Tuesday, 14 November 2017

Salomon S-Lab Sense Soft Ground


The Salomon trail running range caters for a vast range of running types and terrains. Sat at the centre of this catalogue is the piece de resistance, the S-Lab Sense. The stripped-back racing shoe, with all the technological knowhow of the Annecy based company evident throughout. The familiar red colour scheme signifying its sole purpose in allowing us to run fast and light along the trails without compromise.

In order to specialise the shoe for wetter and slicker ground, Salomon released the Soft Ground version of the Sense. In doing so they found the sweet spot between functionality, performance and specificity, particularly in notoriously tricky British fell conditions. The Soft Ground bridges this gap by combining the superb minimalist elements of the Sense range, but adding an aggressive outsole with deep luxurious lugs. Although not the shark tooth shape of the Salomon S-Lab Speed, (http://enhancingexistence.blogspot.co.uk/2016/03/) they are still hugely competent in greasy conditions. By combining almost infinite grip, with race ready Sensibilities (see what I did there), Salomon have come up with The mountain shoe for the market. Yes there are other options out there, that may suit some people, but they don't come without compromise. Salomon have come up trumps with the S-Lab Sense SG's and they currently sit as my favourite shoe. 

I threw on a brand new pair of the 6th generation of the S-Lab Sense Soft Ground to support 2 legs of a friends Bob Graham Round attempt. They required no bedding in, immediately out the box they fit like an old pair of slippers. Over the next 20 miles and 10,000ft of ascent the SG’s took the terrain in their more than competent stride – be it bogs, thick mud or even wet rock. They’re also now a meagre 225grams, so even after the punishing climbs and descents from the worst the Lake District has to offer my legs felt fresh and my feet light. It's a foregone conclusion what will be on my feet when I take on my own Bob Graham Round next year.

Climbing high in the SG's on the Bob Graham Round

Over 6 generations of S-Lab Sense, the fine tuning is evident throughout the shoe. The fit seems more generous than before with a squarer toe box that allows toes to splay more. Yet despite this, accuracy isn't compromised at all, the 'Endofit' technology means the sock like fit makes the shoe genuinely feel like part of your foot. This in turn gives supreme confidence when hammering descents at high speed. Foot placement feels accurate on technical terrain increasing performance.

Despite a minimalist mindset when producing this shoe, Salomon has in no way sold the end user short on protection. The obligatory Profeel Film is ever present to protect your foot from rocks and other obstacles. And although not completely bombproof in order to maintain minimalism, in turn it doesn't affect proprioception whatsoever. In respect of race performance and dexterity this is the ideal level of protection. Whereas some more dense soles on the market could offer more layers of protection, they do so at great cost to speed over technical ground.

The upper on the shoe is the usual sumptuous combination of exotic materials and glued overlays. The mesh keeps debris firmly out, yet the plastics ensure longevity. It's this area that truly separates the Salomon shoe from its rivals, these shoes are made to last, even in the harshest environments. In previous iterations of the Sense range I've eventually split them at the sides where the toe box flex's most. This has clearly been identified and now rectified with strategically placed reinforcements to these previously vulnerable areas. I've currently run just over 300 miles in a pair of Sense SG's and they show little sign of wear. This despite spending several hours in punishing bogs and rocky conditions at the Salomon Nevis Ultra and having daily runs in the Peak District where the peat is notorious for degrading shoe materials.

Not only is it a win all round with the shoes upper, they also looks damn sexy! The combination of red with black detailing make these the Ferrari of the trail shoe market. Maybe a little loud for some peoples taste, but undeniably eye-catching.

Turn up to any mountain/fell race and you'll see Sense SG's in abundance. This is for good reason, there's little else on the market that comes close to this hybrid of technological and minimalist oxymoron. With durability and functionality optimal throughout the design, I can't imagine anyone being disappointed with a purchase.

Taking on the technical ground with ease at the Salomon Nevis Ultra

Tuesday, 27 June 2017

Salomon Sonic Pro 2

The trails will always have my heart, I desire them and I thrive on them. The endless variety of our outdoor playground, stunning views to soak up, fresh clean air to inhale and summits to tag. It feeds the soul and nourishes the mind.

Yet the reality is that from time to time most people need to hit the road. The harsh manmade surfaces that drive extra impact forces and vibrations through the body. Often running through heavily populated areas with the added hazards of moving traffic and pollution. That’s not to say of course one can’t derive enjoyment from this environment. To the contrary, expect a faster and more metronomic stride. I use it as a time to work on my form and attempt to correct flaws. Yet I still take time to find a little adventure, for me it’s a short canal side run that cuts through the heart of an industrial estate on my commute.

Of course when tackling the roads our footwear should reflect the surface and the nuances it brings. This is where Salomon, renowned mountain and trail running brand, step in with another valuable addition to their range. The Sonic Pro 2 takes itself seriously as a bonafide addition to the road running world. Bursting with technology, yet still giving the appearance of a simple and functional piece of footwear.


The upper is smart looking with 3 colour choices; the usual Salomon Red, a vivid yellow and an understated dark blue (which I personally prefer this time around). The soft pliable upper is a combination of flexible plastic overlays interspersed with mesh for enhanced breathability. I was surprised to find this softer upper made these the probably most comfortable Salomon shoe I’ve ever worn. It also looks to tick all the boxes where reinforcing weak sections might be, which is a real plus on the durability front. The ever present Salomon Sensifit technology is of course as good as always. Users of Salomon shoes will be familiar with the sock like fit that really holds the foot to the material, which in the road running environment translates to power transfer. This time around they've opted for regular shoe laces over the typical Salomon quick lace system. I'm not sure why, although I imagine there's a functional reason, it just doesn't necessarily compliment my lazy/convenient outlook on life. Maybe it's to show they are serious when it comes to a road shoe, where regular laces can be tightened at different sections to fine tune the fit.

