Inov-8 TrailRoc 255 The Shoe I Wish I Bought in My Correct Size…

This is not a shoe review – this post is a Warning!

And the warning is thus:  Do not listen to anyone on the internet regarding shoe sizing. They do not have your feet.  Your feet are sleek beautifully formed sculptures of perfection – so when they suggest you need to take a certain shoe in a certain size be wary…Be very wary. People on running forums and shoe reviewers may like shoes with a different fit to you – and it’s a little known fact that nearly all minimal shoe bloggers have wider than average gorilla feet.  There are also people who seem to need their shoe to measure an inch longer then their foot…?

What’s that all about?

I’ll tell you… Apparently this is because your foot swells to gargantuan proportions after a few miles.  The funny thing is, my feet – the individual entities that they are – seem to shrink after a few miles.  I know that sounds bizarre, but I’m more likely to need to stop and tie my laces tighter than rip open the toe box with my pen knife

What I’m trying to adduce is that we all have very different feet, most people don’t really know how big their feet are and we don’t all fit in to the same pair of shoes.

So why did I listen to the advice to size up a half in the TrailRoc 255′s?

Look at these, beautiful shoes…

On the first run I found that I could get on with them quite well, the shoe felt really positive, even though I had more than a thumb width at the end of the shoe.   At first I just thought to myself that they were supposed to fit like this afterall a whole load of people on the internet said that they run small – size up!  I took them out for their inaugural run and my initial thought was yeah, I think all the internet people are right.  The natural last on the Trailroc tapers in quite sharply on the lateral side of the shoe, if I’d have chosen a smaller size this could have put pressure on my little toe.  The shoe felt responsive enough, I liked the firm ride, my foot felt like it was tucked up as snug-as-a-bug-in-a-rug, my toes had all the room they needed and more – it’s supposed to feel like this isn’t it?   The first tell tale sign that something wasn’t quite right was on the initial steep climb towards my local peak – my heels were moving far too much inside the shoe.  This puts me off.  I don’t like it.

So I stopped and removed the insoles, re-tied the laces with the heel lock technique and proceeded to climb.  Great, no slippage, great traction on what was admittedly quite a dry trail, hmm I thought maybe they’ll be okay without the insoles?

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It wasn’t meant to be though.  On arriving at the first Col, after roughly 600 metres of climb, I turned around and headed back the way I had come to test the downhill prowess of these puppies.  It wasn’t long before I realised that there was simply too much volume in the shoe for my foot.  If there’s one thing I hate more than heel slippage whilst climbing, it’s toe bumping whilst descending.  So I stopped and put back in the insoles.  The shoe was instantly transformed into a descending monster,  the triple rubber compound creating loads of confidence as I floated over a rock strewn section of trail.  I was impressed at how responsive and precise the shoes felt on this first descent, they were good!  I resigned myself to the fact that I had better get used to the heel slippage when going the hard way on the mountain.

I gave them a good try but unfortunately it was not meant to be, after just four runs I felt like the Trailroc had given a bit and I could now easily slip a finger in and out of the rear of the shoe – and yes, that was when my foot was inside the shoe…If I’d stuck to my normal size then I’m guessing they would have stretched a bit too…Bummer.

So I decided to part company with the 255 and they have now been sold on Ebay.  So this is my warning: Be careful when you gather opinions about a running shoe from the internet. The top bloggers are literately showered with free review pairs of trainers/sneakers. And I do believe that is grammatically correct to use the word “literately” -  this is not an exaggeration!   With so many shoes to test it’s not surprising that you don’t see much more than first impression reviews all over the internet.  There are only 365 days in a year – some bloggers receive more than this number of shoes in a month so it’s hardly surprising that they find it difficult to put enough miles on a shoe before it comes to review time!

If I was to tell you how I felt about the Trailroc 255′s after the first 10 mile run I would’ve said that they were great, because they are great -  I may have thought that the heel slip would go away…But I may have also towed the party line and advised a half size up – this may or may not have worked for you…  It didn’t work for me.

So what’s to learn? 

Number one, don’t take anyone’s advice on the internet or even in a store when it comes to shoe sizing.  Blogger X may have flappy flipper feet and need all the space she can get.  And, as I’ve demonstrated with this article a shoe changes dramatically with use.

Number two, try and read as many reviews as possible – I like Pete Larson at Runblogger, Biker Nate and Ginger Runner – They tend to put a little bit more mileage on a shoe before they write about it,  Nate usually runs at least one ultra before a review.

And Number three – remember, no matter how much other people say that a shoe doesn’t run true to size, YOU are the final judge about what fits YOU the best.

Happy trails!

If you’d like to see a proper review of the Trailroc 255, here are a few good ones (although take no notice on sizing recommendations).

http://www.irunfar.com/2012/11/inov-8-trailroc-255-review.html

http://mountainrunningadventures.blogspot.fr/2012/08/inov-8-trailroc-245-255-review.html

http://readingrunningredsox.blogspot.fr/2013/03/review-roclite-295-old-roclite-295-new.html

Why trail shoes need to get randy

A quick explanation of the word randy for my non-British readers.  In the United Kingdom this is a word that very posh and extremely out of touch people might use when they mean to say “horny.”  It’s the sort of thing Prince William might utter to Kate post-croquet, after a glass or two of Chablis.  It’s a bit “Hugh Grant.”   A touch “Foppish toff.”

Hugh Grant is a randy devil.

For the majority of Brits this word has slipped out of our lexicon.  It’s a bit like the term “bonk.”  Pretty much everyone in the UK knows this means “shit I can’t see anymore, it’s only mile 18, bollocks, what do I do now? – Help!!!”  But rewind the clock back to the mid-late 80’s and “bonk” was what you did after getting a bit “randy.”

Anyway, what does this have to do with trail and mountain running shoes?   Let me explain.  A “rand” as it pertains to shoe making is the protective bumper that can wrap around the sides of a shoe reinforcing the upper to midsole join.  You almost always see this feature on walking boots, but not very often on trail or mountain running shoes.

Hiking boots usually have a substantial rand

So here’s a question.  Do your trail shoes ever blowout like this?

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Merrell Mix Master II (after 150 miles…)

Or like this

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Merrell Trail Glove after a couple of hundred miles (notice that it has only blown on the portion of upper that isn’t covered by the rand – even with the hole these shoes aren’t too bad still…)

Or perhaps like this?

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Skechers GBT after 89 miles of light use…

Since the concept of minimalist shoes hit us full face in 2010, the battle was on to produce a shoe that weighs next to nothing, protects the feet, allows toes to splay, and yet holds the foot in a glove like grasp – at the same time allowing for a natural foot function.  In reality this is a difficult task.  The problem with making a “barefoot” shoe is startlingly obvious as the oxymoron would suggest… You will always be making compromises.   For the roadies, I guess the compromises are fewer due to the demands of the terrain. For trail thrashers, well we were bound to have problems based on the variability of what is described as “Trail.”  The quest to reduce the weight of the shoe equated to reducing the durability of the shoe and the legacy for day to day runners is the phenomenon of the upper blowout.

Conspiracy

The cynics amongst you might say that weakness is engineered into modern day manufacturing; they want you to buy more shoes… Personally if a shoe lets me down I pretty much move away from that brand and then 9 times out of 10 dis them all over the internet.  I’m not happy.  Shoes are expensive and I expect them to last longer than a couple of hundred miles.

So what actually causes these blowouts?

