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.

Thursday, 9 March 2017


Life is indisputably the pursuit of happiness, but our individual interpretation of that state is always subjective. My personal take is grounded in a simple 'work equals reward' ethic. My belief is that if one doggedly works towards any ambition, the rewards should eventually come to fruition. If only life could be that simple, where it’s often a paradigm.  It’s only through honest personal reflection and hard lessons learnt I’ve come to see some difficult realities. Life is a great balancing act – the Ying and the Yang if you like. And despite ambition, drive and determination the metaphorical wheels can very much come off at any time;

I began running about 5 years ago now, and within twelve months I’d run a half, a marathon and my first ultra. A year later, I was running 50 and 60 milers as hard as I could. I didn’t understand running easy, it just didn’t seem right to train hard and not honour that with anything less than my best effort. Of course, I was regularly struck with niggling injuries. However, I managed through these and soldiered on regardless. Others around me seemed to be able to churn out higher mileage training weeks without the same problems though. I questioned whether my training intensity, mostly in the hills of the Peak District, was too high on a day-to-day basis. The most likely causation factor was my relative infancy in the sport and a lack of strength in my body. Suffice to say I always pushed, believing that the rewards and gains would keep coming.

2015 saw me run my first hundred miler in the summer at the Lakeland 100. I was pleased with a finish there in 26 hours, but suffering a big slow down near the end I saw definite room for improvement. After a second place in a 50 miler in September (on already tired legs) I upgraded my White Rose Ultra entry to a hundred miler in November. This went surprisingly well coming 1st male  in under 19 hours despite a developing virus and heavy fatigue from the years racing. On retrospect, although the results were pretty good for me, the underlying issues were largely ignored.

Over the winter I suffered with a lingering virus for over 6 months, but ambitions were still high with 3 more hundred milers lined up for 2016. Clearly this would become my undoing as the year unfolded with unsatisfactory performances and my first DNF back at the Lakeland.  Initially I reeled from the disappointed, but slowly became more pragmatic about my plight. After a final futile, and very slow, push round the Hardmoors 60, it was time to wake up to the reality of my situation and get some quality rest.

I frantically researched my condition, looking into the signs and symptoms of the dreaded over-training syndrome. At first the enforced rest made things worse, I was restless and hyperactive but also exhausted at the same time. Even ascending a flight of stairs saw me tired and breathless.

My experience with this ‘illness’ over a three month period has brought me to a series of conclusions about how I got here. I’ve clearly run too many 100 milers in a 12 month period, especially being new to the distance. Such strength in the body is not only a matter of will, it’s built with time and patience. Although I’d started a foundation, I’ve just piled too much on top causing everything to collapse. I’ve also never taken any significant time out in the last 5 years. I now firmly believe it’s healthy to have a good 2 to 4 week break once a year if you’re racing and training hard. It’s widely known that most training adaptions occur when resting. So in hindsight, to underestimate the value of time out now seems absurd.

It’s only now I see that running had become my identity. Without it I felt useless, crest fallen, with nothing to occupy my day and tire my ambitious character. Only time would serve to alleviate my symptoms and mentality. The support from family, friends and encouragement from the kind folks at Salomon would prove to be invaluable to my sanity during my recovery. As time passed, I tried to expand my repertoire without further straining my already crushed nervous system. Only now can I see the true value of cross-training to open my mind to the benefits of other activities. I’d forgotten the excitement of partaking in a new sport and seeing the initial steep learning curve and the satisfaction it brings. Revisiting climbing was like meeting an old friend, but trying skiing an exciting new adventure I can share with my family. Cycling is proving to be a great low-impact alternative to running while maintaining a level of fitness during my ‘rest’. All these new activities helped my mood and gave me a fresh perspective.