The outsole is as expected for a road shoe with a light tread pattern that not only grips the pavement, but could also take light trails in its stride. I’ve run on muddy canal paths and I’d say it was a fair test. Some slippage was expected, but with the responsive ride it gave me enough proprioception to stay in control. Clearly this isn’t the environment they were designed for, but interesting to me that there is some crossover, however slight that might be. Of course, on the the road they are sure footed and grippy as you'd expect.

The technology built into the sole features Vibe technology. Salomon explain this is engineered to reduce vibrations through the body. Something that’s clearly important on harder surfaces and shows Salomon are taking their assault on the road running world seriously. In my testing I couldn’t honestly say if this made a difference, other than to say my legs didn’t feel as trashed as they often are after a road session. What I did find was a shoe that gives everything back you put into it. I’ve been guilty in the past of running on the harder stuff in a softer soled shoe to try and soak up the hammering. Yet what I’ve experienced in the Sonic Pro 2’s is a firmer ride that just makes me want to run fast. All the power from my legs is transferred to the road, launching me forward. The Sonic Pro 2 is also a very nimble shoe that gives confidence if negotiating steps or other obstacles in the urban environment.

In summary the Sonic Pro 2 is a quality addition to the Salomon range, but only if you take to the roads in your running. Salomon have far more capable trail running shoes if that’s what you do exclusively. And as far as road racing I believe the Sonic Pro 2’s would be exceptional with a firm but responsive ride. I’m currently using these to commute to and from work in which is 70% road and 30% trail and they’re performing great.

                      If you hit the asphalt - treat yourself to a pair, you'll not regret it.

Great Strides 65km Ultra

One of those magic moments with Cam

I take running too seriously…..seriously! I pick my races, I train hard, I dream big. And when it all comes down to it I manage my expectations as best I can and learn. It’s all about learning right? If we always had perfect races we’d never learn, we’d never grow as athletes or indeed people.

Only running isn’t serious – we aren’t exactly out there saving lives are we? Yeah it provides fulfilment, fitness and wellbeing. But it isn’t a critical illness, famine or terrorism, those things are serious.

With this in mind I was recently offered an opportunity to run another event in aid of charity. I haven’t done this since the Lakeland 100 back in 2015 when I ran in aid of Cancer Research. This worked twofold: I got to help in some small way for something serious, and I got to do it while taking part in my favourite pastime ie running around the countryside utilising bad navigation to completely screw up my races.

A friends daughter suffers with Cystic Fibrosis, and she’d asked if I’d be willing to run an event and raise money for the charity. I was honoured and humbled to help so immediately agreed. The race was to be held in Surrey and all I needed to do was try and raise some money and turn up.  This helped my perspective entering into this race. I didn’t need to take it seriously, other than to finish to give credibility to the £1000 that had been raised. But other than that there was no pressure, this wasn’t an ‘A’ race for me. More a family weekend away with some camping and a bit of running. 

Stood with my excellent support crew x

The course is 65 kilometres long with just shy of 4000ft of ascent, run along parts of the North Downs Way and the surrounding countryside. So for me on the short and flatter side I guess. Still it would make a great training run and I’d get to meet some cool people. Win - Win as far as I could see. 

The night before the race was a complete waste of time, I just laid awake in my tent for no good reason and waited for the sun to rise. Still don’t know why that happened as I wasn’t stressed about the race at all???

The start / finish area

Once I was up I had a couple of hours to potter about near the start line (we’d camped right on the start/finish field). The sun was coming up and things were heating up nicely…

The runners assembled at the start line just before 10:30 where we had our safety brief and met actress Jenny Agutter (credits such as Avengers and An American Werewolf in London, no less) who was to 
send us on our way. Side note – nice lady but after chatting to her for 10 minutes not realising who she was I think she thought I was a bit of a nutter.

Jenny Agutter getting in the spirit of things

At the start we climbed a short distance up a field before we joined the North Downs Way. I immediately looked to head in the wrong direction – literally 50 metres from the start line! This was going to be a long day. I got on the right trail and started jogging along at what felt a sensible pace. This naturally put me at the front of the race which was a little unexpected. Luckily a nice guy called David dropped in alongside me and we had a good little natter over the next couple of miles.

This early part was pretty much what I expected running alongside open fields with a couple of woodland sections interspersed. Great to get the legs spinning and quickly led me to running comfortably in the low 7min/miles. I thought I’d be in for a day of good company with David but it wasn’t long before he dropped back and when we hit a short road section he completely vanished. And that was it for the rest of the day. I was a lonely runner with nobody for company. :0(

About 5 miles in a runner came careering by at what looked to be a good minute a mile quicker. I even had to side step on the trail so he didn’t run into me. I was initially shell shocked by this appearance, however my fears of inadequacy were quickly allayed by a 10k race sign around the corner, which was clearly being run on the same day as ours! Phew, crapped me sen there! This followed with another comedy Nav moment as a young volunteer marshal attempted to send me the wrong way onto the 10k route. What ensued was a comical argument about who knows best in relation to the direction I was meant to be travelling. In all fairness at any other time I would have trusted the young lad know better than my natural north (that must generally point somewhere south-west). At this point though my GPX-loaded-fandagled-super-future-running-watch (Suunto Spartan Ultra #shamelessplug) knew best, so after giving the young fellow some worldly wise advise I charged on.

