Friday, 5 December 2014

Gear Review: Ultimate Performance "Performance Head Torch"

I've not been racing much lately, as I try to focus on getting my act together for my next attempt at 100 miles.  I thought about writing a nice little post on how I get my friends to drag me out on long training runs, but then the folks at Run Stuff asked me to review some of their products, and frankly that sounded like a much more interesting thing to do, write, and probably read!

When Lou handed me the Performance Head Torch, by Ultimate Performance, I thought, "it doesn't look like much, but at least it's light."  I also thought it would be great for those runs when you're out on the roads / paths in the winter, where street lighting is mixed or variable but footing is mostly certain.  So, that's where I took it to have a play. [disclosure: I got to try the light out for free. All views on the product are my own.]

Simple:  LED, Lens, Clip, Strap.

Packaging

When I took the torch out of its container, it took me a few seconds to figure out how to turn it on.  There are no buttons anywhere.  The on/off is a function of the assembly, much like many an old hand torch - loosen the lens to turn off, tighten to turn on.  You have to be careful not to loosen too much, or you'll pop the front off (this, by the way, is how you change the batteries).

The torch is very lightweight, coming in at 25g (excluding the CR2016 batteries).  It has a single high-intensity LED which sits behind a magnifying lens.  The light is fixed onto a hinge, allowing it to click into position through a range of 90 degrees to suit your needs.  I found that swiveling down towards the pavement when I was running towards people was a simple way to avoid dazzling them as I ran past.  There are plenty of notches, so you have a lot of flexibility in how you angle the beam.  And, since the hinge is on a clip, you can easily clip the light onto your peaked cap if you want - not easy to do with most head torches.

The clip makes it easy to put the lamp on your cap, and there's plenty of  beam angle flexibility.

Brightness

The first test of a small head torch is to overpower street lighting - there's no point in having something that isn't brighter than the ambient conditions.  Evesham is blessed with some lumpy pavements under weak street lighting, so I headed along routes I can run without extra light, but only if I slow down and take extra care.  The beam was sufficiently bright and large enough to make running at a comfortable pace (~8min/mi) very easy.  There's no lumen figure given by Ultimate Performance, so it's difficult to compare directly with other torches.

Next, I headed for unlit footpaths (still tarmac), and found the beam to be quite sufficient.  So, for country roads and other dark, slightly uneven surfaces, the brightness was fine.  Digging in my backpack in the dark was also an easy task - and I wasn't being blinded by looking at reflective surfaces like I can be with my high-powered torch.  I was able to use the light to see my Garmin, rather than use the backlight, thus saving the power for timing and GPS.

Power

The single LED is powered by 2 CR2016 batteries (included).  It's rated to have 16 hours continuous burn time.  Because these are standard disposable lithium batteries, I would expect the light to dim somewhat in the final half of the battery life, but that's still plenty of time to cover those dark sections of your winter road runs.  You'll probably need 2-3 sets of batteries to get you through the winter if you're staying in town, possibly a bit more if you're out on the country roads at night.

Comfort

This is where the Performance Head Torch really wins. It's light, there's a small pad on the back of the clip so it rests comfortably on the forehead, and the strap is small and unobtrusive.  Compared to my LED Lenser H7R, which has an external battery pack, this was a joy to wear.  It fits easily over a hat, and with the cap clip, can also attach to a chest strap or waistband, if you want a lower beam (very handy in foggy conditions!).

Summary

So, given all of that, would I actually be willing to buy the Performance Head Torch?  Yes: it would make a great addition to my kit cupboard.  For running around town in the dark months, this torch is completely sufficient.  I'd also be quite happy to take it on camping trips for those short, dark walks to the never-nearby facilities.  For my long night runs on the trails, the light isn't enough for a primary light, but it would be fine for those races that require a 2nd torch in your kit bag (most useful for finding and fitting new batteries for your primary torch).  It's a nice little all-rounder that will get you from A to B without a lot of fuss.

Sunday, 21 September 2014

Gear Review: Ultimate Direction JUREK ESSENTIAL Waist Belt

In my quest for the perfect solution to carrying a small amount of kit/food on the run, I got chatting with Keith Godden at www.ULTRAmarathonRunningStore.com.  He's in the great position of hearing opinions from a wide range of runners and sales reps, so was a good sounding board for talking through some options.  Knowing that I get as big a kick out of reviewing kit as trying it out, he sent me the Ultimate Direction JUREK ESSENTIAL Waist Belt to try out and review.  Having taken it out for a couple of hundred miles now, I've  come to know it pretty well.

The Ultimate Direction JUREK ESSENTIAL Waist Belt 

The belt is pretty simple - 3 pockets on a light belt.  If you want to carry water in your belt, you should have a look at the JUREK ENDURE belt instead (my review of it).  For my longer runs, and for shorter runs where I want to add some element of upper-body work-out, I've taken to carrying small handhelds with the ESSENTIAL belt.  It's an ideal combination, since I can carry soft-flasks and avoid any irritating sloshing noises.

The three pockets offer a great range of options for carrying everything I need on most runs.  Like the ENDURE belt, there are also two reflective race number snaps, which are both very bright and quite handy.  The buckle is easy to operate and the belt tends to sit quite comfortably.  Under the back pockets, the belt is a fine, breathable mesh which minimizes the heat retention on your back.

The small front pocket usually has some ID, some emergency cash, and my keys.  The pocket has a Velcro closure which has stayed secure so far.  Ideally, I'd rather carry my mini tin of Vaseline in this pocket than my keys, since I'm more likely to need that on the run.  But, it's not quite the right shape so doesn't fit particularly well.

The left main pocket is waterproof, and big enough for most smartphones.  My stupidly large Lumia 920 just fits, without its case.  An iPhone would fit just fine in a case.  I use the stretchy mesh right pocket for my first-aid kit, Vaseline, and if needed a few gels.  Because this pocket isn't waterproof, anything I want to keep dry (plasters, tape, etc.) goes into a small plastic bag first.  That's not really an issue for me, since I have my first-aid kit divvied up into small bags anyway, so I can quickly find what I need.  If I want to carry more, like a jacket, I tend to simply slip an extra pouch onto the belt.  So many jackets come with a carry pouch that has a belt loop, that it's quite an easy way to create additional space comfortably.



Sliding my jacket pouch onto the belt means I have everything I need.

The Fit

The ESSENTIAL belt fits very comfortably, and is easy to adjust.  On occasion, if I get tired of the weight imbalance from having the relatively heavy phone on one side, It's still comfortable if I rotate it so the waterproof pouch is on my right hip and the mesh pouch moves around to the front.  It sits easily on my hips and generally stays in place on the run.

Things I Like

I like having a waterproof pocket for my phone.  When I need to use the phone (calling for help, or more likely taking a work-related call while I'm sneaking a run into a sunny afternoon), I don't want to have to faff about with getting the phone out of a bag to use it.

I also like just how comfortably I can slip an extra pouch (or two) onto the belt if I want to.  Having that extra flexibility means I can tweak things for different types of run.

Things I'd like to see improved

I like the concept of the little front pocket, but it's just a touch too small and fiddly to be as useful as it could be.  Keeping the pocket area the same, but with a slightly larger volume would increase the flexibility of how the pocket can be used.

Things I love

There's nothing about the belt makes me purr, but I really like that it does everything I need for almost all of my runs.  It just ticks the boxes.  And, when it doesn't, because I need more gear or water, it's still light enough that I can still be pretty lazy and just chuck it into my backpack so I don't have to transfer any of my core kit from bag to bag.

Would I recommend it?