I have thought about this for a long time here are a few ideas…  Number one – could it be abrasion?  At first that’s what I thought was the most likely culprit… until I had a shoe pop, within the first 2 weeks of relatively light use – abrasion is a likely factor in long term use, but I don’t think it’s the underlying problem.

Could it be material strength?  This seems more logical.  As shoes have become lighter the uppers are thinner, the strength of this material is compromised.  Add to that a highly flexible midsole and we’re putting all sorts of pressures on the shoe.  When a shoe rips out on both the inside and outside edges, it’s a tell tale sign that abrasion is not the main problem.  Couple this with the demands of running a lot of vertical ascent and descent and I think we are pretty close to what causes the problem.

But…

Another idea to consider is the stitch-eating mud theory – where leaving the shoes caked in acidic soil will begin to rot the uppers, weakening them and munching away at the stitching…  I could buy this theory if it wasn’t for my fastidious cleaning routine and the fact that these blowouts occur so soon in the life span of some shoes.

Perhaps it’s to do with the individual runner, I weigh 80kg (176 pounds) – runners who weigh less may cause less damage to their shoes, I am always utterly baffled with claims of shoe service of over 1000 miles, perhaps lighter runners get more distance out of shoes, stress the uppers less, compress the EVA less?   It could also be to do with the individual’s stride and foot type  I do pronate slightly, my foot is slightly flatter – is this bad for shoes?  On the other hand I’m quite sure that I run lightly and it doesn’t make sense that I break some shoes but not all shoes…

I’m not 100% sure why my shoes pop – however, in my experience shoes with a protective rand (or even just an extra over lay of material around the midsole to upper join) last a lot longer.  Recently I’ve bought shoes based on this criterion although this has forced a compromise on my preferred heel to toe drop of 3-4mm.   I’m so weary of upper failures that I’ve come to the conclusion that robustness is more of an important factor; my last two purchases have been the Inov-8 Roclite 295 and the Trailroc 255.  Inov-8 seem to have the idea of randing nailed but there has been no big fan fair.

Hell of a rand on these bad boys

Hell of a rand on these bad boys

Randing is one part of trail shoe “technology” that has become make or brake for me – it’s my personal deal breaker.  I can take or leave a rock-plate and weight is less important as I run longer and in tougher terrain – although in reality 295 grams is not a huge amount of weight compared to the shoes we used to run in 5 years back!

The case against trail shoes getting randy…

I can imagine there are a few disadvantages to randing, and this is perhaps why it’s not fully adopted.  One possible reason is the drainage issue.  For sure a randed shoe will drain slower – but it will drain, I have had no problems with my 295’s for example.   I’d imagine that a chunky rand may also put some people off as they might not perceive it as a “running” shoe any longer.   It may be down to weight saving or even manufacturing costs.  I don’t know, I’d actually love to have a discussion with an industry insider on this.

DIY Randing

If your shoe doesn’t have a rand don’t worry – you can do it yourself, all you need is a tube of Shoe goo or Freesole and you’ll add tons of strength to those uppers, I tend to do this on all my shoes now – Even the heavily randed 295’s have weak spots that I glue over, and I extended the reach of the part rand on the 243’s with this technique.  It’s simple – just mask the area with duck tape – apply some duck tape inside the shoe (in case the glue seaps through the mesh) and then spread away.  You may need to build the layers up a little and you must make sure that the shoe is spotless clean when you do this I usually wipe the area with a tiny drop of acetone to make sure.   I think all unranded shoes should come with a free tube of glue.

The bottom line

My opinion is that a rand is essential, in fact I think that a perfect shoe for mountain running would look like an Approach/running shoe hybrid.  A fully randed shoe available on a 3-4mm platform – It doesn’t exist yet, but I would love to see something like that – a shoe really focusing on the tougher end of trail and mountain running – a gnarly all terrain slipper.   I can dream…Until then I guess I’ll just have to carry on with gluing my lighter shoes.   In Shoe Goo (or Freesole) we trust!

Running Nutrition: Granny Betty’s Yum Yum Cake.

I know what you’re probably thinking; Yum Yum Cake?  Silly name.  Well that’s what she called it…

SAMSUNGIn a tribute to my late Grandmother who passed away at the end of last year, just a few months short of her 90th Birthday, I’m posting the recipe for which is hands down one of her best cakes.   Not only is this slice highly satisfying to eat whilst enjoying a cup of tea and a listen to Woman’s hour, it is also high octane rocket fuel when taken on the run.  In fact it should come with a warning – eat this stuff and you will fly; you’ll get a PB, probably even win the race and it will make you even more attractive to the opposite sex.  Forget flapjacks – Yum Yum Cake is the way to go*

What’s more it’s a practical cake – flap jack thin, it won’t crumble, it’s not sticky and it won’t go soggy in a downpour.  Just wrap that badboy in a piece of tin foil and you’re good to go.  Plus the tin foil wrapped cake doubles up as a signaling mirror – so not only does it improve your ability to run it could also save your life.**  In my opinion Granny Betty has left the world of mountain, trail & ultra running a tremendous legacy.

You should try it for yourself!  Here’s the original recipe that Granny Betty gave me to wow my guests in the Austrian ski chalet that I used to run with Delphine.  It’s the recipe that I still make today.

YUM YUM CAKE RECIPE

  • 4 oz/115 g  Butter
  • 5 oz/140 g Sugar
  • 6 oz/170 g  Mixed dried fruit (Raisins, Sultanas, chopped Dates)
  • 1 Egg
  • 1 oz/30 g  Chopped Walnuts
  • 6 chopped cherries
  • 6 oz/170 g Self Raising flour
  • 1 tsp mixed spice or grated lemon rind

Here’s what you do…

Warm the first three ingredients in a pan until butter is melted.  Take off the heat.

Then add the egg (you’ve got to beat it first) – then bung in all the rest of the ingredients and stir them up

Put the mixture in a lined tin 9” x 12”  (22 x 30 cm)

I sometimes sprinkle mixed seeds over the mixture before putting it in a preheated oven for ½ hour at 140°C  (I should point out that I always put it in the oven at 140°C)

So there you go, the family secret is out!  Hope you enjoy it.

There ain't no party like a Granny Betty Tea-Party.  Rest in peace and thanks for all the cake!

There ain’t no party like a Granny Betty Tea-Party. Rest in peace and thanks for all the cake!

 * If none of these things happen you’ve obviously not made it properly – try again!  Didn’t work the second time?  Keep trying!
** ”Could” being the operative word.  Granny Betty’s Yum Yum Cake is obviously not a life saving aid, and should therefore not be relied up in a true survival situation.  In no way should it be used as a substitute for real life saving equipment, which obviously works a lot better.  Don’t even think about employing it as a belay anchor – this stuff’s for eating okay.

Inov-8 Roclite 295, a robust mountain running shoe

Okay, I’m just going to say straight off.  Great shoe.

Here’s what they look like new, I didn’t take a photo of mine fresh from the box so I’ve snipped this of the Inov-8 website

Roclite 295This is what they looked like after a couple of hundred miles of punishment.

SAMSUNGThe first thing I noticed was how the laces seem to go further down towards the front of the shoe than normal, this reminded me of a hiking boot, or more specifically a climbing shoe.  On slipping the 295 on I was really taken by the high levels of comfort a nice plush feel, with a cavern like toebox, wide and high.  As I reclined in my arm chair and reached for my pipe I was wondering if these would really be my thing?

My first mistake was assuming like all of my other shoes that I’d be better off without the insoles in.  I ran in them sans insole for about 3 months, putting up with toe banging slippage on the descents and a sloppy feel and resigned myself to the fact that these shoes would be set a side for long distance use only, not for racing.