It wasn’t too long till I started to get a few decent climbs in, albeit fairly short ones compared to what I’m used to. But this nicely changed up the pace and the running gait. Well it was until I discovered the inherent joys of running on sand. 

Lesson number 1. so I learnt my first lesson of the day; Kirki can’t run in sand.

I tried to alter my form to no avail, flatter footed, shorter stride, nothing worked. I basically just slid around like a spider on roller-skates, losing all and any energy with every step. The end of this sandy section couldn’t come soon enough and I even took to running through the ferns along the edge of the trail to escape my grainy hell.

The aid stations were generously spaced something like every 3 miles on average, which was a real treat for me being used to much bigger gaps. I actually ran straight through several aid stations, but equally liked the idea of having a little finger buffet every 20 minutes or so. This was a double edged sword because my 'fat-guy hiding in a skinny body' got the better of me and I think I over ate early on causing me some undue problems later on.

I loved the climb up to the Devils Punchbowl at around 10 miles in. With nearly 3 miles of steady climbing I ran every step, enjoying some of the more technical sections running up narrow single track ‘canyons’ in the woods. As I crested the top of the bowl I soaked up the view and immediately felt the searing heat. The temperature was getting up into the mid 20’s, which normally wouldn’t be horrendous, but honestly I didn’t feel acclimatised to it at all. I was sweating pretty heavily so I just kept throwing water and Mountain Fuel down my neck.

I ran straight through the next aid (while throwing out my best smile for the cameras) before traversing, then descending from the Devils Punchbowl. The descent was smooth and fast with me knocking out a sub7 somewhere down there. Probably too quick for the hot conditions but I didn’t care because I wasn’t taking it seriously, right?

Somewhere around the next 10 miles the organisers decided an ultra-marathon in itself wasn’t enough of a challenge. So in order to keep the stakes high they threw in some obstacle racing – such is the de rigueur these days. In the case of the Great Strides organisation this came in the form of a field of nettles. For about a quarter of a mile! This might have been funny, but for those that know me, they’ll be aware of my penchant for wearing heinously short shorts. This means a light nettling on the calf for the average ultra-runner, was for me to become a full body experience.

Lesson number 2. Sometimes it’s appropriate to wear longer shorts Kirk!

After much cursing and crying I finally broke free from my sado-masochistic trail of pain. Licking my wounds I realised I needed to push on as I’d lost a bit of time mincing about in the nettles.

Dotted around the course there was the odd sign or taping to try and keep runners on course. Of course I knew better than these so after a particularly steep and lengthy ascent a marked left turn was ignored in favour of a sweet looking descent down a techy trail. Only when I reached the bottom of said single track did I realise my mistake. After some running up and down a nearby road I finally figured I needed to re-climb the elevation I’d given up to the next checkpoint up at a school. I was obviously still in good spirits because I was just laughing at what a navigational muppet I am.

In the aid I realised I didn’t want anything else to eat – my wife was surprised and a little concerned. She does know me well by now, enduring these events with me as the ‘Best Support Crew In The World’ (Copyright). So when my stomach starts to go South, Emma is usually the first to notice the signs. Once again I knew better and refused any food before moving on.

Lesson number 3. The wife always knows best.

With the ever increasing heat and the effort required to leg it around 40 miles of hilly trails, it was somewhere between mile 25 and 30 the wheels well and truly fell off. It started with a sickly feeling. Then after an excessive forced meal of banana, strawberry and mango from an aid combined to create an eruption from my belly. So much so, the projectile covered several feet in front of me. Bad because it meant I was ill. Good because the vomit flew beyond my rather sexy looking Salomon Slab Sense Ultra’s (#secondshamelessproductplug). The hope of a handy reset of the stomach was quickly negated as everything, up to and including water wouldn't stay down. All I could do was plod on and await the inevitable slow down associated with zero calories in the system.

Where ever I could I tried to turn the legs over just to keep a decent pace. It seemed to work so I took to counting down the aid stations to the finish. At 32 miles the course gets a handy climb called Martha's Hill. A steep and technical ascent that I was hoping to run every step prior to running the race. However in my pathetically weakened state I took to a wobbly hike to get me up there. The heat was becoming more oppressive and I was worried that the lack of water could cause me serious problems. As I summited I was greeted with the aid station in front of an idyllic church and well known local beauty spot. Such a stunning spot with tourists and aid staff enjoying the panoramic views. All seemed right in the world till I chucked some more bile from my stomach over the Church wall. With that blasphemous act I decided it was best to move on down a lovely smooth runnable trail. So I skulked off feeling ever sorry for myself.

This torture dragged on what seemed like forever. I used the beautiful countryside and amazing trails to distract myself from the agony. I literally concentrated on putting down as high a cadence as I could muster and soldiered on. Rejoining the North Downs Way, I knew this death march would end soon enough so stumbled on in a laughable weave.

Travelling through small villages, by gorgeous riversides and winding up pretty woodland I reflected on my journey and current position. I couldn't help but enjoy the experience, as painful as a finish it was. I soon arrived at the final aid station and just collapsed onto the dirt in front of the food table. The bewildered staff asked if I was okay, to which I mumbled some unintelligible reply about this being normal. I reached back behind my head and my hand found a bowl of jelly babies. With one last ditch effort to salvage a strong finish I threw a couple of the little sugar filled adolescents in my mouth. I hadn't even realised but a black labrador was frantically licking the sweat off my arms and face. At least the dog was getting his electrolytes in...