Yes, if you want a good, light belt that lets you carry pretty much everything you need, then this is a great belt.  If you want to carry water on your belt, or want to have more carrying capacity, then it's probably not going to do the job for you.

Monday, 8 September 2014

2014 Kenilworth Half Marathon: Sub-1:30 at Last!

I've heard about races where runners go in with a plan, do it, and come away happy.  I've seen proper athletes interviewed on TV talking about how they executed their plan (always seems to be sprinters, but there you go).  Me, I do the normal endurance runner thing of go into a race with a plan, watch it fall to pieces, drop back to plan B, etc.  Races longer than a mile seem, for me, to be all about revising the plan to manage some unexpected difficulty.  That's part of the fun of running long, isn't it?  For this year's Kenilworth 1/2, I had a plan, painstakingly worked out over several weeks, with margin built in to make sure I finally broke the 1:30 barrier that I've been intermittently attacking for the past 6 years.  As you can tell from the title, I got there.  Finally.

The plan was pretty simple:  aim for a 6:45 pace from the start.  The route, though, is pretty lumpy, so it's definitely much easier said than done.

There are two ways of taking on a lumpy course.  Option 1: keep the pace steady, so you're pushing hard up the hills and easing off on the way down.  Option 2: keep the effort steady, based on your flat route pace, and expect the slower uphill segments to be balanced by the faster downhill segments.  Based on my race in the Hilly Hundred this year, where I ran mostly on feel, I decided to stick more to Option 2.  So, I practiced on a short loop starting outside my front door where I could judge how much time/distance I would lose on the ups and whether I would be able to get it back on the downs.  Training said it was possible (in fact, I actually beat my 10K PB in one practice session).

After spending the race briefing in the front row of the pack (I'd left space for 60 runners to line up in front of me and they all waited until the last moment to move to the start line), I set off on pace.  On each uphill, I let the gap between me and my virtual pacer grow, and wound him back in on the flats and descents.  The pattern continued as expected, finishing the first 3 miles on pace.  Contrary to my memory of the course, the next 4 miles included more up than down, so I watched the gap to my pacer approach 100m, and had to hold my nerve and avoid chasing, having faith that I could pull the time back over the return the start.  Much to my delight and relief, it worked out and I hit 10 miles as planned, just ahead of my computerized rival.

I knew, at that stage, that I would get my sub-1:30, and that I might just have enough in the tank to hold on to my plan-A pace.  As one would expect, the final 5K was quite hard.  The final hills between 10 and 12.5 ate a bit into my time, but I had a good downhill to take me into the final half mile, and finished with a nice acceleration to the finish line.  I tried to sprint, but there wasn't much sprint left, and finished dead on 6:45 pace - 1:28:26.  I don't know if I'll ever execute another race plan so accurately.  In fact, I'd be shocked if it ever happens again.  That said, sometimes plans work because they accurately reflect training rather than just being a hopeful plucking of numbers from thin air.  Now, if I can just manage that at Rocky Raccoon 2015...

Winchcombe 10K - Another One Hill Wonder!

August Bank Holiday weekend, and what should be done?  Join the throngs and sit on the M5, M6, M25, M62, A66, M3, etc. only to pitch a tent and watch it rain?  Or, hop over to Winchcombe and put in a nice little 10K tune-up for my summer A-race at Kenilworth two weeks later?  I like the idea of avoiding the motorway craziness that kicks off every holiday weekend on a Friday lunchtime (we were on the Cotswold Way near Leckhampton instead).  Nic was working the weekend, so it was a perfect opportunity to join my fellow EVRC runners taking the scenic route from Sudeley Castle to Belas Knapp and back again.

The Winchcombe 10K is one of those events that get under your skin.  The first time I did this race was in 2009.  That day, I remember, I was mostly feeling quite ropey even during the warm-up, and I then spent 10km trying to keep my ill-chosen muesli down.  But, the desire to run the race properly stayed behind.  Since last year, I've been helping to publicise the event to help get numbers up and to get more people out enjoying our local trails.  This year, it fit my schedule (being both home and uninjured at the end of August has been tough for the past few years), so I was excited to be able to toe the line.

Together with 15 other Evesham runners, I rocked up at registration fairly early, curious about how many runners would see the dry weather and decide to come along.  Parking outside Sudeley Castle a little after 9AM, and warming up in its lush green grounds is certainly a nice way to start a Sunday morning.  Hanging around and catching up with friends just added to the pre-race enjoyment.

I headed over to the start line, in the shadow of the castle and just past the incredibly tempting play park, just in time to see the kids' 1K fun run finish.  I remember doing "fun run" events as a kid.  Not so much about "fun" and much more about "run faster than that kid next to me".  It finished in a tie, which was pretty cool to watch.  It wasn't one of those "let's finish together" ties.  The lad out front was running scared, trying to protect his lead from the 2nd place runner.  Over the final 20m they both went through the horrible push/pull of the sprint for the line, tying up as they pressed for victory, and finished close enough together to have needed a photo if it had been a pro track race.  It was definitely a good day for racing hard.

At 10:30, it was the adults' turn.  We did a lap of the field, including a few little undulations to make the first K interesting, and then headed along a lane towards the cricket ground and the foot of the hill.  I was running hard enough to make conversations short, when the climb began.  From the cricket ground to the top at the barrow at Belas Knapp is a nice little 600ft climb, with a few runnable sections and a few gut-wrenching speed-hiking sections (well, for me, anyway).  The views along the climb are quintessentially Cotswold, with towns, villages, and farms nestled into the hills and valleys.  Towards the top, if you want to turn around and look, is a fantastic view down over the Castle.  By the time I got there, sweat was pouring down my face as I picked up the pace along the flat path to the barrow, so my view was a bit obscured.

The run down the hill is, in my view, a much bigger challenge than the trip up.  We shot down the road back towards the cricket ground, at a gradient that makes running fast both easy to start and difficult to maintain.  Halfway down, the route leaves the road, and I shot through the gate at top speed and back into the field down to the cricket ground.  I was moving at something close to my one-mile PB pace, and started to chase down some of the runners who had left everything on the steep road section.  Normally, on this little section of the Cotswold Way, I would look up and enjoy the view as I dropped back into Winchcombe.  Normally, though, I am far more than 2km from the end of my run and in no great hurry.  This time, my eyes stayed on my footing and I enjoyed racing instead.

The final 400m of the route is on the Castle drive, which includes a nice fast down to a little bridge across the Windrush followed by an equal rise to the finish line.  I tried desperately to chase down the runner in front (Kevin Dunlop, who did very well at The Evesham Ultra), but merely succeeded in getting close enough to see him cross the line.

Standing by the finish, clapping runners in and chatting with friends and race volunteers gave me a chance to reflect on the nice post-race atmosphere.  The busking accordion player who provided the background music added to the fun with a selection of TV and video game tunes in addition to the more common repertoire.

Sometimes, it's tough to beat a one-hill wonder when you're after a short race.  Sure, a speedy road race can be a great way to get a good time, but if you want to get in touch with your inner 10 year-old, find a big hill and race down it as fast as you can.  If you want to do it in beautiful surroundings amid a fun crowd of runners, add the Winchcombe 10K to your race diary.

Wednesday, 30 July 2014

Thunder Run 2014: Trail training at its most fun

We all enter races for different reasons:  to get a PB, to run somewhere new, to test our mettle, because a friend tricked us into it after a few too many drinks (and then somehow found a reason not to run...), for a hard training run, or sometimes just for a bit of fun.  The Cotswold Running trip to Catton Park for the 2014 Thunder Run was certainly designed to be fun, but it also gave an opportunity for some of our regular volunteers to get involved in a long and exhausting run with friends.