But of course I did race in them, last years Montcalm Marathon, and a shorter 20km trail race, where they worked out okay, apart from the aforementioned slippage issues.

So in the end I realised that It wouldn’t hurt to put the insoles back in and see what they felt like – the problem was, where were the insoles?  My girlfriend, with all her best intentions, is a great tidy-up-er, the only thing that lets this immensely positive attribute down is her long term memory.  “Where did you put those insoles from my last pair of shoes, darling,”  I asked only to be replied with a “I thought you didn’t want any of those old insoles anymore?”   “Did you throw them away”   I resigned…  “Umm, they might be in a bag with all the other insoles actually, somewhere in the attic.”     So my quest to find the insoles began.  You need to know at this point that I’m in the process of renovating the attic, a task that is made harder by the number of times I’ve had to move all the boxes containing our stuff from one side to the other, in order to carry out the work.  Consequently all our stuff was buried to the point that extraction of any particular small item was a task really not worth contemplating – I had a “boys look” but couldn’t find my insoles.

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Attic renovations

I could have bought some new insoles, Inov-8 does sell them separately (which is a very good idea) but in the mean time as temperatures were getting lower I got away with running in the 295′s with a thick hiking sock on.  And do you know what? – with a hiking sock they were great, no slippage issues!  The only problem was that I was down to my last pair of hiking socks, To be able to run 5 days a week, I would need at least 4 more pairs, costing over 15 Euros each.  This solution was looking pricey.

Then one fateful day, my girlfriend announced that she had found my insoles (they were actually in an old shoebox)…(face-palm).  Eagerly I put them in and…

wait for it…

The addition of insoles turned a good shoe into a great shoe.  No more slippage issues, more responsiveness and much more confidence descending steep ‘n nasty spindle like track. Who’d have thunk it hey?   That’s not to say that they make the shoe in anyway tighter, there’s still bags of room in the toebox, you could swing a cat in these toeboxes.  The fit of the shoe is overall comfortable but not cross country spike tight… With the lace lock technique I can secure my midfoot and heel in place wonderfully, giving me a great positive feeling but in no way cutting of blood supply to my feet.  A perfect option for ultra marathons in mountainous terrain.

Side to side with the 243, noticeably wider, less point at the toes.

Side to side with the 243, noticeably wider, less point at the toes.

Underfoot they look like this:

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Deep tread and yellow.

Grip is the same as all other Roclites, great all round performance on gnarly terrain, mud (if it’s not too deep), loose stuff, grass.  Best in the dry but if you get caught out you will not flounder… And not too rubbish on the road too.  I love this tread pattern, always have, always will.  The only minor criticism is that the rubber is not the sticky climbing stuff used on the 243.   However, this has benefits in that it lasts a while longer, so it’s a trade off which makes them a little less stable on wet rock.  But I think we can all cope with that, just go with the slide…

Robustness and longevity

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SAMSUNGThese shoes have a full rand and strong toe bumper, overkill if your thing is pootling along a canal towpath, but essential for mountain running (expect a post all about randing shortly)  The shoe has held up well but I needed to reinforce two areas with Freesole shoe glue (pictured below)  I also had some minor restitching to do along the top edge of a rand, but I think if I’d have left it alone, the shoe wouldn’t have fallen apart.  At the time of writing I have 417 miles on them and the tread looks like new.

roclite week spots

Week spots, you’ll need to put a thin spread of glue here.

Are they race day worthy?

Yes and no.  Yes if running long, but for a shorter, faster course I’m going to go for the 243′s no question.

Anything else?

Well, they work extremely well in a big mountain setting.  I think so far this is the best shoe I’ve used in conjunction with Microspikes, and for some reason, I don’t know if it’s the overall look of the shoe with the randing, the yellow rubber sole and the lower reaching lacing, but they just scream mountain use to me.  And I love them for that.  They are a 6mm drop shoe, which is the highest drop I’ve run in for a while but feels okay.  To be fair drop is a non issue when running up hill and as I spend most of my time ascending, well like I said it’s not an issue.  Descent however is a different beast, as is running on flatter or undulating surfaces.  I did feel that I went through a small amount of adaption, between running in these and my older 3mm drop 243′s. At times I caught the heel on descent, but in the end this just conspired to get me to run faster downhill in order to get back the full foot plant I prefer on loose terrain.   Now that I’m pretty much exclusive to this shoe, they just feel right.  I may feel different about this after the winter – these shoes are noticeably heavier than the 243′s.   For thin sock (or sock less) summer running I’ll probably be back to using the lighter shoe.  Don’t get me wrong though, they are still flexible and light enough to allow natural foot function and I would class them as a minimal shoe, though perhaps at the north of the spectrum.  Hokas, they are not.

With Microspikes

With Microspikes

So there you go, that’s the review, if you were wondering about these then I hope I’ve been of some help.  I’d not hesitate to recommend this shoe to any mountain or trail runner, whether minimalism is their thing or not.   Theses are a fantastic tool, working well in winter and in summer, My preference really falling towards winter running, or just tons of upper splitting big ass mountain terrain.  Seriously, you’ll love ‘em.

Skechers GoBionic Trail vs the Pyrenees…

These are my Skechers GoBionic Trails fresh out of the box

SAMSUNGThis is where I run and have been using the GBT’s SAMSUNG This is how they look like after 89 miles (142 km)

SAMSUNGSkechers GoBionic Trail = Epic Fail

Words can’t convey how disappointed I am with these shoes, because the fit is good.  They are nice to wear, if you are looking for a low drop shoe with a wide toe box, and something with a smidgen more cush than your average minimal shoe then on paper these look great, they should have been brilliant – however in my book, an upper failure like this (and it’s torn away on both sides of both shoes) means that these shoes are next to useless for anyone contemplating serious miles on rugged terrain.

If you are looking for something to pootle around the local park in then maybe they’ll hold up.  But I wouldn’t count on it.  You see, I kinda only used this shoe for long stretches of forest road – admittedly gnarly in sections, but the sort of thing that a trail shoe should eat up for breakfast.  Yes I did try them once or twice on my local peak, but in dry conditions… Seriously Skechers come on… a shoe that only lasts for 89 miles is not worthy of any praise at all.  Even if the fit is great, and they feel like they’d happily carry you over ultra distances, an upper failure like this marks them down to pretty much zero.

So, there you go I cannot recommend this shoe for mountain or trail runners, and as I wear through countless shoes I’m starting to realise that unless the shoe is randed you might as well forget it.

Skechers GoBionic… Skechers “Go-Buy-Something-Else?”

 EDIT 12/02/2014 :  Since writing this post I’ve had a Facebook and email exchange with a representative from Skechers, who has kindly offered to send me a new pair of shoes.  I’ve given them my feedback regarding the upper issues, and I’ve been very impressed with their customer service.   I’d absolutely love to see a more robust version of this shoe, because it is frankly a shoe that fits really well, and is just great fun to run in.  it would make a really great long distance mountain shoe were it a bit tougher.  Watch this space…

Minimalism and Mountain running.

dent d'orlu

For this post I want to write about the history of the lightweight backpacking movement and how we can apply these principles as mountain, ultra and trail runners.

The most obvious place to start for me is the UK.  Since 1968 a yearly event now known as the OMM  (Original Mountain Marathon) has taken place.  It gained some notoriety in 2008 when it was abandoned mid-competition due to ill-informed media coverage suggesting that challenging weather had placed thousands of competitors at risk – in reality only one person was injured.  The object of this two day event is to navigate between checkpoints on a mountainous course carrying enough equipment for complete self sufficiency and an overnight camp.