I stood up with one last effort and start wobbling off in a slow jog. I rounded the corner, out of sight of the aid staff and promptly vomited yet again.

Nothing for it now but the run in to the finish and try to hold this first place. It felt truly pathetic, but looking back I really was running everything, which however slow was meaning solid progress. 

What followed was probably the most enjoyable and memorable moments in my running life. Running up a steep climb somewhere within reach of the finish I heard a shout from behind. Looking back I could see my family running desperately trying to catch up and see me into the finish. With maybe 800 metres to the end we all ran in together. It is a moment in my life I'll never forget, it genuinely brought a tear to my eye. Luckily I still had my sunglasses on to protect my manhood, so nobody will ever know.

Video of the race filmed by my little boy Cameron

As we emerged from the woods the organisers erupted in applause, making the whole thing even more overwhelming. I ran down the hill with the kids (although too shy to receive the attention Ava broke off just short of the end). As it was me and Cam broke the finishers tape together = joy.

Breaking the tape with Cam

I promptly collapsed, puked for a further 3 hours, eventually had bread and milk, got a trophy, finally had some champagne, slept like a log for several hours, life went on.

See - runnings not serious! All that calamity and effort for a small glass trophy. But do you know what, I had a day I'll never forget and enjoyed every high and low throughout. Okay so maybe I'll take it a little more seriously after all...

Trophy time - thanks to the Cystic Fibrosis Trust, and Salomon, Suunto and Mountain Fuel for the support.

Thursday, 18 May 2017

Salomon S-lab Sense Ultra

As a staunch minimalist runner I've always trained and raced in the Salomon Slab Sense range. With it's no compromise, stripped back, uber-lightweight race sensibility they've suited my needs perfectly.  However I'm not naive to the fact that this doesn't suit everyone, or indeed every occasion. This is where the Sense Ultra steps in...

Straight out the box you're confronted with a sleek shoe, that looks fresh with its reverse of the Salomon Softground colour scheme: stealth black across the upper with a typically vivid Salomon red heel. The Salomon logo now proudly emblazoned to the rear of the shoe. Despite the increased cushioning (which I'll get to shortly) these still look an incredibly fast and stylish shoe.

The upper benefits from 6 generations of evolution across the Slab range. Vented for breathability and drainage when wet, yet features plastic overlays for strength and to prevent splitting in weak areas. The toe rand is more than substantial enough to tackle any significant bumps on rocky mountain terrain. The ever popular sensifit technology is present and correct, fitting the foot snug and locking it down with the quicklace technology. Once on it genuinely feels like its part of the foot allowing the runner to concentrate on the important business of movement without any slippage.

I was pleasantly surprised the grip on the sole fits nicely somewhere in between the standard Sense and the Sense Softground. Sizeable lugs that cut and grip into all terrain, yet not too intrusive that they effect the ride on much harder ground, putting these shoes conveniently as a proficient all-rounder. In that 'sense' (no pun intended) Salomon have filled that, sometimes difficult gap in the range, where very mixed terrain needs a shoe without excessive compromise.

Finally onto to the difficult (for me) topic of cushioning. I'm a self confessed minimalist snob that favours as light and unobtrusive a shoe as possible. The Sense Ultra though has upped the heel drop from 4mm to 8mm and the stack height is up from 18mm/14mm to 26mm/18mm. I feared this would effectively take this shoe out of my optimal comfort zone. However I was pleasantly surprised once they were on. Yes, I'd be lying if I said I couldn't tell they had some extra cush underneath, but it wasn't as intrusive as I'd expected. The locked down nature of the upper meant my foot felt secure inside the shoe retaining much of the agility of the standard Sense. 

My subsequent test runs were equally a surprise. Putting the Ultra's through their paces on rugged and technical terrain they performed well, striking a balance somewhere between great protection yet still retaining some ground feel. They felt responsive and very easy on the legs. As a forefoot runner, I can only comment on how they complemented my running style. But all the same, despite losing a little in the way of proprioception, they still felt competent even on technical terrain. After a couple of test runs I was so enamoured with the shoes I decided last minute to race in them over a 53 mile ultra at the Highland Fling. A big test in that it features a diverse range of terrain, ranging from fast smooth trails, mountainous ascents, muddy and rocky descents along with incredibly technical loch side trails. And despite some trepidation they performed admirably, protecting my feet throughout. What I may have lost marginally in my speed on technical descents I believe I gained later on in the race with fresher legs and feet. As an added bonus, with over 60-70 miles on the shoes the soles are showing no signs of wear meaning durability appears to be on par with the usual Salomon excellence.

As an all round shoe for training, or even more so for racing longer races, the Slab Sense Ultra are a big win for Salomon. It handily plugs a gap in the range and makes the stripped back race ready Slab Sense more accessible to the average runner.

Monday, 15 May 2017

Hoka Highland Fling 2017


Where to begin. Well I'm really pleased to say, finally this won't be a story of illness and disappointing performances. It's fair to say I've had to write off 2016's racing and start with a fresh slate. After repeated and dogged attempts to fight through excess fatigue I had to accept defeat and go for a full recovery over winter. With a slowly recovering nervous system I ran a test race over 40something miles at the High Peak Marathon in March this year. Run at a conservative pace, my body held up throughout and gave me some optimism about gaining some improvement at last. After some judicious recovery I had some 5-6 weeks to cram some fitness in and include a taper...