We arrived on Friday evening, hoping to enjoy a relaxed evening of camping and scope out the scene.  As it was Friday, the M42 was particularly stationary, so instead we arrived, put up the tent, got everything unloaded, and promptly put our feet up.  The camp site was vast, so wandering around and catching up with people suddenly looked an exhausting venture compared to eating dinner and "planning" our race.  I attempted an early-ish night by hitting the hay at 11:30, but sleep wasn't on the cards.  Camping can be relaxing, but with several hundred people within easy earshot, sleep can be hard to come by even with earplugs.  Still, 4 hours sleep is better than none.

The race-morning mood was a bit of a mixed bag.  I had the first leg, so was quite focused on when/what to eat that would stay down on a very hot 10K run.  In total contrast, Mitch was not running until his graveyard shift, so was trying to keep from going stir crazy.  In between, everyone was somewhere between gearing up and enjoying a relaxed morning with family & friends.

Team Revolution: Jill, Mitch, Nic, Kurt, Linzi, Rohan, Caroline, Paul
The morning started warm and sunny, and made its way quickly to very hot (~28-30C).  Given my problems lately with overheating, I was particularly curious (i.e. concerned, worried, nervous, bricking it just a bit) about how I would cope racing hard in the heat.  I knew it would only be for around 50 minutes, but such trivialities don't really come into it when you've suddenly found yourself doing badly at something you did quite well until recently.  I made sure to get properly hot & sweaty in my warm-up, so that sudden exhaustion that comes when you start exercising in the heat was out of the way before the race.  I arrived at the start line already drenched and ready to race.

Eventually, the race started and I was off and running.  Amazingly, the vast majority of runners actually lined up roughly according to their expected time for the 10K lap.  I had guestimated my lap would take 50 minutes, but was planning to run on feel at something harder than 1/2 marathon effort but slightly easier than if I'd only been doing one 10K that day.  I found myself steadily working through the crowd and maintaining a fairly consistent pace of just under 5 minutes per KM.

The Thunder Run route is a bit hilly, but it's also very twisty-turny.  In some places, I'm sure we ran a mile to move 50 metres along the campsite.  The woody sections have plenty of trip hazards to keep you on your toes (or face), and the occasional tight turn to find a tree in the middle of your path certainly make for added excitement.

The atmosphere as we wound our way in and out of the campsite was electric, and it took a lot of concentration to avoid just blasting off with excitement.  I did occasionally have the chance for a brief chat with other runners, including Steve from our neighbouring club in Pershore.

The early afternoon sun burned hot, and I'm pretty sure the medical crew had plenty of heat-related illness to deal with.  After my first lap, I felt pretty wrecked, and it took about half an hour before people stopped looking at me like I might fall out of my chair at any time.  After a good stretch, a tasty light lunch, and plenty of fluids, though, I felt pretty good and enjoyed my turns as support crew & childminder.  Jill took the second lap, and paced it a bit closer to a full 10K effort, which resulted in an excellent first lap time (50'), but over an hour of everyone giving her that same concerned look.  After that, everyone else wound it back in a bit to avoid being the first in the team to properly pass out.

My race plan continued, with my 4x10K reps concept working much better than I'd expected, with less than a minute difference in the first 3 times.  After my 3rd (finishing at 1am), I neglected my post-lap refuelling in order to crawl into my sleeping bag, which seemed so inviting.  I felt the difference on my morning lap, and started to bonk a bit, which meant I dropped a couple of minutes when I couldn't really speed up through the final 5K as I had in the other laps.  I learned a lot about areas of my post-run recovery that I could improve on in my normal training weeks (like, actually pay attention to it like I did once upon a time).

For the others, the result was equally useful.  Jill and Caroline did their first ever nighttime trail racing.  Linzi got in some good tired-legs effort with a blast in her final lap.  Nic reconnected with racing (as opposed to running in an event), Rohan and Paul did one lap more than they had previously, and Mitch found out that he's still a bit tired after Endure 24 (duh!).

Most importantly, though, we also had a lot of fun.  The kids went home as tired as their parents, having had a weekend of camping, playing, cheering, and generally being a delightful distraction from aching muscles and blisters.  Caroline's husband, Andy, got in some running, and Charmaine seemed to spend most of the weekend walking with camera in hand (you can see her pictures here).  Next year, hopefully we'll be able to get a few more from EVRC to come out and make up some club teams.

Friday, 25 July 2014

Gear Review: Inov-8 RACE ULTRA 0.25 Soft Flask Handheld

After a few difficult races in the heat, I'm really looking for a good warm-weather alternative to my Salomon race vest.  I love its soft flask bottles, but could really do without the way it seems to prevent me from releasing any heat.  Given that I was born and raised in Texas, struggling in the heat is a bit embarrassing, so I really need to sort it out.  I confirmed at Rocky Raccoon last year that, as anyone with an ounce of intelligence would assume, carrying handheld bottles when you're not used to it will tire you out pretty quick.  But, I also decided they were a good option, so decided to look into some small handhelds to see if I really want to go in that direction.  I spent a bit of time playing on www.ultramarathonrunningstore.com and bought a couple of the Inov-8 RACE ULTRA 0.25 Soft Flask Handhelds.   I've taken these on a few training runs, ranging up to three hours, to get a feel for whether I would want to use them on an ultra.

Free and easy with a couple of small bottles.
The bottle:  it's a simple 250ml Hydrapack soft flask.  So, aside from colour and branding, it's the same construction as the similarly-sized Salomon flasks, or the standard Hydrapack ones you can get on Amazon.  It fills with fluid, you screw on the top, you drink the fluid, and there's no sloshing sound.  So, what do Inov-8 bring to this little party?  Essentially, they bring a couple of mesh pockets and some bits of compression string.  There's nothing complicated.


Nice breathable gel-sized pocket on one side.
The larger of the two pockets will fit Clif, Gu, or Power Bar gel packs (or similar short, wide containers).  It's not great for TORQ or High-5 or other long, thin gels, but it will do. The gel sits reasonably comfortably in the pocket, but I've found I really just prefer to have it empty so it breathes.


Smaller, key/salt-tab sized pocket on the other
I do, on occasion, use the smaller pocket to hold my keys when I go out.  They fit perfectly, and stay quiet since it's a fairly small pocket.  It's not big enough for most gels.  If I am carrying my keys in the small pocket, it gives a bit of rigidity so I can use the pocket as a handle if I get tired of having the bottle against my hand.

Comfort

As handhelds go, the Race Ultra is a fairly comfortable setup.  The compression string gives some flexibility in sizing.  I find the flask gets a little awkward once it's below half full, because it feels very different to when it is full.  After a bit of time to get used to it, though, it's not really a big deal.  I did notice after a sweaty 3hr run in the mountains last week that I did get a bit of prickly heat on my hand.  With the skin directly against the bottle, I'd suffered a some irritation.  Possibly a slightly looser fit on the day would have helped that, but it's something to consider, since there's no need to constantly re-adjust your hold as you run.

Usability

In an event where you're going to be refilling often, these are as useful/problematic as any other soft flask solution.  The aperture is a tad small, so you should expect spills on your hands (not altogether unpleasant, if it's hot out and the spillage is cool water).  Like all other Hydrapack soft flasks, these suffer from a rather cool phenomenon in that when the lid is replaced on a wet bottle, water can leak out through the lid threads when the bottle is squeezed.  It's quite cool to watch, but would be irritating on a cold day.  If you're planning to refill rarely, then none of that's an issue.

