Friday, 26 June 2015

Kit Review : Salomon S-Lab Sense Ultra Set

I first saw this online just after it was launched, but couldn't really see the point in it. 3L really didn't seem enough carrying capacity to race an ultra, complete with it's usual mandatory kit list.

Fast forward a few months and James Elson from Centurion Running released a YouTube video showing how, with the right combination of equipment, it was possible to fit the complete mandatory kit list for a race such as UTMB within the many compartments on the vest. At that point I became interested again, especially as most of my races have slightly more lenient lists.

A chance conversation a few weeks later with Steve from Castleberg Outdoors led to him sending the vest for me to test - so thanks to him for that (there's my official disclaimer that I didn't purchase this myself).

So, to the vest in question. My first impression is how light it is. Compared to my Salomon S-Lab Advanced Skin 3 12L set the difference is very noticeable. It almost feels flimsy, however, in use that definitely isn't the case.
As with all the 2015 Salomon vests the Sense Ultra is supplied with two 500ml soft flasks that fit into pockets on the front straps. Below those are two open pockets that could store a fair quantity of gels etc - however, this is one of the (few) flaws with the pack as the bottles protrude down into these pockets, meaning their storage capacity is compromised. During use I ended up just stuffing empty food wrappers in these, as they were secure enough to prevent any littering. Above the bottles are two more small pockets - one zipped, and supposedly for a mobile phone, although there's no way you could get any of the current smartphones in there (I know, I tried with three different makes and models). The other is just open topped, but reasonably deep. It's worth mentioning at this point that all of the open topped pockets do have an elasticated top edge, offering a reasonable amount of security.
The main compartment at the back has no padding, and no closure at all. Whilst I've seen it is possible to put all extra clothing in stuffsacks, then shape them to fit close to the spine during use, that's not something I ever tested. By not filling that section it meant the vest was definitely cooler to wear than any of my other packs as there was only two layers of (very thin) material covering my back.
On the rear at the bottom is another small open topped pocket, that was the perfect size for my Berghaus VapourLight Hyper Smock in it's stuffsack. This gave a huge advantage as I was able to reach back into that pocket, remove the waterproof and put it on over the top of everything without even really breaking stride.
Finally, there is a large pocket either side, connecting the back to the shoulder straps. I found these worked best when a buff (or equivalent) was used as padding first, meaning the pockets could be reasonably well laden without digging in. I used one side for all my gels/bars etc, and the other side for phone, compass, blister pack etc.

In use I found the pack absolutely brilliant. As it was so light, and fitted so well, there was absolutely no movement when running - meaning no annoying rattling noises, and no friction (and thus chafing). All of the pockets were easy to reach without having to remove the vest, meaning I could eat, stop to take photos, access a map etc etc without having to stop, slowing down to a walk made everything possible. One thing I did notice was that the 500ml flasks were quite awkward to get in and out of the pockets when full - I found using two 400ml flasks from Ndure was much easier. As the pack is completely soft (the front straps fasten onto tensioned cords, rather than the hard moulded plastic of earlier Salomon vests) there was no discomfort even when wearing a heart rate monitor strap.

I tested the pack on a few runs first, then used it on the Norfolk Coast 100km race. At no point did it cause me any issues. I'm a definite convert to using bottles/flasks on the front of my pack rather than a bladder mounted at the rear - the ease of swapping bottles with my crew (the delightful Miss G.) or just getting the bottles filled at an aid station means I'll never go back to using a bladder. Also, the load distribution is much more even, thus making smooth running easier.

Thanks again to Castleberg Sports for supplying the test pack - it's definitely a keeper!

I'm back...

Well, the Keswick Mountain Festival 50km came and went, blogging duties are complete, and a few more things have happened too...

The race didn't quite go to plan - lots of cramp issues caused me to finish a lot more slowly than I had hoped, and further down the field. It was a beautiful course though, so the fact I was taking longer just gave me more chance to enjoy the views!

Following on from that I changed my race plans, dropping the Ultimate Trails 110k (also in the Lake District), replacing it with the Positive Steps Norfolk 100km, a brand new event from the organiser behind Peddars Way Ultra and Kings Forest Ultra. As I'd already completed both of those events finishing the Norfolk 100km would make me one of the first to complete the Grand Slam of all three.

