gel or two.


Main pocket on the outer, small pocket with zip at the top, big expandable open pouch in between.  Note the snazzy bike helmet clip.

The first few times I used it, I struggled with the Osprey Hydraulics bladder system.  I had a few leaks after failing to close the screw top.  It is a little fiddly and requires a bit more care than other bladders I’ve used when closing it up.  The feature I particularly love is that the bladder pipe has a magnet on the end, which fixes it neatly to the shoulder strap – no tubing dangling around while you run, you just clip it in place – very easy and very cool!

Magnet for the bite valve.  Not ideal for pacemakers, but otherwise very cool.

Bite valve just snaps on and off - sooo easy.

I’ve worn my pack for a few long runs and hikes now, and it is very comfy.  I usually wear a backpack with a vest which has a collar, to avoid neck-chafing.  I tried it earlier this week with a normal vest, just to see how much chafing I ended up with.  After nearly four hours of running, I had no chafing.  I certainly can’t say this about the Osprey Sirrus or any other backpack I’ve ever run with.  It did get pretty hot on my back, as there is no frame with this one, just a vented pad.  I think this is a compromise I can cope with, given the total comfort of this pack.  A few runs and hikes in the Appalachians this Summer were certainly hot and sweaty, but the pack remained comfortable in spite of the lack of a fully vented frame.

Vented straps and back pad - cooler than no vents.  Better than many.



Overall, I’m really pleased with the Osprey Verve 5.  It is aesthetically pleasing, compact, and comfy with a few added extra clever features.  For anything up to 50km, it will certainly do the job in most weather.

Monday, 29 July 2013

Gear Review: LED Lenser SEO7R

If I can, I like to have some time with our race prizes before we give them to our race winners.  I like to know that whatever they win will be appreciated.  On occasion, I've been able to happily say "We use that, and I know it's good."  Other times, I've had to say, "I have a friend who thinks they're great."  For the upcoming Cotswold Way 100, I can honestly say to the winner, "If you don't want your SEO7R, I'll happily take it off your hands!"  The headlamp will go to the winners courtesy of www.ULTRAMarathonRunningStore.com, who kindly provided a prize to all of our ultra winners this year.

I recently bought two LED Lenser H7R lights. Nic had managed to drop her cheap & cheerful head torch one too many times, and I was finding my 4 year old Petzl Tikka just wasn't as bright as I wanted for the trails, and we had a bit of night running planned.  The H7R is a fantastic light, with excellent power and fantastically fine control of the lens and the LED.  So when I saw the new SEO series come out, I knew it should be something pretty special.  Since I was passing by UMRS HQ recently, I stopped in and Keith Godden gave me a tour of the new SEO7R.  I haven't had a chance to use one through the night, but here is an overview based on my limited experience and a comparison with the model it replaces.

The SEO7R comes with a serious guy on the packaging, and some serious power in the light.

Packaging

This is where the SEO7R takes a great leap ahead of its predecessors.  For a start, the back-of-the-head battery pack from the H7R is gone.  The miniaturization process has resulted in a small, light package with the 3 AAA batteries located in the main package.  The result is 35g less weight on the head.  I could cope with the battery pack, but I can honestly say I'm happy it's gone.  The pack limited how the strap could comfortably fit on the back of the head.  In my case, that meant having the straps come low onto my ears so the pack could rest under the occipital bone.  In Nic's case, it meant she couldn't put her hair in a pony tail because that got in the way.

The SEO's battery compartment seems quite easy to use.  The back panel of the light clips and unclips, nothing complex or fiddly.  So, there shouldn't be any worries about it randomly falling off.  That said, it's all plastic, so try not to drop it on the rocks or stand on it too many times.

Lens Control

One of the best parts of the LED Lenser lights is the easy, continuous control of the lens aperture.  For my Endure 24 night section, I regularly changed from a dim, broad circle for the slower sections and a bright, focused light when I was running faster.  The H series features a little slider for the lens control.  The SEO series has a much more intuitive "twist the lens" mechanism.  It should be less fiddly, and still easy enough to work when wearing gloves.

Brightness Control

I love the continuous brightness control on my H7R.  Having 3 settings is all well and good, but we live life in a continuum of light, so why have a head torch that can't do the same?  The SEO7R combines both methods.  It has 3 presets (bright, dim, flashing), but by holding down the power/setting button, the LED brightness changes continuously through its full range, allowing you to select what you want.  For those who like to have these things automated, there's a light sensor that allows you to use the auto-control setting as well.  Personally, I'm more likely to vary the lighting based on what I'm doing and thinking than on the ambient light, so I'm not too fussed by the automatic functions.