With two flasks, it's easy to stay balanced, and they aren't big enough to get in the way much when negotiating gates/stiles or opening gels.  If you have to do something fiddly, it's easy enough to slip off and on without messing about resizing the cords.  With a few gels in my shorts pockets, and possibly a couple in the handhelds, I could quite happily enjoy a 50K with these.

Summary

I wouldn't describe the Race Ultra as the most feature-filled handheld solution, but it's certainly a light one.  If you like your race kit stripped-to-the-bone, then these are a good way to go.  They're comfortable enough for at least a few hours, and are a good size to carry.  I'll keep using mine on training runs and they're high on the list if I head back to Rocky next year.

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Race Volunteers: you ran well because they made it happen

I haven't written any race reports for a while, and I started to wonder if it was because I was tired of blogging, or didn't enjoy the races, or just because I needed a vacation to empty my head enough to process what has actually been a pretty busy summer racing schedule.  In the end, I've realized that it's because as much fun/effort as the past few races have been, I'd come away from the race thinking as much about the race as about my running in it.  I'd spent a lot of time over the month trying to get to grips with what really makes me come home raving about a great event.  The answer: the volunteers.

We all know volunteers make races happen, but how many runners actually show that appreciation during a race?  Race Directors choose the course, set the wheels in motion, and try to steer things in the right direction.  Volunteers do pretty much all the hard work of getting aid stations up, pointing gormless runners in the right direction (yes, I've been both the pointer and the pointee - we all have our witless moments), having water, sweets, crisps, and goodness knows what else spilt all over them.  In nearly all cases, they do it with a smile or a look of incredulous awe, depending on just how crazy your event is.  In nearly all cases, they do it because helping someone achieve their goals is at least as enjoyable as achieving that goal yourself.

Just a small part of our medal collection: it takes more than good running to have a good race.

Here are just a few thoughts about volunteers and volunteering based on my June races.

Last month, I had the chance to return to one of my favourite local races, the Cleeve Cloud Cuckoo.  This year, it was 5.5mi of driving rain, cloud, and generally miserable weather.  I mostly had an absolute ball, and was quite thankful I was running.  It's daft enough to go out and race in that, but how crazy do you have to be to simply stand still?  Volunteering takes stamina and a warped sense of humour sometimes.

Ten days later, I headed out for another hard training run at Humph's Hilly Half, in Bourton-on-the-Water.  It was a glorious evening for racing, and perfect for volunteering.  When you sign up to help out, you hope for balmy weather, some nice sunshine, and beautiful surroundings like we had on the day.  On my way around the gently undulating course, I enjoyed a few low-fives with the younger volunteers, made one lad's day by stooping down to take water from him instead of his mum, and managed to knock over about 6 cups trying to get 1 off the table, rather than the bottles that were being handed out (I only needed a sip).  I was all smiles for the first two stations, and mortified when I cleverly tried to grab the final cup (to avoid knocking any over) and missed with superb malcoordination.  Still, all handled with friendly conversation and a smile.  Even when you're running hard, it's not much effort to grunt or gasp "thanks" or "sorry", or give a smile or a thumbs up as you pass.  That little bit of interaction lets the volunteers know they aren't taken for granted, and it generally gives the runner a boost, too.

A few days later, it was time for our club's annual fell race, the Bredon Bash.  It's a simple one-hill course. Run a bit, cross a field, run up the hill, run along the top, retrace your steps to the finish.  It's my turn to do a bit of payback, so I was stationed on top of the hill, encouraging everyone up to the turnaround point and then back down.  Since it's a pretty small local field, I knew about half the runners already, so I had a jovial time cheering, cajoling, and just occasionally shouting good-hearted abuse to help them on their way.  Having a friendly face on the route cheering you on is great. Apparently, though, when it's your coach it might not always seem like fun at the time, as you try to look great even though you really just want to decorate your shoes with your lunch.

The next weekend, I headed up and down Cleeve Hill again, in the Cheltenham Circular Challenge.  I rather arrogantly entered the ultra (48mi), deciding that it was just silly to go for the marathon when I could do an extra 22.  After all, it's only another lap of up & down the hill plus a flat 10K and a flat 5K.  As it turned out, it was also incredibly warm, and I got more than a bit stupid as I got tired. I enjoyed chatting with volunteers, they enjoyed encouraging me on, and we had lots of pleasant interactions (the joys of a lapped route) as I kept passing them.  Unfortunately, what I didn't have, until I'd gotten particularly dim, was an experienced ultra runner looking at me and telling me to stop, have some crisps, and cool down for 10 minutes.  After 39mi, Nic was waiting for me (having done the marathon, and looking quite happy and relaxed).  She asked me questions about what I wanted, shook her head in despair when I refused any sensible intervention and insisted on carrying on, and ended up having a fairly pathetic wreck of a husband for a few hours after I DNF'd. We've now adjusted my personal crew instructions - when I've been going for more than 20 miles, don't ask me questions, tell me what to do.  Otherwise, I'll probably insist everything is perfect and refuse all sensible support.  Friendly volunteers are amazing and will carry you through most races.  Bossy ones will get you to the end of an ultra.

Then came the big event of the summer: Endure24.  Nic and I spent so long trying to decide if we wanted to enter as a pair, enter as solos, or not enter at all, that we ended up defaulting to the 3rd option when the race filled up.  In reality, we didn't really mind, because it meant we would be happily crewing our friend Mitch as he attempted to win it and wipe last year's agony out of his mind.  Another friend, Matt, had sneakily entered so we crewed him as well.  We sat and cheered or clapped as runners passed again and again on their 5mi laps.  We dolled out drinks, food, encouragement, and instructions for hours on end.  When it got dark, I tried to cheer or clap less loudly.  To all those trying to sleep nearby, sorry about that, as it seems I wasn't as successful as I'd thought at keeping the noise down.  I couldn't accept just sitting and watching and not encouraging, so after setting Mitch on his laps, I tried to walk around a bit to keep from having all those trying to get some rest come out and throttle me. Encouraging is addictive.

In the end, Mitch did win the race.  He set a new course record. Once it was over, we all hugged and congratulated him and rumour has it I might even have shed a tear or two.  He was elated, we were overjoyed for him, his wife and daughter were full of emotion (and probably relief!), and all of that happiness could not have happened without a small army of people willing to sit in the woods for hours at a time, watching mud-covered runners pass by lap, after lap, after lap.  Nobody achieves a race goal on their own.

If you're not in the habit of somehow thanking marshals during the race with a nod, smile, cheery word, wave, or some other friendly gesture, change your habit.  Give them something back to help them continue to enjoy helping you.  If you haven't volunteered at a race, look at all those medals and t-shirts you've collected.  Then get in touch with a local running club or race director and find out how you can help someone else achieve something special.  Helping someone surpass their own expectations will certainly give you some tools to use when it's your turn to push past your known limits.  I guarantee you'll gain something from helping out, and if you help at a race or distance you'd like to step up to, you'll learn a lot as well.

Tuesday, 3 June 2014

Gear Review: Scott Jurek Endure Belt


We bought an Ultimate Direction Scott Jurek Endure Belt from the Ultramarathon Running Store to trial.  It looked good –lightweight and minimalist, so I decided to give it a go on a warm spring day when a backpack just didn’t appeal.  It looked good – lightweight and minimalist, perfect for something like Rocky Raccoon, where you only have 5-6 miles between check points.