With the new 2017 Salomon range now out I selected the following kit;

My footwear selection was decidedly last minute, with the new Salomon S-Lab Sense Ultra tempting me away from my regular selection of the more stripped back S-lab Sense. After only two short test runs I decided to gamble on the Ultras and it paid off.  What I sacrificed in ground feel, they more than made up through comfort, cushioning and monster grip.

Clothing came in the form on Salomon S-lab tee, S-lab 4 shorts (accompanied with the new S-lab Sense Boxers), which as a package kept me cool when running fast, yet warm enough when the weather closed in. I also carried the S-lab Light Jacket as a back up should it get too cold.

I used the new S-lab Sense Ultra 8 Set race vest which for me was a great step forward in the evolution of this product. The new bottles have a wide aperture for easy filling and the vest has extra pockets upfront where you need them. All round I'm loving the improvements to this popular running pack.

Nutrition came in the form of Mountain Fuel Extreme Energy supplemented with various solids throughout the race

Fast forward to race day of the Highland Fling. A staunch favourite of mine, held over 53 miles of the West Highland Way with about 7500ft of ascent. It features a diverse range of terrain from a flat and fast trail to start before hitting the mountains over some pretty technical underfoot conditions. It also generally attracts a strong field of fast runners making it a great test (International ultra elite Vajin Armstrong was running this yr).

Overnight I got all of zero hours sleep which wasn't ideal but I didn't let it put me off. A solid enough build up and taper was leaving me feeling fairly confident. However if I was honest with myself I wasn't as fit as maybe I'd have liked. The reality though was this was still a big test of my bodies readiness to start rebuilding fitness in earnest. My goal for the day was genuinely based around time and effort, with position at the very back of my mind. I needed to derive some confidence moving forward so I had my 2015 time in mind, which was 8:32. Looking back I was maybe my fittest then (whether that's rose tinted spectacles at work?..), so this would be a great barometer of my fitness and health.

The race start is always a hive of activity and building excitement with some 800 runners trying to prepare for the days adventure. It always reminds me why I love the sport, bumping into familiar faces and close friends. 

The weather was looking very promising with the sun trying to break through the cloud already at 6am. The forecast promised a small downpour around midday, but otherwise cool and perfect running conditions.

After sorting my drop bags for the relevant aid stations and relieving myself of some unwanted weight I made my way to the Sub10 pen and jostled my way to the front. I found my good friend Ryan Hogben there and we lined up together to await the start. At the off I set off at a jog with Ryan, conscious I needed to keep the effort pretty light early on with a long day ahead. Despite this my training was clearly going well as we were running low 7 min/miles with some sub 7's and it all felt super easy. Although this was a bit slower than I ran this early section in 2015 I wasn't concerned as experience has taught me being conservative can pay dividends later in a race. I knew the first 12 or so miles were fast so still wanted to capitalise on this. I'd actually forgotten how pretty this early section was. I much prefer running in the mountains, but sometimes running faster in a beautiful environment has its place. So I took the time to lap up the experience and talk with Ryan about his training.

A group of us seemed to fall in together here which dictated the pace a little so around 8-9 miles in I pushed on a bit running at my own tempo. However as we neared Drymen at 12 miles I started to feel like my legs were getting heavy. I couldn't work out was was happening, I'd taken some calories on board and was steadily sipping my Mountain Fuel, I just didn't feel particularly energetic. I pushed any negatives thoughts to the back of my mind, figuring I'd come round eventually regardless as to what was causing the problem. I think it was around here I consciously made the decision that the day would be about trying to maintain a constant but solid effort. On the mend from last years illness it seemed prudent to let the day unfold and be a little conservative.

A quick stop at the aid to refill my Mountain Fuel and water and I pushed straight on. The subsequent climb saw my energy levels drop even further, with my legs feeling like someone had poured lead into them. Despite my consternation it's only later I've come to the conclusion it was probably just a lack of fitness. Something that will easily be solved now I can push my training up a notch. I carried on trotting up the hill allowing my body to sort itself out while steadily progressed to Conic Hill.

When I hit the steeper climbs of Conic Hill I was pleasantly surprised I was able to run pretty well up the inclines. I really enjoyed the climb even though I was by myself now, steadily pulling back toward Ryan who'd pushed ahead on the early climb out of Drymen. However when I hit the summit Ryan had vanished and must have hammered the descent. I pushed myself down the hill, skipping over the rocks and grassy slopes. The Salomon S-Lab Sense Ultras were handling the descent well even though they're a little more built up than my regular shoes. The grip was phenomenal, allowing me to confidently utilise the gravity assisted decline to my advantage.

Dropping through the wood towards the second aid station at Balmaha I bumped into Vajin Armstrong who'd unfortunately dropped at Drymen with injury. Great to see the elites taking the time to hang around and watch us mortals stumble round the course. I had a short chat with him, where he complemented my trademark, heinously short shorts, before I pushed on to the aid.

As I emerged from the forest it was great to see all the spectators and my family there supporting. I grabbed some Jelly Tots from my drop bag and a sausage roll for some real food to complement the Mountain Fuel I'd been sipping. I quickly moved on and braced myself for the next section where I always seem to have a low patch in this race. My legs still hadn't fully come back to me yet so I expected the worst.