Lighting Angle

I was deeply amused and heavily entertained with the H7R's lighting angle control on my overnight run.  It had 3 positions, none of which pointed where I wanted it to unless I was running upright with good posture.  It helped me keep my form, and gave me the giggles as I worked to stay upright as the night wore on, but wasn't the most adjustable of setups.  The SEO7R has a much finer control, with more than twice as many lock points and a more stable adjustment mechanism.  I think it's still going to require good posture if I want to look into the distance (ie. lifting my head up), but it is a huge improvement on the previous version.

Light

OK, some people might view this as the most important thing, but in many ways, we've now reached the point where we can have as much light as we want to pay for.  With 220lm (the latest H7R gets 200lm), the light is white, bright, and likely to do everything you need.  The beam distance is measured at 130m, which is a bit lower than the 150m of the H7R, but still further than you're likely to need on most night runs.  Compared to the yellowish light I get on my ancient Tikka, it really is the difference between night and day.  But, if the SEO7R is a bit too much light for what you need, the step down to the SEO5 still leaves you with an excellent night-run torch, and the SEO3 is more than enough for those early runs around town in the morning, where the main goals are to augment street lighting and wake up oncoming motorists.  The SEO series also features a low-powered red LED, which can be handy.

Accessories

Perhaps it's the erstwhile cyclists in me, but I like accessories.  The lights come with a white headstrap, accented in a colour to match the lamp.  But, for those who like a bit of extra fun, there are spare/replacement straps available in red, green, blue, and black.  You can shake your head now, but when your family run out of ideas for your Christmas present, you can bet this is the kind of thing that will save you from yet another pair of black socks.

Summary

As I said at the top, my brief experience with the SEO7R and my current H7R have combined to leave me both very impressed at the new SEO series and somewhat sad that I can't really justify replacing my still fairly new head torch.


Thursday, 11 July 2013

Holidays are for Trail Running

Trail running took a new and fantastic turn this month.  We visited North Georgia, USA for our annual Dusterhoff family vacation.  For the last five years we have spent at least a week here, renting a log cabin near the small town of Suches.  We split our time between hiking and chilling out with the family.  There is an abundance of stunning trails around here, including the Appalachian Trail.  On our first visit, Kurt ventured out for some trail-running, but came back bruised, battered and bleeding after falling repeatedly on the rocky, technical trails.  We stuck to hiking thereafter.   Until this year.  We are both more experienced as trail-runners now, and had a bit more confidence that we could stay upright.

Kurt found us a loop and we set off early in the morning before the day became too hot.  Starting at Woody Gap, we started with a gentle downhill along the highway, down the mountain.  After a couple of miles of tarmac down the twisty-turny road followed by a gravel track, we reached Dockery Lake and happily entered the trails.  Dockery Lake is beautiful first thing in the morning and the trail was perfect.

Dockery Lake in the early morning sun

We followed the Dockery Lake Trail for 4 miles, along Pigeon Roost Creek, gently undulating through the forest with only birdsong for company.  The trail parallels the creek up hill to Granny Top, where it joins the Appalachian Trail for another long ascent.  The uphills were long, but mostly runnable, which I hadn't expected.  The day was warm, but the humidity was high and we were around 3000ft higher than usual, which was quite tiring.  I am just not used to it and I found that I was getting out of breath very easily.  The odd walking break helped, although I had to be careful when I was taking a walking break, as Kurt kept pointing his phone at me, taking videos and photos. The reason for the photography was because I was kit-testing today.  I love my Thoosa skort (see previous post) but it hadn't been properly tested.  This time, I wore it for 2.5 hours, with the heat, humidity, and hills leaving me dripping with sweat, and had not a hint of inner-thigh chafing at the end.  This was the one thing I'd worried about after having problems with other skorts.  Maybe it's my slightly changed body shape, but either way, I am delighted with the result.

Views like this are worth the climb up to Preaching Rock.

Oh, look, he's got the camera out again...

After a good long climb on the AT, we reached a short side-trail which took us to Preaching Rock.  The views today were superb.  After a brief respite to take in the view, we headed back onto the main trail, for a long, fairly tricky descent back to Woody Gap.  Nearly ten miles of steady running, amazingly no face-plants, no injuries, some beautiful trails and stunning views.  What a wonderful place this is, and how happy I am to be a trail-runner!