The Compulsory kit list is as follows:

  • Warm Trousers or Leggings
  • Shirt or Thermal Top
  • Sweater or Fleece Top
  • Waterproof Over Trousers (taped seams)
  • Waterproof Jacket (taped seams)
  • Socks, gloves & hat
  • Head Torch
  • Whistle
  • Food For 36 Hours
  • Additional Emergency Rations
  • Compass (GPS Not Allowed)
  • Sleeping Bag
  • Footwear With Adequate Grip For Fell Conditions
  • Space Blanket or large heavy gauge polythene bag
  • Rucksack
  • First-Aid, a minimum of a crepe bandage and small wound dressings.
  • Pen Or Pencil
  • Tent With Sewn-In Groundsheet
  • Cooking Stove with enough fuel at the end of day 2 to make a hot drink

With such a lot of mandatory equipment you’d be forgiven if you thought you’d need a sledge to carry it all, but competitors manage to cram it all in to 30 litre rucksacks.  Over the last 40 years gear technology has progressed as such so that the elite can run these races with very light weight pack sizes and if you are willing to lose a certain amount of comfort it’s possible to stuff all the  gear in to a 20 litre pack!

the ommIt doesn’t take much imagination to realise that less weight = faster speeds.   I’ll come back to this point in a bit.

The OMM may have birthed the ultra lightweight backpacking scene in the UK, but it has its roots in mountain craft, orienteering and fell running.  On the other side of the Atlantic, Fast packing was popularized in a book written by climber Ray Jardine in 1992.  His book, “PCT Hiker’s Handbook” (later retitled as Beyond Backing) helped to lay down the parameters and techniques that ultra lightweight hikers use today.   By his third thru-hike of the PCT trail Jardine had shrunk his pack size to 4.1 kg (his first trek was with a base pack of 11kg).

ray jardine

Ray Jardine weighs up footwear choices. We’d want something a lot lighter than that old school running shoe…

The philosophy is simple, by stripping down the pack weight; ultra light backpackers cover more distance in one day, with less wear and tear on the body.

Gram counters

Ultra lightweight back packers or fast packers usually get quite obsessed with keeping the weight down – cutting off unnecessary strapping on packs, swapping tents for tarps, using bivy sacks or favouring super lightweight sleeping bags. You might wonder why you need to cut the handle off your toothbrush…  The mantra is “every gram counts”

So how do we apply the light weight philosophy to day in day out mountain, ultra and trail running?

You may have already taken part in an event like the OMM or other adventure races – if that’s the case you would be better qualified than me to comment on these things.   I’m much more of a single day event type of guy – preferring marked courses over the fell running style of navigation and orientation – although I’m not adverse to a little compass and map running during training or shorter fell running courses.

My gear requirements depend on two factors:

1. Length of time on feet, and 2. Temperature/weather

So the goal is to apply the less weight = more speed + less wear and tear philosophy.   First off we have to work out what we need, what we really can’t live without and how we can make these items weigh less

Here are a few items that I’d call mountain essentials, these are my personal choices based on my own personal experience and comfort level…

Cold weather / bad weather  

  • Socks – varying thickness depending on temp
  • Leggings or tights
  • Thermals both long johns and vest (for extreme lows)
  • Waterproof top
  • Waterproof  trousers
  • Under pants
  • Long sleeve tech top
  • Hat
  • Buff
  • Gloves
  • Hydration (bottles or bladder)
  • Fuel, Gels etc (depending on duration of run)
  • Ice axe  (route dependant and based on experience)
  • Crampons and or Microspikes (again route dependant)
  • Survival  blanket
  • Some kind of bag to carry stuff in

Cool weather 

  • T shirt/ long sleeve shirt
  • Shorts/ leggings
  • Socks
  • Hydration/Fuel
  • Wind proof top
  • Wind proof trousers
  • Buff/ Hat
  • Smaller bag to carry stuff in

Hot weather

  • T-shirt
  • Socks
  • Under pants
  • Shorts
  • Sunglasses
  • Buff
  • Visor /Cap
  • Hydration/Fuel
gears

A google search for lightweight gear, brings back… well… lightweight gears

Now this is a really simplified way of looking at gear requirements for the mountains, obviously it’s possible to encounter winter conditions in the middle of summer, and I’ve run shirtless off a snowy peak on December 24th before.   Mountain weather is unpredictable to say the least, that’s why the above is categorised by type of weather and not seasons.

So now I’m going to add a list of “luxury items” that can apply to all of the above categories

  • Phone
  • GPS
  • Trekking poles
  • Compression gear
  • MP3 Player (more “faff” than “weight” I guess)
  • Bulkier Food (things like chocolate bars, bananas, potatoes, cakes…)
  • Heavier “less minimal” shoes (some might prefer a little more shoe for longer adventures)
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My brother in law sporting the “least gear as possible whilst running on cold mountains” philosophy.

I’ve listed above the gear I use depending on temperature or expected weather, the other major factor with gear choice is the length of time you’ll be out for.  If you are just popping out on a well trodden 10 km loop then we really have to think hard about a lot of the above stuff – do we really need water for an hour’s run?  Is it really going to rain and if it does am I going to be cold?  It’s beating down with sun but am I going to get sunburn running in the forest with my shirt off – is there any point in carrying a T-shirt? Do I need socks?  Are compression sleeves going to do anything for me?   It comes down to common sense, as we head out of the door or climb out of the car the first thing we need to ask ourselves is what can I do without and what do we really need.  You may find that you are able to hit the trail with nothing more than a pair of shorts on.

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Coming close to the finish at last years Trail des Cascades.

On longer routes things get trickier to assess.  If I’m heading out for more than 2 hours then I will always check the local weather  forecast – this will help me decide my route (no good running on mountain tops in a thunder storm) and what I should take.  Again the question needs to be asked – what do I really need?  I’ve been out on routes in the middle of winter for hours and hardly drunk a drop of water – did I need to carry 2 bottles?  Only experience can help us with this.  Do I really need such a long handled ice axe?  Can I get away with a trekking pole instead?   Can I use micro spikes instead of crampons?  What is the smallest pack I can get away with?

I’ll address a few items that I think we can whittle off the list.

The biggy for me is always hydration, 1 litre of liquid = 1 kilogram.  That’s a lot of extra weight to carry, I guess the argument could be made that you’ll sweat out enough to equate for the water you carry… hmm I think that for the first 30 mins or so you’ll be warming up, and if it’s a long weekend run you might not sweat much at all… if it’s cold – even less.  I’d say that the water is weighing us down.

So here’s a thought – don’t bring any.  There are always mountain streams and springs.  This for me is the beauty of sport in nature, the ability to drink and eat off the mountain – you just don’t get that running on the side of the road.  People tend to fear stream drinking, my rule is that I take fast flowing water that is running over rocks, from small streams above any settlements.  I’ve been doing this for about 2 years now with no problems.  I have some great routes where I can run with plenty of water stops, but if I’m planning a run longer than 3 hours I do tend to bring bottles with me as a backup.  I still need to work on letting go completely although it is good preparation for races where carrying water is mandatory.

Another consideration is how to carry bottles – sacks add extra weight, belts can be a pain in the ass – I find hand holding bottles much simpler and more in line with the lightweight mountain minimalist philosophy that I aspire to.   For longer runs I’ve been experimenting with an Ultimate Direction race vest with the bottles up front on the straps.