The race started in Castle Acre, ran along Peddars Way for approximately 20 miles to the coast, and then took the Norfolk Coast Path for it's whole length to Cromer. The weather was cool, breezy, and definitely damp (okay, very wet at times) but that's always preferable to baking sun and scorching temperatures. Overall I was satisfied with my performance, eventually finishing 8th overall, and thus first of the Grand Slammers. As usual it was a well run, friendly, low key event, and one that I (mostly) enjoyed. I struggled after about 70km though, a combination of terrain (4.5 miles of shingle beach for example!), and running a new distance making me slow quite considerably.

However, the mental and physical struggle that took place after those last 30km has caused me to take a step back and consider a few different things...look out for another blog post soon describing how I'm moving forward from this point.

Before that though (and very soon indeed) will be my first kit review (on this site). I enjoyed writing reviews for the Keswick Mountain Festival website, so I'm going to try to keep going with them here.

Wednesday, 18 February 2015

2015 So Far...

I know it's been a while since I updated this blog - that's mostly because I'm writing another one elsewhere!
I was picked by Keswick Mountain Festival to be one of their guest bloggers leading up to events - so all my running musings are now being written on their site for the next few months. You can find the event site HERE and my individual blogs are HEREHERE and HERE. The last of those is my race report from the first event of the year, the Peddars Way Ultra.
Currently I'm having an enforced break of a few days with a niggly/sore shin. It's annoying as I'd just started back into my proper training routine after the race, and I was excited to see what new challenges Coach Stuart had laid out for me. Oh well, better to have a niggle now, with 15 weeks to race day, rather than with 15 days to go!

In other news... not a lot really, still slowly upgrading my turntable - and buying lots of vinyl to play on it.

More to come soon I hope!

Thursday, 1 January 2015

End of Year - Part 3

And so to the final part of my review of the last twelve months - my year in running.

I started the new year excited at what lay ahead. I'd been working with Stuart Mills as my coach for three months by then, and had already started to see some results. We'd devised a suitable race schedule to take me through the year, and to prepare me for my 'A' races. The following is a brief synopsis of how everything went.

Total Miles Run : 1603.7

Quite happy with that, bearing in mind I missed most of July and August (57mi & 46mi respectively) due to moving house.

Training - I certainly trained differently, and harder, under the tutelage of Stuart than I have before. I'd always been of the opinion that to run ultras all you need to do is run lots of miles. In fact, my longest runs rarely exceeded around 21mi, and my weeks usually incorporated at least one speed session, either 5min efforts with 3min intervals, or a tempo run of between 4 and 6 miles...or both! The difference it has made is vast, as I now run at a higher pace than I used to, for less effort. Mentally the work we've done together has probably made the biggest difference. I now go into races confident in my training, confident in my ability, and confident that I'm there to race, not just to make up numbers, or stroll in towards the back of the pack. This mental work has included visualisation, course research, looking over my training records (I now keep a daily diary of sleep quantity, how I feel, my training etc), and also reading books/articles by other runners, whether they be race reports from previous years (more research), or inspirational material from the likes of Charlie Spedding etc.

Race Calendar
January - Naunton Nearly 19 (18mi, 2:48:12)
A fun race, held on a very cold, and wet, day in Gloucestershire. Set off at a pace I thought I could sustain (another new idea for me, rather than starting slowly and hoping to speed up at the end). I had no real idea where I was in the field, other than that I'd made sure I was pretty near the front at the start. Some interesting conditions, including knee deep flooded fords, thick mud, and frosty roads. Crossed the finish line in 33rd, from 123. A great way to start the year, and gave me confidence that I didn't have to be in the last third at the finish.

February - Peddars Way Ultra (47mi, 8:17:43)
An area I know well, being the first trails I trained on when I decided to leave road running behind. A very low key, but great fun, event. Felt good all the way through, didn't panic when I Miss G. and I failed to rendezvous at an aid station, and spent a long while running with one guy, that helped the miles tick by. Tired towards the end, but still felt strong enough to push for the final couple of miles when I saw what time was possible. Again, very happy with the result (23rd from 56), in fact I believe this to be one of my strongest performances of the year, as it showed how much mental strength I'd gained.