Wednesday, 10 July 2013

Dahlonega Firecracker 10K - Damp, but no squib

It's a bit of a tradition for us to spend some time each Summer in the Georgia mountains and enjoy a bit of hiking, hot weather (or cool weather for my Texan relatives), and catching up with family.  Last year, we happened to be over for Independence Day, and enjoyed the fireworks display in Suches so much that we decided to come back for more of the same this year.  Since the race calendar has been a bit light, we searched for local races over the holiday weekend and found the Dahlonega Firecracker 10K.  Only around 30 minutes from our holiday base, it looked ideal.  It would be over by breakfast time, before the Georgia heat set in.  So, we signed up, sorted out a bit of red, white & blue for the occasion, and got ready for some hot running.

Sporting patriotic colors, complete with Betsy Ross stars.

Race day didn't dawn so much as begin to get less grey.  The remnants of a tropical storm were working their way slowly up from Florida, and appeared to get stuck in north Georgia.  The 3rd was pretty much a washout, leaving the holiday celebrations postponed or cancelled all over the region.  The race wasn't affected, but sadly the patriotic pets competition wouldn't be providing any post-run entertainment.

As the fog lifted and the heavy rain fizzled into an occasional drip, we milled about by the University of North Georgia drill field.  I imagine we were probably the only ones feeling hot with temperatures in the low 70s (20s C).  Our pre-race warm-up was more vigorous than most, but I wanted to hit the long downhill at as close to race pace as possible.

Shortly before the start, we had a brief chat with eventual winner Jonah Holbert, who would be aiming for the mid 30s and was trying to get an idea of who would be nearby.  His target was out of my league, as was his festive outfit.  He had specially ordered a stars & stripes skin suit, easily out-stripping my Betsy Ross stars and patriotic Dirty Girl gaiters.

University of North Georgia
Nic & I started together, to give my dad half a chance of getting a picture, and then I eased my way through the small field over the first half mile.  At the 1mi point, I was already pretty hot, and was amazed and thankful to find a water station.  I drank a few sips to quench a thirst that would have been sorted earlier if I'd remembered to put some water in the car, and carried on down the steep hills towards Yahoola Creek Park.

The park offered a chance to see the race unfold ahead of me, as we wound through a few little out-and-back sections.  Jonah & I cheered each other on each time we crossed paths, which was pretty often as he sped his way around the course.  He had led from the start and had a pretty solid gap by half way.  The ladies race was a bit closer, but the field was already spread after just a couple of miles. This was the only reasonably flat part of the race, and I quickly confirmed that a Spring of running ultras had left me without much basic speed.  I could comfortably push at a reasonable half-marathon pace, but just couldn't get my legs moving at 10K pace without the assistance of a nice gradient.  Those with good flat speed were enjoying this section, and I counted 10 runners ahead of me, with the gap growing.  I had a chance to cheer on Nic (& be cheered) as I left the park and returned to the hills - this time going up.  Some gentle encouragement from my biggest supporter was enough to get me putting in just a little more effort.

In a slightly twisted way, I enjoyed running up the road out of the park.  I'd spent most of the past few months walking up hills, and it was nice to run hard up a hill and know it was only a couple of miles to the finish.  I started to pull back a few runners, and used the thought of a top-10 finish as a motivator to keep working hard.  I had the feeling that I was the leading Masters runner, but it's hard to tell during the run - some people look much older when they race!  I figured that a "fastest old git" prize was pretty likely, but couldn't be sure so just tried to pick up as many places as I could before we got into the lap around the drill field.  The final sprint down the hill to the line kept me in 9th - it wasn't the fastest finish, but was enough to keep anyone from catching me.  As I'd hoped, the guys in front looked a lot younger when stationary, and I picked up my first age-group win.

In the end, the 10K field was pretty small, with fewer than 70 braving the threat of weather that thankfully held off for a few hours.  The route isn't easy, with plenty of ups and downs to test the legs and lungs.  The festive atmosphere was great, especially with most of the 5K runners getting into the spirit.  It's certainly a race I'd enjoy doing again if we're in the neighborhood!
  
A medal winner at last!


Happiness is another age-group victory!


Wednesday, 19 June 2013

Thoosa Gear Review - Update

You may remember that we discovered Thoosa running gear last November, after meeting the company founder at the Broadway Tower Marathon.  She kindly provided a pair of ¾ length tights, a t-shirt, a skort and a long-sleeved top for Nic to test on the trails.  After months of wear, here's an update on how it's gone.