The next section out towards Rowardennan is a mixture of rolling woodland trails, rocky beaches and a few short road sections. If I'm honest it's my least favourite part of the course, so I chose to keep the effort easy and save myself for the more technical sections ahead. I actually found myself enjoying the isolation and easy tempo, taking the time to really soak up the day and appreciate the fact I was actually feeling healthy. My stomach was pretty solid, taking the steady sips of Mountain Fuel and a few Jelly Tots without issue. Due to my pace I allowed a couple of runners to trickle past steadily, but I wasn't worried and reminded myself it was about time not position.

With that in mind, as I arrived at Rowardennan I noticed I was about 10 minutes or so down on my 2015 split. Again I wasn't overly worried there was time to make it up, particularly in the steeper sections later on where fighting slowdown was the highest priority.

I was pretty much straight through Rowardennan and hurried onto the next section where after a steady, but relentless climb it finally starts to get technical. This section saw me fall in with about 6 other runners and we all took it in turns to push to the front, only for a steeper section, or short descent to naturally alter our positions again. I already noticed I was the strongest on the climbs, giving me the confidence that I should be able to fend off this group if it came down to the last 12 miles, affectionately called the 'roller coaster'.

It finally dropped down towards the side of Loch Lomond again where the trails really start to get increasingly technical. Varying from rooty and rocky trails, to outright hands on rock climbing and descending. I love this part so much, I'm relishing the idea of the rocky climbs on the Salomon Nevis Ultra in September.

The technical section is broken up about halfway with the Inversnaid aid station. As I passed my Salomon bottles to the aid staff to fill, I grabbed my drop bag and actually sat down while I sorted it out. The aid staff all shouted 'No!', as if it spelt the end of my race. I never even thought about it, just thought it would be easier while I sorted my kit out. I laughed off their comments and happily trotted on with my supplies replenished. All the way along here I just seemed to get stronger and stronger, my legs really coming back to me. It may have just been the pure joy of skipping and scrambling over the rocks, but suffice to say enjoyment was turned up to 10! I can't recall how many people I overtook along here, but it was really uplifting after my weak middle section.

I finally broke out of the woodland into the open and new Balmaha wasn't too far ahead. With some 12-13 miles still to run I couldn't believe how good I felt. I mean, don't get me wrong, I'd run 40 odd miles so I was tired. I figure after the abysmal response from my body of running ultras last year, I was just used to feeling smashed in these long races. Yet here I was quite happily bouncing along the trail, stomach intact - I could get used to this! As I ran into Balmaha I checked my split, but couldn't remember where the splits were in relation to my 2015 race (It's only after checking later I saw I was only 10mins back).

A quick bite to eat and I wasted no time in cracking on with the 'roller coaster'. I immediately got a couple of guys in my sights and steadily pulled them back as we climbed along the mountainside. It was starting to get exciting now, and as I continued the rain kept threatening to pour. I never needed to resort to the Salomon light jacket as I was plenty warm enough.

I finally crossed under the A82 and started the more substantial climbing past the well known 'cow poo alley'. The drier conditions through April meant it was relatively dry underfoot, so no wading through cow excrement this year. Again I got my hooks into another racer up ahead and gradually reeled him in. We all do it, but on the attacking end it's always a plus to see runners doing regular shoulder checks. I used this as motivation and continued to run the up the mountainside, the steeper it got the more I closed the runner in front down. I finally caught him as the climb kicks further. I gave him some quick words of encouragement before trotting on.

The last sections of the climb took some serious discipline to keep running, so I was stoked to see the top and take a couple more places in the process. The final big decent of the race is a killer, with 50 miles in the legs it really hammers the quads and it's fully runnable. So I let gravity do it's wonderful job and let rip. The bottom came soon enough and hit the road crossing over the A82. Me and 2 other guys were held by the marshals as several cars came by. As soon as they released us I led us onto a narrow trail before hitting the long track that leads towards Kirton Farm. Much to my surprise there were 3 more runners just in front of us. With around 3 miles left to go running hard wasn't really on my agenda, but I couldn't help making a bit of a race of it. So I charged on and tried to get some sort of pace going. My legs really didn't want to respond but surprisingly I pushed ahead of the five or so runners that were all bunching together. I had no idea what sort of position I might be in, I actually didn't care, I just wanted to see what I had left in the tank.

The 3 mile run went quicker than I thought and as I dropped onto the riverside and saw the bag piper playing I just felt relief. Relief I was finishing strong, relief I was finally healthy again in a race and relief as I looked over my shoulder that nobody was close behind.

That left me to relax and enjoy the red carpet finish and soak up the atmosphere. Halfway down my kids, Ava and Cam joined me and we ran in as a group.

I finished in 8:46 (14 minutes slower than 2015) and 23rd place out of nearly 800 runners. I'd happily take that as a step in the right direction. All in all a good days work, an enjoyable run and confirmation I can finally start pushing my training again. On reflection I could've maybe pushed the training a little more on the build up to the Fling, but honestly I'm just relieved to be back in the game.

My main race this year will be the Salomon Ben Nevis Ultra in September so this confidence boost was exactly what I needed.

Thanks as always to Salomon, Suunto and Mountain Fuel for the support.  I'd have struggled to bounce back without your support.

Our Jeep lovingly prepared for the race by my support crew of Emma, Ava and Cam (Family)

Thursday, 23 March 2017

High Peak Marathon

There is no "I" in team, and a team we would be. 