My preference is in the following order:

  1. Drink from streams,
  2. Hand held’s,
  3. Pack held’s.

I do not like bladders at all, every single one I’ve had went moldy in under 6 months, and they are a faff to quickly refill.  Plus with a bottle you have the advantage of carrying a portable shower unit, or dropping in an electrolyte tab as needed.  (Don’t make the mistake of dousing yourself with sticky Nuun water though!)

Clothing, how much and what

I think if we are looking to pare our gear down to the bare minimum in most temperatures we can do away with under pants, the support from the inner brief in running shorts is plenty I think.  That’s a few grams saved already!  Not to mention the feeling of freedom this inspires.

Another item of clothing I tend to not bother with is a T-shirt.  As soon as it’s warm enough I ditch it.  However, I do carry a very lightweight windproof if running for a bit longer, this is easily rolled up in inside its pocket come stuff sack and is compact enough to hold in my hand when running – I’m working on a strap for this to make it even more practical.

In really rough conditions (I’m talking about -15 degrees (°C) with deep snow)  I’ve worked out that I’m comfortable with the following items – Bridgdale summit socks (you need a bit of room in the shoes for these so I often take out the insoles.)  Underpants, thermal long Johns, running tights, two long sleeve technical shirts, wind and waterproof OMM technical jacket, Ski gloves, beanie and two buff’s (one used as a facemask, the other over the head after I’ve warmed up).  I also carry a small pack with water, food, microspikes, spare gloves and windproof over trousers.   And if venturing up the mountain I’ll carry an ice axe.  During winter my shoe preference is for something a little bit thicker and therefore insulated, at the moment I’m finding the Inov-8 295 meets a lot of my requirements, and works well with microspikes.

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Inov 8 295′s married to Microspikes. Watch out icy mountain trail.

With this setup I’m good for an all day adventure, it’s overkill for a shorter run where I’d most likely opt for lower trails, lose the pack and some of the warm gear, swapping the ski gloves for a pair of Windstoppers and maybe forgoing the long Johns.

Minimalist gear choice is always a work in progress, each year I find that as we enter winter I need less clothing as I re-adapt to the cold, at the start of the season I’ll always bundle up for my shorter runs and then regret it completely after I’ve warmed up – I hate running when I’m too hot!  As Mountain and trail runners our greatest advantage over our hill walking cousins is the very fact that running means we’re warmer and able to carry less gear and less gear means we can travel faster more efficiently expending less energy.  Of course if we run in to trouble in remote areas a small amount of emergency clothing – windproof top and bottom should be carried, for the last part of this article I’ll talk about options for carrying emergency gear minimally.

There’s a time tested method used by fell and mountain runners in the UK, a good old simple waist or lumber pack (know as a bum bag and definitely not a fanny pack). These have been around for ages, the most popular being a no frills pack made by Pete Bland Sports in the Lake District.  This simple pack has one main compartment and two compression straps that cinch the pack tightly to the lumber region of the back, it’s big enough to fit all the emergency gear required to partake in a fell race, or just to be safe in the mountains.

We're all carrying the mandatory saftey gear for the Pen-y-fan fell race, in our Pete Bland "Bum bags"

We’re all carrying the mandatory saftey gear for the Pen-y-fan fell race, in our Pete Bland “Bum bags”

My preference nowadays is for a vest pack as I’m not too keen on having things tied tightly around my waist.  I’ve been using the UltrAspire Spry pack this year during long summer races and training, this is large enough to carry the essential gear I need, plus some extras such as a smart phone and even a small bottle, but it’s still an incredibly small piece of material and very lightweight.

For longer adventures , my search was for a pack that was lightweight but still reasonably strong, over 10 litres capacity, and able to carry an ice axe.  I eventually chose the Ultimate Direction Pete Bakwin pack, which I think is brilliant, but comes with a hefty price tag.  Reviews coming soon.

pb qualityFor carrying water I use the Nathon quickdraw bottles, which can each hold extra stuff like smart phones and gels (just be careful filling up in a stream with you smart phone in the pocket).

Writing this I’ve come to realise just how vast a topic this is, I’m going to leave it here for now but expect a part two sometime in the future.  In the mean time, if you have any thoughts and comments I’d love to hear from you

Inov 8 Roclite 243 – The Review (517 miles and counting)

SAMSUNGA few months ago I wrote my very first, first impression review of a shoe, this shoe.  I normally don’t do first impressions, but I was so excited about it I couldn’t wait!  But now it’s time for the truth – Is this shoe any good?

Well come on, is it any good?

As you can see from the above photo, they have been worn.  In fact I’ve currently done 517 miles (832 km or 98,271,360 barleycorns) in them, getting close to my target of 700.  The uppers needed reinforcement at about the 250 mile mark.  You can’t tell this from the photo’s – I used a clear flexible rubber glue called FreeSole.  Great stuff, much better than Shoe Goo or Black Witch – with the advantage of being transparent it doesn’t look like you’ve run through wet tarmac, which is very important for someone like me who doesn’t want anyone thinking that I go anywhere near a road.   I reinforced the areas just after the rand on both sides of the shoe, when I started to notice some fraying.

So apart from the usual durability issues the shoe is trés bon.  I found that after an initial bedding in period of around 50 miles they felt like home, like a lovely pair of slippers, albeit a nice fitting responsive pair of slippers, with good grip and a gorgeous sticky sole for running over slippy rocks – so not really like a pair of slippers at all.  The fit is tight, but not constrictive – no blisters to report of – but I did get two black toenails (one on each foot, second toe along – a matching pair if you like) after a running a long mountain race in them.   Saying that, my feet don’t feel pinched and I can’t really blame the shoes for my toenail problems, in fact for a very minimal racing shoe, they feel well protected.  Okay, you’re not going to want to drop an iron bar across your toes, but if you accidentally take your mind off the trail and hit a stone it’s not as much of a life changing event as when you do the same thing in a pair of five fingers.

Testing conditions

I ran a 50km race in the big mountain and they were great.   Running for me is mostly all about the climb followed by a descent, generally pretty steep. Sometimes I might get a bit of ridge running in, or if I’m pressed for time I’ll do a lower route in the forest.   If you follow my blog you’ll know that I live just outside of Foix in the Barguillère valley, infamous for that nails on the road indecent during the 2012 Tour de France.  The valley lies below the Arize Massif, which is a pretty decent, middle mountain chain reaching a respectful 1700 metres in altitude.  I live at 500 metres, so in the course of a week I get some pretty decent vertical in, on average about 2500 metres of up and down, with about 35 miles, or around 9 hours of running, all of this on rough old raggedy trails!

This year saw record amounts of snow in the Pyrenees, and we still had a few lingering patches up to July… Basically I’ve thrown nearly everything the mountain has to offer at these Roclites and in my opinion they perform really really well.  In fact they are so close to a one shoe quiver…

…But

The tread is not suitable for steep wet grass or steep mud.  You’ll get down it okay, but you’re not going to have the confidence that a pair of X-Talons or Mudclaws would inspire.

Longevity

I said in my non-review that I want the shoe to last 700 miles, and they’re not looking too bad after 500…  Now here’s the thing, without the FreeSoleing they would’ve blown a long time ago, so the unmodified shoe as the manufacturer sells it is not going to last.  Well, not for Mountain Thrashers like us.  But with the mod they are great and I intend to do this with all my shoes from now on.