I’ve worn all the gear now, some more than others during the winter and long, cold spring.  The weather has been so poor, I haven’t had much opportunity to wear the summer gear yet.  However, the ¾ length tights and the long-sleeved top have been well worn!  Here are some of my conclusions:
Thoosa gear is in general really good quality.  The fabrics feel soft and hang well.  The colours are attractive and the cut is flattering.  I am a UK size 8, pretty short at 5ft tall and I do have curves.  I feel good in Thoosa clothing - it seems like a great deal of thought has gone into designing this range of clothing, which is great because running gear should look good as well as function perfectly.
My favourite item is the ¾ length tights – the Swifts.  I have worn them over and over again, clocking up at least 300 miles in them.  Most recently, I wore them for about 16-17 hours of a 24 hour trail running endurance event and like all the best pieces of running apparel, they didn’t cause me any problems whatsoever.  They are incredibly comfy yet supportive.  They have a fairly high waist and a wide waist band, so they never cut in and they never chafe.  The high waist is also flattering on me, as it doesn’t cut into my belly and show off my spare tyre too badly – always a bonus!!  One of the other fabulous features is the spacious pocket in the back of the tights – it is big enough to fit an average smartphone, which is great if you like listening to music or podcasts on your phone while on the move.  This was a particularly good thing for me during the wee small hours of my recent overnight race, allowing me to distract myself from the pain by listening to podcasts, without needing to carry anything extra to house my phone.  I’ve worn the Swifts with a waist-pack, again with no ill-effects.  And despite many, many hours of muddy running and the following washes they are showing very little sign of wear.  In short, they are a fantastic piece of kit.

After 16 hours in the Swift 3/4 Tights and 11 in the Chill top, no hint of  discomfort.

I’ve worn my Chill Half Zip long-sleeved top nearly as much as my capris this winter/spring!  It is made with bamboo, so it is incredibly soft and comfortable to wear.  It is pretty windproof, but I haven’t often over-heated in it.  It has long cuffs which you can also use to stick your fingers in instead of wearing gloves, which is pretty convenient on a chilly day.  Again, the pockets are great – it has two large pockets on the sides, which are the perfect size for a smartphone.  Last weekend, during Endure 24, I stopped to take a break at about 1am, as I was very tired.  After about 20 minutes of sitting still, I was freezing, so pulled on my Thoosa top.  A short run later, I was snug and warm again, but not over-heated, and the top didn’t come off until the finish eleven hours later, after the morning dawned cool and breezy.

I love the look of the City skort.  Being short, I often find that shorts, skorts and capris look silly on me as the length just isn’t right.  This skort is a lovely fit on me though.  The fabric feels really high quality – the shorts are light-weight, soft and snug-fitting, and the skirt feels heavier and hangs beautifully.

UPDATE: July 2013
I've finally found some hot and humid weather to give my skort a proper test.  I’ve never been able to wear a skort for a long period of time without suffering from chafed thighs, so I needed to see if this would be any different.  The shorts part certainly seems slightly longer than other skorts I’ve worn.  After a 2.5 hour trail run that had me dripping with sweat and a tough 10K road race in mist and drizzle, I'm pretty confident that the City skort won't leave me walking like John Wayne.  The skirt's light fabric didn't hold much moisture, and the shorts are just long enough to protect without ruining the nice appearance.  

Happy on trails

Failing to get a decent action still, Kurt decided to capture some video of me running in the City Skort and Swift Zip Tee.



I was really attracted to this tee because it has a collar.  I often run with a backpack, so a collar provides neck protection.  Not enough tee-shirts have collars, in my opinion!  I’ve worn the tee a few times, with and without a backpack, and like the rest of the range, it is well-fitting and comfortable.

Out for 4 hours of hilly pack training in  the Swift Zip Tee

It is very light-weight so I think it is great even in hot weather.  Now, if Thoosa can make a sleeveless version I'll be even happier.  My only criticism of this piece is that it does tend to crinkle after washing so doesn’t look as good as the other gear straight from the drawer.  I don’t intend to start ironing my running gear!

All in all, my Thoosa gear is what I wear over and over again, as not many other pieces of running clothing I own can match it for comfort and look.