One of the most valuable aspects of my recovery has come from diet. I’ve learnt that a heavily fatigued adrenal system can only truly recover with quality nutrition. This means a combination of unprocessed foods such as fruits and vegetables. This gives a rested body the right vitamins and minerals to rebuild in strength. I also took the time to step away from running much of my long runs in a fasted state. While I believe this has allowed me to become well fat adapted, it wouldn’t be wise to strain my systems any further. In my search for answers I also discovered the role of the autonomic nervous system regarding my medical plight. It seemed my sympathetic nervous system (responsible for the flight or fight response) had become over active. In contrast I needed to kick start the parasympathetic nervous system back into play which enables rest and recovery. To assist in recovering from an overactive sympathetic nervous system I needed to cut stimulants from my daily intake. That meant no more caffeine of any sort and a reduction in sugars, which although that sounds like drastic measures the results speak for themselves. Despite cutting back certain food types, I was cognisant of the fact that at the same time failing to fuel my body properly could easily be a backwards step. With this in mind, as well as fuelling on the run with, I also used their recovery fuel to help me bounce back after training.

Over the last three months for every 3 steps forward in recovery, I’ve taken the odd slip back when I’ve over exerted myself, or when night shifts have just exhausted me further. However I’ve been monitoring my recovery using the sleep test on my Suunto that measures heart rate variability overnight. I’ve also run a regular 'fitness' test which involves running a flat 3 mile route at a specific heart rate – the results being that my pace increased at that same HR shows my health and fitness returning to normal.

The rejuvenation from trying new activities has proven ultimately healing physically and mentally. It's also meant more time available to connect and share new experiences with my family. While I’m well on the road to recovery now, it’s not without some hard lessons learnt. I’m excited moving forward armed with a new repertoire of knowledge and activities to enhance my fitness and performances going into 2017.


Huge thanks to Salomon, Suunto and Mountainfuel for their ongoing support, especially through my testing times.

Friday, 25 November 2016

Suunto Spartan Ultra

Every step, every mile, every heartbeat, every foot of ascent, all with the relentless goal of improvement. However in order to improve we need results and feedback to assess our efforts. And this is where modern technology steps in to assist us. It can serve to free our minds and bodies to concentrate on the unfettered action of running, all the while meticulously recording our every step. We are fortunate to have access to devices such as GPS watches. Our predecessors had to settle for measured distances, stopwatches and paper records to capture the necessary data to seek progress. Used correctly the feedback we receive can be deciphered to benefit us in a number of ways;

Visible improvements, be it in time or effort (through heartrate measurement) confirms our training is heading in the right direction

Recovery is still an underrated aspect of training and with assistance can be optimised to enhance the effects of training.

To some, the online community aspect of logging and sharing our achievements is reason enough to record their efforts.

But as with all technology, especially in the modern age, it’s a fluid entity, never static and always evolving. This is where Suunto, as one of the major players in the GPS watch market step in. Their much-lauded Ambit range of watches are revered by a large section of the running community. How they were going to progress such a great product was always going to be the conundrum. The answer is the Suunto Spartan Ultra featuring some key improvements over the Ambit range to make it a relevant and worthwhile purchase.

My first impressions out of the box were positive. It actually looks an attractive watch, one that I’m proud to wear every day as a 'dress watch'. Ironically now, it was the look of the very first Ambit that drew me to the Suunto brand, with the only exception being the placing of the large GPS antenna on the watch strap. For me with my narrow wrists it just looked a little too bulky. I appreciate the result was a very accurate and reliable GPS track, which to this day keeps drawing customers to the Suunto range. The Spartan however, does away with the large strap mounted GPS antenna though and somehow they have snuggled it comfortably into the watch itself. The profile of the watch seems slimmer too making it appear much more sleek on your arm.

Of course the biggest change in this new range of Suunto is the inclusion of touch screen technology. I’ll be the first to hold my hand up and say I was a little dubious, particularly on a device that would be used in the elements. I’m pleased to say having used the Spartan for the last month in a variety of conditions its performed admirably. However when the rain gets very heavy it can become a little problematic - and as expected unusable underwater. Menu screens are negotiated with an intuitive swipe and other selections confirmed with a satisfying vibration which creates the satisfying illusion of pressing a mechanical button. All the functions can be operated by using the three physical buttons on the right side of the watch, but I always find myself reverting to the touch screen. Maybe it’s just the novelty, which could wear thin – only time will tell I guess. In the meantime, I very much enjoy the technology.