The Belt

The belt has two pouches which hold 2 x 295ml (10oz) water bottles, a large, waterproof, zipped pocket at the front, and a Velcro-sealing pouch at the back and a bungee holder thingy that you can stuff things into.  It also has two race number clips on the belt, which is a nice touch.  The belt has an off-centre clip, which makes one-handed adjustment quite easy.  Three separate bungees help keep everything stable, and give some opportunity to overload with extra bits and pieces.  There's one for each of the bottle pouches and one for the mesh pouch in the middle.

The Scott Jurek Endure Belt is pretty versatile, and very comfortable (extra reflective tape added).
Overall, the belt is, simply put, built for use.  It's pretty stripped down, but still has everything you need to spend a few hours on the trails.  If I start from what I want/need in a belt/pack, we can get an idea of how this one stacks up.  I often consider our mandatory kit list as the minimum for a day out on your own in mixed/cool weather.  So, can I carry my full kit list easily with this belt?
  • Phone: in the waterproof pocket. A normal phone fits.  The latest phablets don't.  I can just fit my oversized Nokia 920, but if I were racing I'd go with an old dumb-phone that I kept years ago for just such a purpose.
  • Drink (500ml): nearly 600ml
  • Windproof: most come in a little pouch (ranging from the £5 one Nic bought to the £££ one I bought that really isn't any better), which can easily be attached to the belt.
  • A couple of gels: even with my stupidly large phone, I can get a couple of gels in the pocket.
  • Hat/bandana/etc: fits easily in the rear pouch, or, if you're lazy like me, just attach to a bungee.
  • Foil blanket / bin liner: roll a bin liner up tight, and it also fits in the pocket (now it's a bit full, though).
  • Whistle: hook one onto the bungee, or stick it in the pouch.
  • Small selection of first-aid supplies: this is really what I'd put in the rear pouch, with the whistle.
Well, all that fills the belt up, with a bit of extra room for stuff hanging off the bungees or strapped in by them.  With a small, cheap phone, it's even quite comfy.
What else do I want from a running belt? A waterproof pocket for my phone, easy adjustment, comfort, good load balance, and a few little touches to prove somebody thought about what they were doing.

So, let's look at how the Scott Jurek Endurance Belt does.

Adjustability

The adjustability of the pack is pretty easy, thanks to the off-centre clip.  The belt includes an elasticated loop so that excess strapping can be shortened and tucked away efficiently without dangling around and flapping against your leg.  Talk about nice touches!  Since we're sharing this one, and have rather differently sized hips, it's nice to be able to quickly and easily adjust.  The rolled up belt end also gives a useful handle so you can quickly tighten up if you need to for a particularly hairy descent.

Comfort

The bottles are held in place by a small elastic loop, which means they can’t bounce around.  The thin mesh material that is the base of the belt doesn't soak up water, and allows good air flow.  The body contact area is quite small, so you still have plenty of evaporation surface to keep cool.  Overall - comfy!

Load Balance

The two smallish bottles distribute the water well.  You can swap between them, or drink one dry and then the other.  Either way, it stays in place and you don't feel off-center.  The waterproof pouch sits better than expected.  It looks a bit like it was stuck on as an afterthought, but it sits fairly well on either side, hip, or back, depending on which you find more comfortable.

The Little Touches

The little race number clips are great.  They are reflective, which is an added bonus, and have snap closures, instead of the dongles that are used on other belts.  So, there's nothing slapping away at you and your number.  They can also be moved around on the belt a bit, to make sure your number is on your front, where it belongs.
Three bungees, not just one wound all over the place, makes it really easy to secure the bottles, the pouch, and also add some extra bits to the belt.  If you're really slim, you can even use the middle one to effectively cinch out the middle pouch and make the thing really tiny.
Lots of little reflective flashes.  We added some big ones as well (why not, there's all that space just asking for it!), so you've got plenty of visibility as long as you're not wearing a jacket over it.

Kurt's View

Simply put, I probably should have bought two.  I really hate the sound of sloshing water, but I'll trade that for sweating less than I would with my race vest.  If Nic and I are both running, she gets the belt, so I have to just watch in envy as she is running along light and cool.  The bottles are easy to get in and out, ride secure even on downhills, and the pockets are enough for most sub-ultra events with a bit of thought.  I recently raced with it, more for practice than need, and used the little race number clips.  The numbers for the event were pretty rubbish, tearing easily, but mine stayed in place comfortably.  I like the snaps much more than the toggles you tend to see on other race belts - nothing dangling and slapping against the number.  Comfort-wise, it's just kind of there, which is exactly what I want.  What would I like to see different?  It's a very small thing, but I'd like to easily move the waterproof pocket to the front.  It struggles over the little elastic section of the belt.

Nic's View

I finally found a running backpack that I like (the Osprey Verve 5) but you don’t always want to take a full hydration pack out when you go for a run, whether road or trail.  Sometimes a little water, a phone and a Buff are all you need.  I’ve tried a couple of waistpacks which I didn’t really like, mostly due to fit, preferring instead to use pockets or a backpack.  I generally find waistpacks don’t sit in the right place on my (somewhat pointy) hips, riding up to around my middle, which I hate.  I have also managed to lose two water bottles from a waistpack, due to excessive bounce – not good for me or for the environment!

I've taken it out a lot on warm days for a few hours.  600ml was just about the right amount of water , perhaps a little light, so this belt wouldn't be ideal for a long summer run, but for shorter runs or racing where you have regular re-fill points, I think it is perfect.  The only problem I had with the bottles was the sports top, which is quite stiff.  Make sure you push down on it until it snaps, or you will end up with a wet leg!  Getting the bottles in and out is easy enough.  The larger pocket was fairly neat with what I'd stuffed into it – I took quite a few photos on the run, but I had to take my time over replacing my phone into the pocket, as it required great care to make sure I didn’t end up losing my car key.  It would be just fine if you didn’t take your phone out of the pocket every 10 minutes to take a photo!  Or had a smaller phone….

Good points – no sweaty back from wearing a pack; comfy; adjustable; lightweight; uncomplicated.  Easily fits everything you need for most summer runs of 2-3 hours.
Bad points – only just fits your average smartphone; bottle-tops are quite stiff: Make sure you push down on it until it snaps, or you will end up with a wet leg

Sunday, 6 April 2014

Dress for Success

As a runner who enjoys most types of racing, I often wonder what sits behind the decisions so many of us make when selecting our training and racing attire.  Go to a fell race in pretty much any weather, and you'll find at least half the field wearing the minimum to protect their decency, next to some runners who are set for an expedition to the poles.  Generally, the difference is easily explained by the expected amount of heat generated on the ups and just how much/little will be lost on the downs.

At trail ultras, on the other hand, the motto seems to be "more is more".  It struck me last year, looking through all the snaps of the Cotswold Way Century, that the runners looked pretty hot early on (it was a warm day).  On closer inspection, I noticed most of them were wearing several layers.  The correlation seemed pretty obvious.  So, I've been keeping an eye out to see whether it was a one-off or part of a wider trend.

I hope a lot of these guys are prepping for the MDS! Not a lot of skin, plenty of layering, and the start is in 5 minutes.
My trip to the Eco-Trail de Paris might have been a little skewed, since it often acts as a last kit test for the MdS, but again, on a warm day relative to the season, there were a lot of extra layers on.  Considering the heat impact a standard pack has, or the even larger influence of many of the current design of race vests, I get the feeling a lot of runners are dressing for the pre-race standing about, rather than for running.

How many of these runners know it's one of the warmest days of the year so far?