After about 450 miles I started noticing a lot more trail feedback through the forefoot, there is no rock plate (which I think I prefer) so protection comes from the EVA alone, and once this degrades, logically the protection does too.  To the extent that I started getting spiked by some pesky pointy stones when I ran on packed forest road, unfortunately this caused a bit of a nasty bruising and a week off, and spurred me on to buying the 295′s (review coming soon) to cope with the Montcalm Marathon.

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It’s not all bad

In fact it’s all good, since getting over my bruising I’ve been heading out in the 243′s more, and I just love them.   I’ve had to adapt a bit to the greater feedback but in all honesty it’s helped me regain a bit of decent form.  I’m still getting the odd pointy stone coming through but now I’m finding this easier to deal with (might be, I’m just getting tougher?)   I wouldn’t wear them if I had miles and miles of forest road to run on (although at the start of their life they were perfectly fine for this) but for most other trail duties they’re just fine.

Up Hill Running?

Great stuff, light and responsive with amazing up hill grip. I love going up in these shoes, both in running or power-hike mode.

Down Hill Bombs?

Great responsiveness and ground feel make a good combination for fast technical descending, I’m finding I can open up on most grades and for the steeper big mountain stuff they’re fine.  Great on slippy rocks too!   The grip is great for most things mountain and trail, but really preferring drier conditions.  In comparison much, much better than the NB 110′s or the Merrell Mix Master, but what’s great is, if you do hit a bit of tarmac it’s not like running in a pair of soccer boots (read: Mudclaws).

What’s not to like then?

Umm…

Err…

Well, If I could have my way I’d extend the rand to cover the edges of the shoes past the arch area, perhaps adding a reinforcement patch over the arch.  And I’d copy the Merrell Mix Master toebox shape, it’s just slightly better in my opinion, I really think Merrel nailed the lasts on their shoes.  Inov 8′s are okay, but not as good.  Overall though I prefer the Roclite 243.  It’s f’ing brilliant.

SAMSUNGSo in summary; with the glue mod expect to get up to 450 miles of solid forefoot running in these, you’ll be fine running Big Mountain, Skyraces and ultras (providing you got the training of course) and they work great below the treeline too.  And if you have to bust out some road running you’ll be okay for a few miles.  Great all rounder; good for training superb for racing, comes pretty close to a perfect shoe for me.

Race Report – Marathon du Montcalm 2013

It’s been a little while since I ran this race, but as it’s kind of my “goal race” of the year I thought I get this report finished and on my blog, so first things first lets have a look at the mountain…

Getting on to the top of the mountain (photo credit http://www.auzat.fr)

The Race

I was about an hour and a half in to the race and the old chap with the two ankle braces had just motored past me for the second time – pushing himself uphill with a small stick that he’d most probably whittled down that morning.  A true man of the mountains… and again I’ve been passed by someone at least twice my age.

“Gandolphed” Is what it’s called.  Definition:  It’s when a wizened old man passes you in a race. So it’s similar to being “Chicked” although not half as nice.  To rub salt in to the open wound of my athletic pride the Gandolphs of this world usually float past with very little effort at all, as if the laws of gravity do not apply to them.  How do they do it?

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Monsieur Gandolph!

Just under 2 hours earlier I was standing at the start line in the village of Auzat, amongst about 300 nervously excited runners.  Britiain’s Shane Ohly was supposed to be there with his wife Heather.  Shane is famous for many things on the British mountain running scene notably his record for the Winter Ramsy Round.  A quick scan about but I couldn’t spot him – no doubt up front with the contenders.

I’m not a contender, I won’t pretend any different.  What I get from racing is the satisfaction of completing a challenge or beating a personal best.   Last year I ran the Montcalm race in 8h34 minutes, slowed down no doubt by the raging heat that day, but also probably due to a distinct lack of conditioning.  I was here to do better and a sub-7 was the goal…

I decided to run this race with a handheld bottle, there is plenty of water on the course – a few streams and loads of aid stations – you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s a bit too easy.  The elite don’t bother carrying much at all, but I knew I’d be out there for a bit so a bottle seemed a good idea, plus it’s a portable shower unit.  I also made a decision to run in a slightly more robust shoe – my 243′s are almost at the end of their useful life and I’ve been very happy with them, but a mountain race like this is a real upper shredder – lots of sharp rocks and scrambling, scree, roots… So I went with the roclite 295.  At 6mm drop it’s a bit more than I’m used to, but it’s light and very protected; it has a full rand and the toebox is a lot wider.  The last bit of gear I took was my new UltrAspire Spry pack.  Not much of a pack at all just a skimpy piece of material with a few handy pockets.  I needed something to carry gels and a jacket and this did the job well – review coming soon.

At 7.00 we were off, passing through the village of Auzat and heading up the valley following the main road.  The first mile of the race is on the road which is a great idea enabling the runners to spread out.  Pretty soon the course heads off road on a spindly little single track that quietly climbs the first 300 metres.  45 mins in and we top out on a balcony path that traces the contours of the mountain side as we make our way up the valley.   The views were amazing but at this point the sky was still pretty cloudy after the mother of all thunderstorms the night before.   I spent that night in my van, not really sleeping, being woken about every five seconds by either a blinding flash of lightning or the deafening crash of thunder.  But lack of sleep wasn’t really my biggest woe, for the majority of the previous week I’d been suffering from a nasty bout of stomach illness, with associated mad dashes to the toilet which had only really calmed down the night before the race… I wasn’t keen on pushing too hard for the first 10km.

This turned out to be a good tactic, normally I can’t help myself – I’ll shoot off like an arrow at the start of a race, I’ve learned recently that this tactic only works in the following cases:

1.  If you are a good runner.

2.  If you are likely to win the race.

As neither of these apply to me, the mind boggles why I shoot off from a start line so ferociously.  But this time things were different, I forced myself to run slow, deliberately choosing a mid pack start, and then getting stuck on the first bottleneck as we hit the single track.  In fact as I entered the first major checkpoint I was at least 10 mins down on my time last year.  That wasn’t a problem as I knew the race didn’t really start until that point, where the race route joins up with the main hikers path towards Montcalm.

Me, starting slowly.

The push to the top was to take another 3 hours and 20 mins.  As I recounted at the start I was Gandolphed, but not chicked, all of the fast women had already passed me – they all started ahead of me anyway.  Last year on this steep section of exposed rocky mountain terrain It seemed like I was being passed by the entire race – such was my fitness levels at the time.  This year I was pleased to be actually overtaking some people.  This and the fact that I could actually “run” when the track occasionally “levelled” out bouyed me up no end. With motivational tunes pumping out through my MP3 player I strode confidently to the top of the first peak – the races namesake – Montcalm.  At over 3000 metres altitude Mont-C is the highest peak in the Ariège Pyrenees, a steep loose path leads to quite a pleasant flattish peak.

On topping out the race course then asks you politely to descend back the way you came, but asks of it’s participants – “before you pop back down, would you mind just nipping over the border to Spain and climbing The Peak d’estats?  “No that’s no problem,” you reply as you descend back down towards the Col between these two giants.  Then as you make your way up the other side you politely tell the course that, “Actually my legs are finding it rather difficult at this precise moment, would you mind awfully if I just went back down now, perhaps on a chair lift or if it’s not too much trouble, maybe a helicopter?”  To which the course replies, “Oh I’m terribly sorry, but there’s no helicopter or chair lift and if you really would like to finish this race then you’ll just have to drag yourself up to the next mountain summit – Is that all right?”