March - Grindleford Gallop (21mi, 3:28:18)
One of my favourite races in the calendar, and my third year in a row of taking part. Another cold, wet, foggy, muddy day, but still a huge amount of fun. Set off very quickly (probably slightly too quickly!) and then kept going. Pushed hard for the whole race, making sure I was carrying water, and food, so I didn't stop at the two aid stations for more than a few seconds each time. Finished strongly, with no real tail off in effort, for 121st, from 350. My time was 26mins quicker than 2013, a huge improvement, and a sign that my training plan was working.

April - South Downs Way 50 (49mi, 9:22:40)
My first time racing the SDW50, and definitely one I want to return to. It's a beautiful course, albeit tough, as you cross the downs, dropping down into the villages for aid stations, and hence having to climb back up again straight after. Weather was cool and damp, with some mist on top. My race started well but unfortunately went downhill from about 26mi as nausea was stopping me eating or drinking. I ended up slowing down quite a lot, and dropping off my target time of sub 9hrs. Eventually I started to feel better, started to take on board some fuel again, and managed to keep going, finally crossing the finish line after having pushed hard on the last downhill, and along the (neverending!) road to finish sub 9:30 for 125th, from 301. Whilst the time wasn't as good as I'd aimed for, discovering the ability to keep going through a bad patch was a big plus, and it was a personal best for a 50mi race by 1hr45mins.

May - North Downs Way 50 (DNF)
Entering the race was a bad idea, but at least I learnt a few things from it. In 2013 the heat and course had "beaten" me, suffering from cramp from just after halfway I ended up walking most of the second 25mi, finally finishing in just over 11 hours. I therefore entered again in 2014 out of spite, I wasn't going to be beaten. That was an error, I discovered that without an emotional attachment to the race, a "want" to be there, that I had no mental strength to deal with any difficulties that came along. The day itself was very hot (something I don't respond well to), despite hydrating well, and making sure to empty cold water over my head at every aid station to keep myself cool I still ended up bent double just before the 31mi aid station, feeling nauseous, sweating and shivering. Until then I'd still been roughly on my time goal, and was certainly reasonably high up the field. I walked/jogged into the aid station and quit. If I'd wanted to be there, liked the course (I don't, running alongside the M25 is never going to qualify as scenic to me), or wanted to finish for the medal/shirt I could have pushed on and walked it in. Instead, I had no attachment to the race whatsoever, and was completely happy to walk away. Definitely a learning process!

June - Dig Deep Peak District Intro Ultra (30mi, 5:59:04)
I ran (mostly walked) the full length (60mi) version a couple of years ago, so I knew the terrain mostly, how the event would be run etc. Had a great time on the course, despite it actually being harder than I remembered. The first 5mi were a lot steeper than I had thought, necessitating a quick re-think of schedule. Managed to push hard for most of the race, although I began to struggle towards the end, with twinges of cramp. Kept going as hard as possible though as I was determined to finish under 6hrs. Was very satisfied with my time, and with the fact that I couldn't have put any more into my race on that day. Finished 19th from 108

November - King's Forest 50k (30.5mi, 4:38)
Another low key event from the organiser of Peddars Way. 4 laps around the forest, my first attempt at a loop course. Set off very quickly, running in top 5 position for most of lap 1, until course markings had been vandalised, meaning an unwanted detour for about half a mile. After that I kept pushing, stopping very briefly to change bottle and grab food at the end of each lap. Lap 3 was where I really began to struggle, due to my high pace at the start, but could keep pushing, and keep running, very proud that it's the first race I didn't walk a single step. Another run where I was happy that I'd done the absolute best I could on the day, having nothing more to give. Finished 11th from 103.

So, that was my racing year. I already have plans for 2015, races entered, training schedule written. Most importantly I want to thank all the event organisers, and the volunteers who turn up in their masses to enable us to run long distances for the sheer fun of it. Having been one of those volunteers at a number of races this year I know how hard it is.
Also, a huge thanks to Stuart Mills for his enthusiasm, knowledge, and ability to make me do things I didn't think were possible.
Finally I want to thank Miss G, for being the most amazing crew, always being where she's supposed to be, way in advance of when she's supposed to be there, to make sure she doesn't miss me. Whilst I could have finished the races above without her help, it would have been a lot harder, and definitely wouldn't have been as much fun!

Tuesday, 30 December 2014

End of Year - Part 2

So, for the second "end of year" type post I'll concentrate on the new music (and some old) that I've enjoyed this year.