Looked cold, but I was burning up, with far too much clothing on. Doh!
If I take this picture of my third trail marathon as an example, you can see I'm sweating heavily, and don't have much option left with the top I'm wearing other than to remove it.  It was about 5C out, and my Montane shirt was great pre-race, with a t-shirt on top (hanging soggiily at my waist only 7mi in).  I could have stripped off, put on my t-shirt, and carried on.  The problem, though, was that as soon as I got around the corner, I'd be facing a headwind, shuffling across Chesil Beach, and my temp would drop like a stone.  These hot/cold kind of days make it very difficult, because the trail conditions don't always encourage consistent effort.  Sometimes, you just can't run hard enough to stay warm.

May 2, 2010 - one of the coldest runs of my life.
I'd suggest that over-clothing is usually the result of a previous under-clothing event.  My first trail marathon was in early May. Sunshine, blue skies, beautiful views?  Not in England, my friends.  Rain, more rain, then some driving wind and a bit more rain.  By the end of the race, I was wearing my vest (newbie error), waterproof, and spare windproof gilet.  Oh, and I was freezing.  Turned out to be about 4 degrees on the hills.


So, back to the prevalence of over-dressing at trail ultras.  What possesses us to wear layers we won't need until dark at the start of a long race?  Is it down to fear of being cold?  Perhaps the inability to find further space in the pack for that extra windproof (it works on airplanes, so why not at races)?

Another hot day, but plenty of extra layers here, too.
After Rocky Raccoon, I decided to stop wearing my compression calf-guards.  Having had calf and ankle issues consistently through the past 6 years, I'd become psychologically reliant on the idea that they'd hold me together.  At Rocky, though, I realized that mostly they were keeping my legs warm on a day when I wanted to cool down.

At the ETP, I couldn't see the front-runners, but I definitely didn't see a lot of skin on show around me.  Socks up to the knees, shorts down to the knees, longish short sleeves, long sleeves, long-sleeved compression tops, full tights, windbreakers - anything and everything that could possibly keep the heat from escaping seemed to be on show.

Why did I choose a vest for the ETP?  The temperature was due to be around 20C, and we've not seen a lot of that in northern Europe this year, plus it was going to be sunny, and there's not usually a lot of wind in the trees to help keep one cool.  Was I worried about losing a lot of skin? Not really.  The 24 miles I'd done in a similar vest 8 weeks ago was very comfortable from that angle.  I did have to make some adjustments because of the heavier pack, and would have preferred the protection of a t-shirt, but not enough to put on the long-sleeve top I had in the pack for the cool of the night.  Even when the weather cooled, I was happier to use the opportunity to run faster and generate more heat than I'd have been to keep the slower pace in the warmer top, even with a little less rubbing on my shoulder.

I often think that pace judgement is one of the hardest part of endurance running.  Sometimes, when I look around a bit, I see that dressing for the temperature around your body, and not the one in your mind, is often a key factor in how the race will go.  Soon, we'll all be sporting our skimpy summer gear on our mid-week runs, enjoying the feeling of sun on skin.  Then, come the long run on the weekend, I wonder just how many will adopt the "more is more" method and wonder why it all felt so slow and difficult.  Maybe, if you're worried about getting cold or chaffing, pop a spare shirt in the pack to ease your mind, and let all that skin do what it was designed to do in the first place?


Friday, 4 April 2014

Eco-Trail de Paris 2014: Liberte, Egalite, and lots of trees

Why, when all of the delights of Paris await - delicious food & wine, art, architecture, engineering, history, and driving patterns that turn pavement cafes into theatre - would one possibly choose to take a train to the suburbs only to run back again?  When the route becomes so circuitous as to mimic a dog working its way around a park full of fire hydrants, and the best answer available seems to be, "why not?"

Or, for the longer answer, read on.

Trail running in the UK, with a few exceptions, is dominated by small races where you meet plenty of  friendly faces before eventually ending up alone or with a few new/old friends as you work your way among the footpaths and bridleways that criss-cross the countryside.  These are the sorts of events I tend to frequent (and organize), because they suit me.  I like the long periods of quiet interspersed with a bit of chit-chat when I end up running with someone or playing leap-frog in the latter stages of an ultra.  But, every now and then, opportunities arise to learn something new while still having a good time.  Racing in a big event (>1000 runners), in a big city, in a foreign country is a great way to see how other people do things.  Plus, we hadn't been to Paris in a while and both Nic & I quite like the city.  So, we signed up to give Nic a focus for the spring and to give me a fallback in case Rocky Raccoon went belly-up.

Nic's training got hit by one of the nasty winter bugs, which left me flying the Cotswold Running & Evesham Vale RC flags on my own.  So, while Nic checked out the finish-line HQ, watched me being tracked online courtesy of the GPS transceiver I rented for the day, and tried to forget that she was supposed to be racing, I headed out to St. Quentin des Yvelines on the RER with the intention of racing back.

Racing? For those who have followed my short ultra career, the admission that I planned to do the event as a race, rather than a bimble about in the woods will be a surprise.  I always have plans A, B, and C (and occasionally D & E), but have only once tried to approach an ultra as a race, in Exmoor nearly 2 years ago.  I spent a bit of time retching in the bushes and feeling generally unpleasant.  So, why not try again, but add on 14 or so miles?  The target this time was to average in the region of 12 minute miles (5mph), or roughly 10 hours, depending on how long the course actually was.  I'd managed a similar pace last year at the Highland Fling, and believed I might just be getting back into the kind of shape that would let me do it again this year.  All I had to do was get my nutrition right, avoid overheating, not get lost, avoid falling down too many times, and keep running even when I wanted to jump on the train back.  Simple, right?

My beacon to the finish, waiting for my return in the night-time.

First target of the day was to get to the train to the start.  I checked the map, found where the station was relative to the apartment, and headed out for a nice, sunny walk.  Turns out the map wasn't so accurate, and I couldn't find the RER where I expected it to be.  With 4 minutes left before my train, I asked directions every 200m until I found it (yes, I do actually ask directions when lost and in a hurry).  With a bit of jogging, I made the platform just as the train arrived.  Yes, I could have waited half an hour for the next one, but then I'd have been without contingency should there be any delay.  So, I was very happy to arrive just in time.


The RER pulling in just as I arrived at the station.
 With the transport under control, the rest of the morning was a dawdle.  I had plenty of time for pre-race prep, including a nice little 30 minute nap in the sunshine followed by a little picnic.  Noon start times are great for relaxing into the swing of things.

Mildly awake and ready to run.

Gathering for the safety / eco briefing


The briefing included plenty of useful reminders about using lights in the dark and keeping our rubbish to ourselves.  One of the appeals of this race, to me, is the emphasis on treating the course with the respect it deserves.  Pretty much every road race I run involves stepping through somebody's trash, because there's an expectation that someone else will clear it up.  It gets on my nerves when that kind of behaviour hits the trails, so I was happy to see the ETP rules include DQ for littering and was delighted to receive my mini reusable rubbish bag to attach to my pack.  Of course, with over 1000 runners, it didn't take long to see a few gels lying unused on the ground (about 100m).  Here's a tip for anyone who uses belts/straps with loops for your gels - they don't work very well, and you'll really miss the ones that pop out.  The steady trickle of gel tubes, especially, made me wonder if they had particular power to jump out of bags.

On the run at last!
After a mile or so of easy jogging among the crowds, I was caught by Nick Reed from Manchester.  Guessing rightly that my Cotswold Running vest marked me as an English speaker, he popped up for a chat.  We enjoyed a couple of miles at around 9:30m/mi before I decided the combination of pace and temperature were going to hobble me later on and waved him on his way.  I really wanted that 10hr finish, and wasn't really in the mood to blow it on the super-flat start for the sake of some very enjoyable camaraderie.  From there, even when surrounded by runners, I was pretty much alone on the trails.