To which one has no choice but to reply, ” Damn you, despicable race route, I’ll solider on but I’m not going to like it!”  So one foot at a time, saliva dribbling out of the corner of your mouth eyes firmly fixed on the prize you stumble on up hill.   Past the next aid station where you drink sugary water, salty water and normal water in some kind of attempt to get the right water, then crawling on your hands and knees you drag your way up to the top of Estats.  A quick “hola” towards Spain and it’s all you can do to bum-slide back down to the Col.

But with the advantage of gravity, things did start to get easier, the quads that I had been saving for the descent started to perk up, and I thought to myself that I could still be on for a 7 hour finish.  This gave me renewed energy and although things felt tough I knew I’d get back down.  Navigating the snowy bits on the way down was fun, I kind of half skied and then decided that the Alpine technique of glissading would suit me better – who am I kidding, I tumbled over like a rag doll, complete lack of control and worse still I looked like a knob.   The earlier checkpoints came back quickly, I was soon rounding the lake next to the palatial refuge de Pinet where a huge buffet like aid station was situated.  I paused here for a minute as I was getting really hungry and decided to eat cheese and saucisson, a French mountain race staple, before carrying on with the descent.  By now I was a couple of hours in to it and was still on for the 7 hour finish, but my quads were getting more and more sore.  Normally the longest amount of downhill training I do is about 1-1.5 hours so I was coming up to my limit really.  I kept chugging down the gels, but knew it was a lost cause.  My quads were trashed.

View from 3000 metres

View from 3000 metres

So I sat down semi-defeated.  Damn you marathon du Montcalm, why are you so tough?

I had to keep moving, there was no choice, my watch was telling me that the chances of a sub-7 were getting remoter and remoter, I plodded on, now resorting to my tried and tested “Zombie Stumble” descending technique – Just imagine a shriveled husk of a runner staggering on down the mountain like a slightly cleaner version of the living dead.   I had a goal in mind and that was just to get back to the treeline, but the path was full of challenging rocks, it was steep and the sun was really warming things up.  I managed to keep it together but my descent for all intents and purpose had the attributes of a walk – I was walking.   I lolloped through the aid station just before the trees and didn’t bother stopping – every second counted at this point.

Through the trees, I felt much better, and managed to muster up a bit of speed, I ended up pretty much on my own, passing a few walkers, some of whom were involved in the hiking race that was being held the same day.  As I was nearing the final steep part of descent another competitor came tearing past me and uttered something incomprehensible to me in French.  I was wearing my headphones and when I replied back in French that I can’t hear a damn thing he shouted again at me in French.  I gave him a vague look, and confirmed that it didn’t matter how load he spoke I still couldn’t hear anything – He was wearing headphones too so I imagine that he found it hard to hear what I was saying.  So I decided that he had told me that we weren’t far from the end and if we run hard we may get under 7 hours.

I looked down at my watch.  Sorry mon amie it’s not going to happen,  The time was approaching 6h20 and we still had a 10km stretch in front of us.  Last year I almost blew up on this last bit and I wasn’t going to let it happen again.  I figured that the best time I can run a 10km on trails with fresh legs is about 50 mins, so I was aiming now for a sub 7h 30 finish.  The last stretch was mainly downhill but my legs were really properly trashed by now.  I’d just have to see if I could dig deep.  As we emerged from the woods and exited the trail head, I grabbed loads of sweets from the aid station, soaked my head with water and then carried on down the road as fast as possible.   I knew from last year that I just had to settle in to a pace the majority of rough ground was behind me so I just had to keep on cruising.  For the next 5-6 km I played yo yo with the headphones guy who tried to communicate with me in the Forrest, until with about 4km to go I strode past him as our trails became a more sedate river side path – why can’t it all be like this I thought.

As I came up to just one kilometer of road separating me and the finish line in Auzat Monsieur le headphone emerged right behind me, he’d managed to find a bit more pep – perhaps the idea of almost being at the finish gave him renewed energy and he surged ahead of me.  Bastard.  I was spent, at this point I was probably running a 11-12 minute mile pace and my body had just gone in to Ultra running self-preservation mode – there was nothing left.  I ambled back in to the village, the streets were full of cheering supporters and it was with Bravo’s and Allez, Allez’s resonating around me I finally crossed the line in 7h36 mins.  Pretty much a full hour quicker than the year before.

Next year, with a bit more training – I’m going for the sub 7…

What I ate

I always like to write about my race nutrition, but it was such a blur I can’t remember exactly what and how much I ate, suffice to say I ate a lot of pâte des fruit – a kind of french fruit pastel, which is very popular amongst runners.  I also ate bananas, oranges, cake, cheese, dried sausage and about 5 of my own cliff bar chocolate gels.  At one point I had an extreme craving for the single Nuun tablet that I had bought with me – so I went with it and I really think it helped, after that I made sure to drink some of the salty water at aid stations.  I’ve been a bit skeptical about salt before but on this occasion it seemed to help.

Coming Soon to NearlyShoeLess….

Wow, I have been very, very busy lately and as such have not had a moment to sit down and blog.  But there’s some good stuff coming up soon… Oh yes there is!

Very soon I’ll have new reviews out – I’ll update the non-review of the Inov8 243, There’s a look at the Nathan Quickdraw handheld, my MP3 player recommendation, new shoes and my first race vest – how will it compare to my trusty old bum bag?…

Plus I’ll have a race report to add as I’m running the Montcalm Marathon again this year on the 17th August – 26 miles straight up and back down the Montcalm – the highest peak in the Ariège and our version of the famous Pikes Peak Marathon (except harder!)

And I’m going to have a detailed look at the “drop” or heel to toe differential in shoes – is zero the best or does a little heel offer some advantage?

All this and more coming really soon… (Well perhaps in about a week or two)

 

 

Race Report – Trail des Crêtes 50 km – 22nd June 2013

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Official website

Course profile and map

This was an odd one really.  I’d marked it on the calender as a maybe race, but it was definitely not a definitely race.  It was the week of my 37th Birthday, I didn’t get many presents and as predicted the new GPS watch didn’t turn up – I had to make do with some beer and a second hand book.  So I felt like giving myself a treat.  “I know” said my internal monologue, “We’ll do another ultra”

“Okay,” I replied, “let’s do it.”

(I realise that it may seem a touch weird actually having a conversation with one’s internal monologue, I’m happy with that, I don’t need help – its all good).

So in order to give myself a really great birthday treat I decided to enter the 50 km version of the Trail des Crêtes.  Last year I had a crack at the 24 km race which is held on the same day and follows some of the same course and for the real speed demons there’s also the option of a 12 km.

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Course profile.

It was the fourth edition of the race and for the 50 km there were only about 70 starters preparing for the leg aching 3754 metres of vertical climb that lay in wait. (For those that favour old fashioned measuring systems that’s 18.6 furlongs of climb)..  I scanned the crowd, something very important was missing, it took me a moment to become fully cognisant – then it suddenly dawned on me… Where were all the girls?  There was absolutely no women.  This is the only race I’ve ever done without any women!  At least I wasn’t going to get chicked today!

“Great,” said the internal monologue, “You stand a real good chance of doing well here”.