Having had a count up, I purchased 16 new albums (of which 14 were on vinyl) and a number (okay, I can't remember) of old albums. The heavy bias towards vinyl is simply because I think it sounds better. On top of that, full size artwork is much more impressive, and often there's a download code included so I can listen in the car etc. In quite a few cases I actually purchased the album in more than one format, wanting the vinyl, the boxset etc.
I love the act of listening to vinyl - the ritualistic procedure of laying the vinyl on the platter, using the anti-static brush, lowering the needle into the groove all add to the enjoyment, and focus the mind on listening. Too often these days music is used as background noise - to remove quiet, to dull other senses etc. For an art form as beautiful as music can be that's an insult to the composers and musicians.

16 New Albums (sorted alphabetically, with a comment or two) :

Anathema - Distant Satellites : personally I didn't find this quite as strong as the previous two albums. I liked the slight change of direction with the addition of electronics, but found the some of the album slightly formulaic - still loved it though.

Beck - Morning Phase : wanting to try something different, and acting on online recommendations, and the advice of my local record store (Tallbird Records) I purchased this. A "Sunday morning" type relaxed listen.

Tim Bowness - Abandoned Dancehall Dreams : as one of the owners of Burning Shed (the superb online store responsible for a lot of my spending) I felt I had to try this album. Melancholy, relaxed, wonderful.

S.Carey - Range of Light : very interesting this one, could be gentle music for a dinner party, but on close listening there's a lot going on. Another random "try" and really enjoyed it.

Engineers - Always Returning : the second album I've purchased from the band. Stylistically very similar to their previous, but still very enjoyable.

Gazpacho - Demon : a huge leap in ambition from previous albums (which in themselves are brilliant). A melting pot of various styles, all based around a haunting concept. Absolutely superb.

Iamthemorning - Belighted : I'm a huge fan of the KScope label, who were very pleased to sign this band for their second album. Wasn't sure what to expect, and really enjoy it.

Lunatic Soul - Walking On A Flashlight Beam : Mariusz Duda has never really put a foot wrong in any of his work, and this album just continues that run. Brilliant.

Opeth - Pale Communion : second album in a row with no death growls. I don't mind either way, I can hear where Opeth are going, but this is a difficult listen, very challenging.

Pink Floyd - The Endless River : a new Floyd album was never to be expected. Whilst this isn't what people hoped for, it is a beautiful way to send the band into eternal slumber, and a fitting tribute to Rick Wright.

Robert Plant - Lullaby and...The Ceaseless Roar : purely bought on the recommendation of Matthew Cohen from the band The Reasoning. Not at all what I would normally listen to, but an amazing album, loved it from the first listen.

Bjorn Riis - Lullabies In A Car Crash : solo album from the guitarist of Airbag. Very similar sound/style, but definitely no complaints from me, one of my favourite bands, so this is a brilliant listen while I wait for their new album.

Steve Rothery - The Ghosts of Pripyat : another recommendation, as most people said this was better than the Floyd album released around the same time, and was comparable as it's completely vocal free. I have to say, while I enjoy it, Floyd is definitely my preference.

The Pineapple Thief - Magnolia : another step up, as every one of their last few albums have been. I definitely feel this is their strongest, in terms of songs, performance and production.

Threshold - For The Journey : another strong album from the band, but one that I haven't listened to much, possibly as my tastes seem to be changing slightly.

Ben Watt - Hendra : purchased purely on a whim (and because David Gilmour plays on one track). Another enjoyable "Sunday morning" type album.

Looking back at the list, the obvious stand-out Album of the Year for me is definitely Gazpacho - Demon. I can't fault it in anyway, I can't stop listening to it. It's also made me go back and purchase the back catalogue albums I didn't already own, and listen to those I did - that's a fairly strong recommendation!

Tuesday, 23 December 2014

End of Year - Part 1

It's been a while since I posted...and I'm fairly sure it's obligatory to do at least one end of year post - so I'm going to do three (advanced warning for anyone who wants to come back in January!).

The first one will be a general look at a few things that have happened this year. Part Two will feature my look at the new music I've heard this year, and Part Three will feature a review of my running year.