After a 6 month hiatus from racing (and running to some extent) my return to the fold would be the High Peak Marathon. A 42 mile bogfest in the Peak District that attracts some of the best fell/ultra runners in the UK. In teams of 4 you must navigate overnight, over bleak and often featureless moorland, in the final throes of winter no less. A great challenge, and as my first team event a new dynamic on running and working together to achieve a common goal. I'm not going to lie, the prospect of compromising my usual reckless race style (go out fast, slow a little before a strong finish) to run at others pace was going to take some getting used to.

My team (Has anyone seen Tigger?) comprised Simon Mills; the other half of ultra trail, fell running phenom, Sally Fawcett. A strong runner in his own right, on 2 occasions he's finished a couple of minutes or so in front of me at the Highland Fling, and a fantastic orienteer that comfortably steered the team through the night. Next up is Charlie Elliot, currently running under the tutelage of Marcus Scotney with some great results at the Tour de Helvellyn. Finally we had Kristian Groom, a last minute entry who I'm reliably informed is the fastest of all of us - with the caveat that he'd never run an ultra so was untested over that distance. With him currently training for a BG attempt, I wasn't overly concerned about his strengths though. Our team name came about because our team Captain, Ian Winterburn was absent due to illness and injury.

Talking about concern, my biggest doubt was around my own ability to run the distance. 6 months out with over training syndrome has left me full of anxiety about my capacity to run for many hours without my energy systems giving out. Only time would tell.

Kit wise I opted for Salomon Sense Soft Grounds for the incredibly slippy terrain. And for warmth I went with a Salomon insulated long sleeve top and running tights with the Salomon Bonatti water proof. This proved a winning combination with it keeping me warm enough yet breathable as to prevent me from getting too wet through the effort.

Catching up with friends old and new

The hour or so prior to the race was probably my highlight of the weekend. Seeing lots of familiar faces from the running community and some superstars of the sport (Scotney, Paris, Spinks, Pascall etc). Simon spent the time eating far too much and I was photographed, embarrassingly eating constantly by Jen Scotney.

The team getting some pre-race nutrition

The format of the race was a staggered start to enhance the navigation aspect of the challenge. The idea being the fastest teams set off last to theoretically cause all teams to see each other throughout the night. In my humble opinion we were seeded far to high, in 5th place. Not one to moan, I was happy to run in amongst some truly elite teams for a (short) while.

Setting off at 23:40, it was nice to emerge out into the night and find the rain had abated. In fact it was quite warm once we started moving. The initial road section allowed me to start moving easily and feel the comfort found in a movement practiced for hour upon hour. I already felt we were moving well as a team, my biggest anxiety being myself or someone else might be wanting to travel at such a different pace it would be uncomfortable. Not the case. It was good to drop into an easy rhythm before we hit the first climb up towards Hollins Cross. Just before we hit the top of the slippy ascent, the team comprising Nicky and Beth came cruising by on steady jog. However as we hit the summit they had to wait for one of their team so we leaped the stile and moved on with a purpose. The trail along here was an absolute mudfest, giving me the early indication we were in for a fun filled night of bog hopping. Soon after we overtook Jasmin Paris's team, who had a member with some kind of issue. But onwards we ran, easily climbing the final slope towards Lose Hill. In doing so we were overtaking lots of other teams, filling us with confidence.

The descent off Lose Hill was something to behold. A frantic, impossibly slippy, muddy, vertical drop. Most logical thinking human beings would take their time to pick a good footing and a safe line off such a steep, borderline 90 degree death trap - not so with fell runners. All I can say is I was firmly out of my comfort zone, as regards to staying upright. Every step of the suicidal sprinting plummet was both terrifying and pure exhilaration. I thought on occasion we must be close to cracking Usain Bolts 100 metre record time - of course with a massive gravity advantage!! A sniper must have been nestled in the hillside somewhere, for every few seconds a runner smashed to the ground on the slick surface as if shot.

We reached the base, and after a deep breath and a quick pray to God (choose your relevant deity you would like to thank accordingly) for sparing us - we moved on with a purpose. The easy climb along the road to the base of Win Hill felt great. I was really pleased to be back racing!

The next ascent up Win Hill was a mixture of anxiety and enjoyment. The mostly vertical climb can only be power hiked, a skill I know I lack the conviction to train to a truly competent level. However it was on this climb that I started to be concerned my OTS was returning. a feeling of weakness deep inside that usually precipitates total body failure. However this wasn't to be, as we hit the top and we started running again I felt alright and only got stronger as the night progressed.

The next steep descent was again a mad capped slip sliding sprint of insanity - which on the whole I enjoyed profusely. The recent storm had left many trees across the path meaning we had to divert to find an optimal line. We kept the pace brisk to prevent the teams behind us trying to copy our route & soon enough we were running across Ladybower Dam wall.

The metaphorical carrot was dangled on the next climb towards Stanage as we caught several glimpses of another team ahead. This helped on the never ending road into the darkness as we chased up the hill.  The solid footing was quite welcome to up the pace a little, while still trying to be disciplined with our timings.

As we hit the check point at Stanage we were firmly back in slippy, muddy territory. It was here I really started to settle into the effort and the enjoyment factor increased tenfold. A short time later we hit the road at the top of Moscar. The aid ( only one of two in this race) had been moved from Moscar down to the lay-by near to Cutthroat Bridge. As we descended the road we upped the pace and started overtaking even more teams. The aid was a hive of activity, with loads of teams stood around frantically grabbing food and water. I quickly grabbed a sandwich and corralled the team to move on. No point hanging around when there's work/running to be done. I've never been one to hang about in aids, it just seems wasted time. I'd much rather grab some food and eat it while moving slowly from an aid.