Friday, 14 June 2013

Gear Review: Halo Sport Hat

I've been looking for a new hat ever since the Highland Fling, where my Inov-8 hat jumped ship in the woods, never to be seen again (at least not by me).  That hat had been with me for quite a few races, including my first trail marathon over 3 years ago, and although it wasn't my best running hat, and I have a few others, it was one I knew well.  So, as I set about finding a replacement, I considered all of the things I want out of a hat - decent bald-patch cover, light mesh, quick-dry, good visor, good sweatband.  Then, while Nic & I were wandering around the sponsors' stalls at Endure 24, I hit the nail on the head when we entered the Halo tent.  My dad tends to wear a Halo when cycling, as it fits nicely under a bike helmet, and I'd been moaning that it's hard to get a decent sweatband now that we've left the great sweatband era of the 1970s, so he presented us each with one when we went hiking in the Appalachians a few years ago.

Nic sporting her pink Halo sweatband on the Appalachian Trail.
We were discussing the merits of the sweatbands with Halo rep, Sarah, when Nic spotted the hats.  To be fair, her favourite hat is pretty beat up, and will never be "white" again, so she probably needed a replacement more than me.  Her interest gave me an excuse to have a good look, and I could tell immediately from the feel that I had found my replacement.  We bought one each - and here's why:

The Hat

The hat itself is very lightweight.  The synthetic fabric is a fine mesh throughout.  It's not loose enough  a weave to encourage insects to get stuck in it, but sufficiently open to allow descent airflow.  Adjustment is with a velcro strap, which is fairly standard.  On the visor, there isn't a lot of fabric, so when you pour water on your head, sweat loads, get rained on, or dip it in some runoff, you won't end up with a heavy hat.  This is a big improvement on my lost and beloved Inov-8 hat, which could get a bit weighty at the front.


The Sweatband

The sweatband is, after all, what makes this hat different from everything else.  Built into the hat, rather than a standard terry band that saturates after an hour or so, is a Halo headband.  The front of the headband has Halo's Sweatblock seal, which prevents fluids from dripping from the front of the headband.  Those living in hot countries will appreciate that this keeps sweat from dripping into their eyes.  Even when saturated, the headband only releases sweat from the sides of the seal.  I've occasionally (rarely) been sweaty enough to have any problems with a normal headband just from sweat saturation.

For me, the headband comes into its own when water is added to the hat - either because I pour a bit on my head or dip the hat in water to help cool down, or because my hot sunny British Summer's run includes an hour of rain.  I hate rain dripping down my face, so having a visor to keep it off my glasses  (when I'm not in contacts) and a sweatband that keeps it from dripping down the front makes an ideal sunshine & showers hat.

The front of the headband is independent from the visor, which makes for a  very comfortable fit.
Another great aspect of the internal headband is that it's not attached to the visor.  So, when you flex the visor to get a good fit, you don't end up with a bunched, gappy headband.  It also means you can push the visor back a bit if you want, but the headband stays in place.

Wear Test

After spending a bit of time looking at the hat in the tent, I decided to wear it during the 1st day of the race, which meant it got about 8 hours (~45mi) of wear before I got took it off to let the evening breeze blow through my hair.  Nic wore hers for around 9 hours, before replacing it with something warmer for the night run.  Her old hat is now firmly on the reserves shelf.

Two happy new hat-owners.


The headband, as expected, was comfortable throughout the run.  I'd worn the hat a bit in the morning to make sure I had the visor flexed like I wanted and the strap at a comfortable tension, and didn't need to do any adjusting on the run.

I went off a bit quicker than I probably should have, given the relatively warm weather, which meant that I was running hot after around 10 miles.  To cool back down, I had two options - slow right down, or get some cold water on my skin.  I did slow down a little, but I preferred the option of pouring cold water onto my head.  It worked very well - I cooled down quickly, the water stayed off my face, and the hat dried within a mile or so.

The only potential drawback I can see comes when in deep woods or woody single tracks.  Typically, in that situation I would turn the hat around so I have total visibility of branches at forehead level.  I've not tried this with the Halo hat yet, to see if there are any comfort problems with the Sweatblock strip on the back of my head.  I don't foresee any issues, but I won't know until I try it.

I've now had around 10 hours of hot & humid woodland hiking and running, with sweat dripping from pretty much every pore. I didn't suffer any discomfort with the hat on backwards.  An added bonus is that the adjustable strap is made from the sweatband fabric, so it kept the sweat at bay and dried quickly when I got into a breeze.

Verdict

Simply put, it's a great hat for running.  I am confident it will keep sweat and rain out of my eyes.  It's cool, comfortable, and it looks good.