“Hmm,” I replied…

Two weeks prior to the race I had caught a bit of a cold, and in an attempt to recover from this I opted to ease off the training for much of the week before the race.  I don’t usually bother with tapers so I did wonder if this was a good idea, but my body was definitely in need of a rest that week.  In the end my “negative running streak” lasted 5 days, that’s the my longest break from running for two years or so.  After my neg-streak I managed a quick run the morning before and decided then that the race was on, but I was wondering really if I had enough training in the bank since my last phatty a few months ago - The Trail des Citadels

Once we were all gathered at the start line the Race Director gave us a last minute briefing.  He was worried for our safety due to the combination of low visibility, patches of icy snow and the general cragginess of the course.  We had a couple of options available – we could double back on ourselves, effectively turning it to a 30km or have a go at the full course if the weather changed – to his credit he left it for the front runners to make the decision.  I was personally hoping for the race to go ahead as planned… It was certainly looking very cloudy from with the tops of the mountains completely bathed in grey…

There was just a few minutes left so I did a quick double check of my gear.  I decided to run as minimal as possible, which meant no stupid rucksack.  We were obliged to carry 1.5 ltrs of water, a windproof top, whistle, space blanket, phone and emergency food.  I packed everything into my trusty Pete Bland waist pack (bum-bag or fanny-pack depending on you inclination) and opted to try out running with two hand held bottles.  I recently purchased two Nathan Quickdraws and up until this race hadn’t really gone more than 4 hours in one push carrying bottles.  So a test it was to be.

The great thing about the Nathans is that they have a neat little zipped compartment on the strap in which I stowed my phone in one and a fistful of gels in the other.  I attached two carabiners to either side of the straps on my pack so I could hang the bottles if I needed my hands free for any higher sections of scrambling.

The race was underway by 7am and we headed out of St Paul de Jarrat on our way in to the mist, up a winding forest track and to the first minor summit -Pic de la Lauzate.  This marked the 10km point at about 1800 metres altitude.   At this point I was already about 10 minutes quicker than last year when I ran the 24 km route.  Perhaps I was running too fast?  I was certainly running a lot of the climb, so I made the decision to slow down a little bit for the section up to Mont Fourcat.   The summit of Fourcat was roughly another 1.5 km and 200 metres of climb. It’s a beautiful mountain – viewed from the bottom in Foix it dominates the sky and is almost volcano like in appearance.  It’s also the the first 2000 metre peak when coming to the Pyrenees from Toulouse so usually attracts plenty of  day trippers.

The fog was still plenty thick as I started the push towards the top – I was still hoping for a cloud inversion though and as we came closer to the summit of Fourcat I was not disappointed.  It was so good I took a few shots with my mobile…

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Emerging out of the fog

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Looking back at the fog

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The Monts d’Olme poking out of the cloud

As you can imagine with views like this after nearly two hours of running I had to stop a while and take it in.

The next stage was a rock strewn descent off the south face of Fourcat, following the race markers but no defined trail, at this point we had our first snow crossing, which was pretty safe and reasonably easy, then the course found a track as it wound its way back down in to the forest and the mist.  I found this section of descent and flat ground running pretty easy so decided to open up a bit of a gap between me and a couple of runners behind.  After about 4kms and 500 metres descent we arrived at the ski resort of Les Monts d’Olmes.  As ski areas go It’s quite petite – only a few lifts but being a ski resort meant road access and at 16km in to the race we had our first decent aid station.  I drank some Coke and ate the usual cheese and saucisson before embarking on the climb out of the resort.  This section was tough, the climb seemed to last forever and at times there were a lot of snow crossings and decisions to be made as to where the next course marker was.  I was over three hours in by this point and it was nice to get a call from Delphine wishing me well and telling me that I just need to keep putting one foot in front of the other.

Buoyed up by the call from my girl and the distinct possibility that the sun was breaking through the clouds I continued onwards, it was time for another gel and unfortunately faced with a meager choice in Decathlon I bought some really quite disgusting Powerbar gels.  They worked okay from an energy point of view but I found them hard work to get down, they actually felt like they were burning my throat away.  Not good.

The course gradually wound its way up to the ridge of Pic de St Barthelemy the highest point of the race at 2348 metres (That’s about 7044 Barleycorns).  The path up to the summit was pretty tough work with some nasty sections of snow.  There were two sections in particular that I felt really should have had some protection on them – the fall would have been unpleasant to say the least.  Erring on the side of caution I fashioned a spike out of the roots of some heather and used it as a pick on the steepest bit of snow.

Topping out on Barthelemy at about the half way point the enormity of this race dawned on me as I looked across the ridge line back to mount Fourcat, it seemed a very long way away.

On the descent I decided to snap a few more pictures as the views were just amazing.

After descending from Pic de St Barthelemy our next peak was presented to us…

SAMSUNGSAMSUNGAround the 26 km point I realised that I had gone out a touch too fast at the start – my legs were pretty spent, I wasn’t capable of my normal nimble mountain goat descending so I switched to my reserve technique, which I call “The Zombie Stumble.”  The name pretty well describes the technique, if you’ve ever seen a zombie flick you’ll know what I’m talking about, I just let myself flop down the hill in a kind of jittering, stumbling, tired and slightly ill looking way.  It gets me to the bottom.

So from about that point onwards it was survival mode, and as much as I was enjoying the beautiful vistas it was hard to ignore the proximity to my “pain cave.”   It was clear at this point that the course planner had a sadistic streak as we dropped even further down towards the Etang d’Appy – a beautiful mountain lake situated at 1734 metres – only to have to climb back up the other side and rejoin the ridge we just came off.  A trip that took me the best part of an hour.  Coming back up after the lake I managed to find a bit of pep in my legs and increased my speed a tiny bit on the flat sections.  I overtook one runner at this point as I neared the Col de Cadene and the next aid station.

Relieved to have made it to the 30 km point and with only one big peak to go and a platter of nibbles to eat I very quickly began to feel better about the whole undertaking.  I wolfed down some cheese and saussion again, and drank some more coke then with renewed spirits pushed the climb to the top of Pic du Han.  This is quite a pointy mountain and there was a little scrambling in places.  The setup of clipping my handhelds to the carabiners worked well and gave me the added feeling that I was some kind of rock climbing running guru as I made my way to the summit.  On topping out I was met by a brave marshal that guided me over the next tricky section of descent. Then there was one last patch of snow to cross and we were back on to a decent path.  The ridge undulated a little but I managed to run in places there was one very minor peak left and I was back at Fourcat!

This time all I had to do was contour around Forucat and head directly to Pic de Lauzate (you may remember that from the start) and from there it was downhill on tracks and forest paths.  There was one last sting in the tail though, which I remembered from running the 24km race last year.  At around the 42 km mark there’s one last climb of 120 metres!  The buggers!  At this point the heat was getting to me, but I had the race in the bag and mentally I was on top of it.  I knuckled down to the climb and then ran as fast as I could on the final descent back to the village.  My goal of a sub 9 hour finish just escaped me as I crossed the line in 9hrs15 and was met by the Race Director persoanlly who was dishing out cups of Coke to all the finishers.

In the end I placed 32nd out of 63 finishers and I looked like this…

SAMSUNG And I wore the Inov 8 243′s which held up really well and looked like this…

SAMSUNGI was pleased with the Nathan handhelds and only had a little bit of a shoulder ache after the race, normally when I wear a rucksack for this length of time it feels a lot worse – I’m considering getting a race vest soon, but as I don’t already have a mortgage it’d be hard to take out the second mortgage required to buy one of those vests.

Fueling was less thought out than usual – I had my race day staple breakfast of rice pudding banana and cream.  I took 7 gels in total – 3 of which were those god awful Powerbar gels – to put it in to context I’d rather be made to watch Die Hard 5 on rotation for 9 hours than eat another Powerbar gel.  However I bought 4 Isostar gels which I’d had before so it wasn’t a complete disaster.  I supplemented my personal stash with cheese, sausisson and the French favourite – pâte des fruits (think fruit pastels).  And of course they had Coke so I drank Coke!

I love Coke.