We were soon back onto the rough stuff climbing the steep ascent towards Back Tor. The mist really came in and combined with the darkness it was hard to even see the rocky uneven ground at our feet. Me and Simon found this situation almost comical as we stumbled along the trail. When we hit the flagstones, that run out to the next check point at Cartledge Rocks, we were really able to pick up the pace again. And once again we found we were over taking others. It was always a lift to overtake other teams, showing that while the effort felt steady, we were moving at a decent pace.

We easily found the turn off the flags and I quickly resigned myself to spending the next 20 miles or so in anything up to knee and waist deep bogs. Having never raced an ultra in these sorts of conditions before it surprised me just how energy sapping it could be. I'm used to rocky trails and the like on the usual races I enter. But this was a different kettle of fish. I'm just glad Simon ably took up most of the navigational responsibilities, I had enough on trying to stay upright...

The next couple of hours saw us steadily move over the increasingly boggy terrain up towards Cutgate and beyond. The whole time, despite the clag and general darkness, Simon kept us on a good line, using a mixture of compass bearings and knowledge gleaned from recce's. On the run up and after Cutgate we overtook several teams to our right that seemed to be on inferior lines across the open moorland. Straight after Cutgate one of these teams dropped in behind us. They turned out to be the Polish quartet of 'Above 2000'. It very quickly became clear they were using our nav to follow on a good line. Despite trying to up the pace a little, they doggedly followed our line. We concluded we needed to stall with a comedy, fake shoelace tying incident. They took the hint and pressed on...on the wrong line...

After getting slightly left of the line on the steady run past the 1894 Stone, we got back on track and past and gapped a couple more teams. All this when I felt we were moving a little slow, which again was a good sign I was firmly back in the ultra running game.

Kristian and Charlie enjoying the snowy delights of Bleaklow

Most of the night had ended up being mostly rain free despite the biblical, stormy run up to the race. It was even a little warm in the early sections of the race. However as the sun began to break into a beautiful dawn, we hit Bleaklow, which for most is the trickiest section of navigation. Luckily for us, we'd had multiple trial runs prior to the race and pretty much nailed it perfectly. The only issue for me was melting snow, that had left large sections of ice cold water. It didn't take long for my feet to start getting cold and numb. The descent down onto the Pennine Way couldn't come soon enough. With the warmth returning to my feet I was much happier. I'd been steadily sipping Mountain Fuel and nibbling on Jelly Babies and it was doing the trick. My energy was high and spirits in a good place - it felt so good to be enjoying a long race with like minded friends.

Kinder Summit with Charlie and Simon

We chased a team down into Snake Summit, wrongly believing it might be Tom Saville, Stuart Walker etc (they were much further on running a cracking time). The sweet tea at Snake Summit aid was a godsend, but once again after the briefest of sit downs/squats (to ease my slightly tight hips) I was keen to get moving.

The following section I'd not reccied, which in itself allowed me an interesting journey of discovery for the last 10 miles or so. The first section up Mill Hill, I'd been pre-warned was highly runnable. This suited me just fine, the typical chossy, muddy and invariably soft and off camber running of this race didn't suit my more metronomic strengths. So off we went up the steadily ascending flag paving with another team behind us. The first signs of Kristian's maiden ultra started to show a little as he dropped off the pace slightly and was clearly digging deep. We held off to pull the team back together, only for the next, much steeper climb to see Kristian charge ahead with gusto on a fast power hike. His Bob Graham training clearly prevalent!

If I'm brutally honest the speed we travelled around Kinder seemed a little pedestrian, but with me getting tired, I was more than content to cruise along at this lacksidaisical pace. I suppose this was very much like my unplanned Lakeland 100 group race - it's always easy to resign to a lighter pace when travelling as a team. Still I was just soaking up the journey and enjoying the new day as it warmed significantly. The ground around Kinder was my perfect terrain with technical rocky trails making things even rosier. Soon glad to feel like I'm back!

Traversing around Kinder

The steady charge over Brown Knoll saw us catch up with our notional team manager and missing race leader Ian Winterburn. It was good to see him and seemed to invigorate the team into a final push. Skirting around Mam Tor towards the finish I was reminded why I love these long races so much. The adventure on such extended periods in the hills bring a euphoria near the finish that's difficult to replicate.

The start and the end of the race at Hollins Cross

The final descent once again showed a renewed Kristian who charged the downhill to the last short section of road. If he decides to enter ultras regularly he'll be a force to be reckoned with!

The final descent

We ran line astern to the finish along the road and soaked up the moment, laughing about our experiences. It was great to see Emma and Ava ringing the cow bells at the finish in Edale to top off the whole event.

Literally the second we finished

In the end we achieved 9th place, which amongst the talent competing and my return to ultras, I'm more than happy with. It was a fantastic team that gelled immediately; Krisitian grinding out an amazing first ultra, Charlie maturely reining us in early when we might have overcooked it, and Simon's nav and late pushing of the pace - I just turned up as a set of legs. The beer at the end, courtesy of Ian W was greatly received and earnt.

On reflection this was the best way to reintroduce myself to ultras and confirmation my body is well on the way to full recovery. With the Highland Fling just 2 months off, it's time to consolidate and start to push the training accordingly.

Thanks as always for the support from Salomon, Suunto and Mountain Fuel.

Most of the photo's in this report were courtesy of Jen Scotney, who kindly allowed me to use them, so a huge thanks to her.