One of my favourite functions is the customisable watch face. You select a variety of both analogue and digital time displays which can be as simple or detailed as you like. They can include other information such as altitude and number of steps (more on this later). Finally once you’ve chosen the display you can then choose from a number of colours to further personalise to suit your taste.

(photo courtesy of Suunto)

Battery life is another positive with the Spartan. With GPS set to ‘best’ it’ll reportedly manage 18 hours, with 26 hrs in ‘good’ GPS accuracy, which handily puts it as the 100 mile watch choice. Equally it’ll comfortably run for 15 days on standby. Of course this can be customised to suit your needs, suffice to say this is another great step forward for Suunto’s range. Clearly some thought has gone into improving the charging cable. Rather than the old clasp design, which while sufficient was sometimes a little fiddly, the new cable has a strong magnet connector which is a marked improvement.

A nice new feature is the ‘Step’ recording that I initially thought was a gimmick to replicate the devices that exclusively track a person’s daily movement. However my snobbery was soon overcome when I became obsessed with checking my daily totals to see if I could beat the previous days numbers. The only complaint I had here is that they only recorded or tracked beyond the day you’re on. However the latest firmware update (which are almost weekly at the moment) includes a handy seven day summary to check ongoing movement trends beyond just your usual sports tracking. If anything it's an interesting insight into how active we can be from day to day, which I now factor into my recovery and training plans.

Navigation is back, and those familiar with Suunto Ambit navigation will pretty much know what to expect. However the inclusion of the high resolution OLED screen means more detail and an easier format. You can actually see your track overlaid where you should be in relation to the route. This is much easier to follow than the all too familiar Ambit arrow and line format. This is a personal favourite of mine so I'm pleased to see this feature is definitely improved with the Spartan.

The Multisport selection is currently awaiting an update to allow customisation. Don't let this put you off though, this will be rectified in the near future. That aside there's a vast array of sports to choose from with preset displays. And again, another advantage of the new high res screen is having 5 easy-to-see metrics displayed at the same time. This plus also rolls over into the bluetooth notifications, where now more of your texts can be viewed. This really sells the advantages of the improved display for me, which in all fairness is the biggest step forward here at this stage.

As regards the actual application of using the watch for sports it has some key improvements. The actual search for a GPS signal appears to be instantaneous which is very promising for the hardware. The Spartan also differs from the Ambits in that it now uses GLONASS as well. This essentially means it'll have more satellite options resulting in better accuracy. Prior to starting the sport on the watch you can access an options menu where you can alter GPS accuracy (affecting battery life), toggle auto pause on or off and even select a route to navigate. Some of these options were only previously accessed by connecting the watch to a computer.  Post run you're presented with a summary screen with instant access to mile/kilometre splits. This all points to some well thought out improvements which make the day to day use of the Spartan Ultra a pleasure.

Heart rate functionality is present and correct with a bluetooth enabled chest strap. As well as allowing training in relevant heart rate zones, it'll also serve to complement the recovery features due in December. I'm still an advocate of chest mounted heart rate monitors, with their reported improved accuracy.

It would be untrue to say there haven’t been teething issues with the Suunto Spartan. Missing functionality that was standard on the Ambits has been a common complaint. But you only have to look at the release schedule set out by Suunto to see they are rapidly moving forward with this product. Not only this but they are also listening to feedback from their customer base and acting on it accordingly. The product itself is a fantastic leap forward in the wearable GPS tech market, and the software is rapidly catching up – keep the faith.

In summary it might have been nice if the release of this product was held off to iron out those software kinks in advance. But this aside, Suunto has once again produced a great product that is both functional and stunningly attractive. I’d say it's a must for your Christmas list.