Chatting with Nick Reed in the early miles

Pretty lake, flat trail.
 Generally, my experience of trail races includes a lot of talking. Not necessarily constant, and frequently of very little deeply intellectual discourse.  Just a lot of friendly chat and a bit of banter on the hills.  My French isn't what is used to be, but I can just about get by with the general platitudes of racing - encouragement, talking about the weather, etc.  To my surprise, the field was in rather sombre mood; even those not plugged in seemed deep in their own thoughts from the outset.  The silence around me gave me something to think about, and certainly provided a different atmosphere to my normal races.

After 12 miles, a proper hill!
The combination of easy flat terrain and the heat wrought havoc on the field.  At the 25km check point, I was 1034 out of 1500+ runners, in spite of my 10m/mi pace on the flat first section.  At the CP, runners were strewn about in varying degrees of disarray - 110 ended their race there.  Most were simply wandering listlessly among the buffet.  I had a quick look, but it seemed quite fruit-based, and I didn't really fancy the added fibre so early in what would be a long day, so I refilled my water and carried on.  I was astonished to see prunes - full of energy, yes, but it seems like the start of a game of digestive roulette!

After the first half marathon, it starts to get a bit hilly.
The ETP team have done an amazing job of finding a way to get from the suburbs to the centre of Paris with very little road.  There are loads of woodlands around the city, and the various authorities have ensured there are a lot of bridleways and footpaths through the woods to encourage outdoor pursuits.  On a dry, sunny spring day, it means you get plenty of miles surrounded by tall trunks and new foliage.  If you like wide open views, you may find the route a bit claustrophobic.  At times, I was desperate for an open vista, especially while it was light enough to enjoy it!

Smile, you can see the sky!

Is that a hill ahead?

A chance to practice my fell-runner walk.
Within a couple of miles of leaving the CP, runners who'd run too quick, or drunk too much at the CP, or who were just on the wrong side of Lady Luck started to litter the side of the trail.  Slowly walking the flats, loudly calling to the roots of trees, and generally looking miserable, the carnage provided a stark reminder of what can happen when plans go awry.

Approaching the marathon distance - it's a little steep on some of these hills.
The difficulty, on this route, is that if you're suffering at 18 miles, you have another 23 or so hilly miles before you reach the flat run in along the Seine.  For much of the next 10 miles, I kept the effort steady but strong, telling myself to "pass the carnage, don't be the carnage".  The gentle breeze helped to keep me much cooler than I'd been at Rocky Raccoon, even though the temperatures were very similar.  A little extra fitness probably didn't hurt, either.

Meudon
 Passing the marathon point in roughly 4:45, I'd managed to keep to under 11m/mi, giving some leeway for the hilly half marathon to come.  I arrived at the 47km checkpoint in Meudon having just run out of water (perfectly judged?) and ready for a short break.  I refilled with the help of an enthusiastic volunteer, politely declined the opportunity to dunk my head in a bucket of water, and sat down to re-partition my remaining food into accessible pockets.  The nutrition plan was TORQ bars & gels for the day, one every 35 minutes or so, to hopefully avoid the unhappy gut that running in the heat can bring. A little text back and forth with Nic helped keep me smiling, and then I was on my way.  I knew I'd passed a lot of people between check points, and wanted to avoid seeing too many of them again.

If you look past the stylishly arranged wheel barrows, you can just make out the Eiffel Tower.

Meudon Observatory - it's at the top of a rather steep hill.
 Reminding myself to "pass the carnage", I took it very sedately out of Meudon.  The slow pace was, I'll admit, rather helped by the stupidly steep hill up to the Observatory.  What kind of fool puts hills like that into a route just for a great view??? (Oh, yeah, that would be me. My bad. I'm really sorry, all of you Evesham Ultra runners, for the nice view from Broadway Tower.)

Taunting me, the tower is only 20 miles away by trail.
Leaving the grounds of the Observatory, I continued to feel quite shattered for several miles. Apparently, the bit I thought was flat, given the steep hills that preceded it, was a steady uphill drag for about 3 miles.  I thought I was just running badly.  Turns out, I was running badly up a hill.  Still, at around 32mi, the route headed back down for a while and I managed to get back to running again.  It also started to cool off, which gave me some hope of being able to pick up some speed once we left the hills.  By the time I reached the 58km CP, I'd pulled myself back together and was looking forward to the final 20km.  I quickly refilled my water, grabbed a few crisps, and headed out, hoping to get as much mileage in as I could before it was time for the head-torch.

Sunset on a pretty lake - cooling down and ready to put in some hard miles.
The final 20km just seemed to happen. When I could run, I was still hanging at around 10-11m/mi. When I couldn't run, I walked, mostly on the uphills, but not exclusively.  I was tired, but I was running.  I even tried to take a few pictures of the night skyline from the final CP, but couldn't quite keep the camera steady enough to get anything but blurry lights.  The plan to race for a time that would challenge me to hold it together until the end meant I had actually kept enough in the tank to push hard over the final miles (I won't say fast, because it really wasn't...).

So close I can almost touch it!
 The final few miles along the Seine aren't the most scenic, at least not in the dark, but the Eiffel Tower (carrot?) dangling there for me to chase definitely helped spur me on.  Over that final 8km, I continued to overtake runners who I'm sure were well ahead of me for much of the day.  Having the plan go right made a nice change from the last race, and was a mental boost as I tried to chase down as many runners as I could before the finish.

Finished! 9:51:04
The finish, unlike previous years, was not on the 1st floor of the Eiffel Tower.  In many ways, that was a shame.  But, since it gave me the opportunity to run hard around the final turns and past a cheering Nic, I'd say the new finish at the Palais de Chaillot is pretty fantastic.

All told, it was a good race.  Things went mostly to plan, I felt good considerably more often than not, and I got some useful insights into how other people do things both as runners and organizers.  I didn't really get a lot of "Fraternite" in the first 65km.  There was a lot of introspection around, and I would have liked a little more social interaction, to be honest.  Would I do it again?  Maybe - it's a lot of trees, so I don't think I'd want to approach it as a touring race.  If I did it again, I think it would have to be with the goal of going faster.

A few random thoughts:

As an event, the ETP is definitely an epic feat of organization.  There seemed to be hundreds of volunteers throughout the course.  They were, as race volunteers generally are, fantastic, enthusiastic, and friendly.  I'm sure the traffic they were stopping wasn't as enamored by them as I was, but that's to be expected.  Apparently, it's not the done thing to say "merci" to the marshals as they stop cars from running you down or point you along the route.  Quite a few volunteers and runners were surprised, but it started to rub off on those runners around me and eventually the steady trickle of thanks to the marshals was met with big smiles and shouts of encouragement.  Next time you find yourself in a race thinking that the volunteers seem a bit dour, give them a smile and a thank you and see what happens.  After all, watching a bunch of grumpy, smelly runners stream past isn't as much fun as cheering on inspiring runners who look like death but still manage to give a smile, a wave, or even a word or two in exchange.

Hiring the GPS transceiver was great for friends and family around the world, and meant I got to waste about 20 minutes on Wednesday watching my little icon run around on Google Earth.  That was pretty cool.

I was very happy I was self-sufficient on the food - a key learning point from Rocky Raccoon.  Every race organization has its food strategy.  If I had tried to subsist mostly on the CPs, I would have had a very bad day indeed, since the fare didn't really fit what I'm used to eating.