So, what happened in 2014. Well, probably most importantly (probably? Who am I kidding, of course it's most important) is the fact that Miss G and I got engaged on 28th October, two years to the day since our first meeting (I like symmetry!). We were on holiday for a few days in the Lake District, and it felt the right time, so I asked, and she said yes, then we went outdoor gear shopping in Keswick. To be fair, it would probably have been more apt to have gone for a run, but the rain was coming down so hard it was bouncing up off the ground and coming down again!

Other than that, the other major change was moving about 140 miles! We decided to relocate from Hertford to the edge of the Peak District, to give us the chance to live the outdoor life we want. While it hasn't quite worked out like that (yet!) it has given us the chance to make the first steps, and we are certainly spending more time in the hills than we were.

I changed roles within my job, going from Head of Technical Design, to Head of Technical Sales. A small title change, but now it means that I spend half of my time on the road visiting clients, the other half preparing the quotes. It also means I now have a nice new company car - I won't describe it as shiny as 1500+ miles per month tend to make it anything but!

I've read a lot of great books this year, some new, some new to me, and some old favourites, these are my selected highlights :
"Feet In The Clouds" & "Running Free", both by Richard Askwith. A year in which I don't read "Feet In The Clouds" is a year with something missing, and to be able to follow it up with his new book "Running Free" was just double the pleasure. Definitely worth reading both if you haven't, although if you have all of your time/money invested in big city marathons and the need to buy all the latest gimmicks you may find "Running Free" makes you think a little more than you want to...

"Lifting Shadows : The Authorised Biography of Dream Theater" by Rich Wilson. A very in-depth look at America's premier prog metal band. A great read, insightful, and not afraid to show the behind the scenes unpleasantness that can happen in a band.

"Extreme Sleeps : Adventures of  a Wild Camper" by Phoebe Smith. Lighthearted and informative look at the fun to be had by camping wild up in the hills (or on the beach). It's a long while since I've done it, and this book makes me want to get back out there.

"Strands : A Year of Discoveries on the Beach" by Jean Sprackland. Beautifully written book looking at the flotsam and jetsam washed up on her local beach, and the nature around at the same time.

"It's All About The Bike" by Robert Penn. I loved this so much I bought a second copy to give to my father. Just a wonderful eulogy to the bike, as the author sets about researching and having built the absolute best bike for him. A real passion shines through the writing, and the people he meets.

"The Trespassers" by Tris McCall. Whilst I found some of the story meandered a little too much, and some of it was a tad unbelievable, what really grabbed me about this book were the descriptions of exploring derelict buildings, factories mostly, a topic and idea that fascinates me - the chance to view something forgotten, or left behind.

"Faster - The Obsession, Science and Luck Behind the World's Fastest Cyclists" by Michael Hutchinson. Just finished this, after reading "80:20 Running" by Matt Fitzgerald. Both are fascinating books looking at training methods (among other things) for endurance sports. Hutchinson writes of the differences at elite level, the fine margins between success and failure. Fitzgerald writes of how amateurs can learn from elites with regard to what's best practice. Both write well, and entertainingly, and have plenty of research at their fingertips to illustrate their points.

So, that was some of 2014 - Part Two to follow...soon!

Friday, 3 October 2014

Alone...or Lonely?

A lot of my time is spent alone - I'm a rep/work from home so that's to be expected really. Usually it's not an issue, I like my own company. After all, if I don't like spending time with me how can I expect anyone else (friends etc) to want to? I run alone for the majority of the time as well - it's a mixture of my own headspace, and wanting to go at my pace. During the day I have music for company, get plenty of phone calls from the office and clients, go out to meetings, then Miss G. arrives home and the house is full of noise and laughter.

This week I've been lonely.

A combination of a quieter week at work, so less calls and only one meeting (for an hour), a heavier training load as I build towards my next race, meaning I've been out every night this week, and Miss G. being so busy getting her new class sorted that every night she's worked until at least 9pm means the evenings have been as quiet as the days. My music has still been alongside me - but it seems to have magnified the loneliness - when I wanted to share it with the world there was no-one to listen.

I'm immensely proud of the effort Miss G. is putting into her new job. Our move north has re-affirmed her love of teaching, and her ability. It's also re-affirmed my love of running, I've trained more in the last month than any previous month in the last two years.

It's still possible to be lonely though.

Tonight things will change though, two different sets of old friends visiting over the course of the weekend, and Miss G. keeping weekends clear for us - the new house will be full of noise and laughter again.