Main gear (plus plenty of other bits & pieces):

Shoes:  Salomon Fellraiser
Socks: Injinji Trail
Shorts: Brooks (the Sherpa is the closest on the market to the ancient ones I wear)
Vest: Cotswold Running bespoke
Pack: Salomon Advanced Skin S-Lab Hydro 5 w/ 2 500ml soft flasks and a 1.3L bladder
Head-torch: LED Lenser H7R
Garmin Forerunner 305
Camera: Nikon Coolpix AW110

Food:

Pre-race - ham sandwich & Clif Builders Bar (mint choc chip: yum!)
TORQ bars: 5
TORQ Energy gels: 7
TORQ Energy w/ caffeine gels: 2
Salted crisps: ~8
Water: ~4.5L

Monday, 24 March 2014

Time Flies When You're Having Fun

Dad just scanned in a picture of my first "race" (it was a fun run, really) and sent it to me.  It was back in the early days of the Austin Running Club.  The nation was celebrating its bicentennial, which meant the ARC hosted a 1 mile fun run, Mom fired up the sewing machine and made us all matching Stars & Stripes tops, and I got to do my first race at the ripe old age of 3.  I can't recollect how long it took, but I know it was a PB!

Nearly 4 decades later, the hike & bike trail at Town Lake (now Ladybird Johnson Lake) is still one of my favourite places in the world. Every twist, turn, bridge, and hill seems to hold a memory of one run or another.  When I was very little, Dad would do his run, and Mom was stuck walking with us as we ran/walked/sat.  I can still point out the scar on my right knee from when I fell running downhill (sound familiar?), chasing my older siblings near the gazebo over by the Congress Street bridge.  When I was in high school, racing duathlons, Dad & I would head to the lake once or twice a week after work in the summer to put in some sunny miles.  The little wooden bridge over Barton Creek always meant I was near the water fountain, if I was on the anti-clockwise loop.  Little things, important things.

Nearly 38 years ago, I wasn't quite so tall. Even then, I liked to look at the scenery.

This weekend, I joined our local Sports Relief Mile in Pershore.  Ostensibly, I was out drumming up support for EVRC's local 10K on July 13th, but in the end I just couldn't pass up the chance to run around a park surrounded by runners, walkers, and pram pushers/passengers.  As a race director, I frequently have to set out age limits and rules, fill in risk assessments, and play with bits of red tape. But as I was jogging about the park, chatting with a local teacher who received great support from his primary school students, watching parents sheltering their little ones under trees when the hail became corn-kernel-sized, I was on the other side, enjoying one of the best things in the world - people out running around having fun (once the hail stopped).

Hopefully, in a few decades, some of those little kids I saw on Saturday will look back at pictures of them with their first medal and see the start of a lifetime of happy running memories.  Running comes naturally to most of us, or it did once, and so does laughing and smiling while we do it.

Now, it's time to turn off the PC, get out, have fun, and make some new memories.

Friday, 14 March 2014

Running Diaries - you keep one, but do you use it?

Judging by the volume of Facebook and Twitter chat, most runners do keep (and share) records of their runs.  Whether it's Strave, Runkeeper, Garmin Connect, vast home-made spreadsheets (yes, that's me), a blog, or good old handwriting, we keep a log of anything from number of miles run to the number of jellybabies consumed.  It's a great way to give ourselves a pat on the back, a little gold star, just for going out and doing what we want to.

But how many of us actually use the running diary for anything other than annoying our non-running friends & families or for ammo in the "I kicked your butt on that segment last Tuesday" conversations with our running buddies?  When was the last time you went back and actually analyzed your diary for something more subtle than "how fast did I do my 800m reps last month?"

What brings this to mind?  Well, this week I managed to complete a (not very) whopping 42.5 training miles, including some good trail runs and a full speed session.  It's the first good quality week I've had in ages, and I wanted to know just how long "ages" really was.

So, I dragged out the spreadsheet and hunted for weekly mileage over 40 that didn't actually include an ultra.  After all, weekly mileage that's 90-100% on one day doesn't really count as a quality week.  A quality day, yes, but that's only 1/7th of a week.

Having exhausted the rather short 2014 diary, I changed to the 2013 page and was pleased to see a couple of 40+ weeks in December, one in November, and then ... May.  OK, so I knew the second half of the year was patchy, so I wasn't expecting much.  But, it got me thinking: was it just a figment of my imagination that I was quite happily doing 35-45 miles per week before I made a mess of my ankle over the Summer?

The training diary trawl continued, not looking for specific totals, but trends; little (or big) stretches of the consistency that turns running into training, patterns of good and bad.  To say I was a little amazed at what I found would be a gross understatement.  I was shocked to learn that before my little blip in December, which ended with a total bonk 32mi into a 45mi training run, I hadn't logged 2 40+ mi weeks in a row for a year.  Consistency? Not here...  I knew 2013 had been a bit unplanned, but the erratic up & down was, on reflection, quite easy to spot.  I think I may need a weekly mileage graph on this year's sheet (if in doubt, add more graphs...).

I then started to ask myself a new question:  if I had such a crap training year (and I did, let's be honest), how did I manage to pull off the races I did?  Dig deeper, look at 2012, and there's the answer.  It would seem that the first half of 2013 was built on the laurels of 2012.  One third of my 2012 weeks had 40+ miles. I got through the next 6 months based on that foundation.

I'm not going to further bore you with the rest of what I found on that trawl.  I will, however, say that it's helped to build a picture of what I've done right before, and how I can build on that for the next year.

So, next time you're looking at your latest Strava segment stats, or posting that picture of your Garmin on Facebook, take a step back and look at the bigger picture.  You might see more than you expected.

Wednesday, 12 February 2014

Gear Review: 2Toms butt shield

In the run up to my tilt at the Rocky Raccoon 100, www.ULTRAMarathonRunningStore.com provided me with some 2Toms butt shield to test out.  Having experienced some rather uncomfortable backside abrasions at Endure 24, I was quite happy to try something new.

The first goal, with any skin product, is to ensure it doesn't cause any adverse reaction.  So, on one of my route check runs for the Naunton Nearly 19, I duly applied the butt shield to areas sensitive to both chafing and potential chemical irritation.  Several hours of running later, the skin was happy, so my remaining test wipes went into the case for Rocky.

Application

It really is quite simple.  Open foil packet, extract the somewhat slippery wipe, and rub wherever you want to avoid chafing.  A roll-on version is available, but I'm not sure I want to keep using a roll-on where I want to apply the product.  A single-use wipe seems much easier and more hygienic, really. It also fits nicely in the small bag of toilet paper I carry on longer runs, so it's always there if I need it.  A single wipe provides plenty of product, so should be sufficient for a single application.  An unexpected positive about the butt shield is that it doesn't seem to soak into my shorts.  Petroleum jelly products often seem to end up soaking into the fabric, giving a bit of stickiness after application.  I had no such problems with the butt shield.

Durability

I enjoyed 12 hours without re-applying the butt shield, during which time I poured a fair amount of water over my head and down my back (usually certain to result in undercarriage chaffing).  Ideally, I think a second application at ~10 hours would have been wise.  I held out a bit longer as I was expecting to receive a call of nature, and figured it best to reapply subsequently.  As it turned out, I didn't race long enough to need the reapplication.

Test Result

Thankfully, I'm not going to post a picture...  After 12 hours, with a liberal amount of sweat and added water, I had a very small amount of minor chaffing.  Nothing to cause me to wince in a hot shower, but enough to let me know that I'd have been better off using another wipe at around 10 hours.  With a result like that, I'm happy to keep using the butt shield for my long runs.