Monday, 11 April 2016

Trail show review: Inov-8 Terraclaw 250, La Sportiva Helios 2.0 and Salomon S-lab Sense 5 Ultra

Firstly, I should point out that I didn’t get these for free and nobody asked me to review them, so I don’t feel under any obligation to say nice things.  So, views are my own.    After much trial and error, these three will be my off road shoes for 2016.   The choice will depend on terrain and required pace.    And sometimes which ones are the cleanest or match my outfit.

Secondly, I prefer lightweight shoes.  Thankfully (touch wood) I’m not prone to injury.   But don’t think I’m lucky, because my unscheduled “rest” days are usually caused my unscheduled stunts. Plus, I’m a forefoot striker and have a high cadence, so cushioning and support seems unnecessary and cumbersome to me.

Thirdly, I like space.   I’m a UK size 4 in my dancing shoes, but I like extra room in my running shoes for comfort.  Plus, my feet tend to swell, blister and my toenails have been known to pop off during races.  Having a little bit extra saves my toenails getting bruised, especially on descents. 

Fit: I’ve got size UK5.  Usually I go for 5.5 in trail shoes, but I’d could even go for 4.5 these. There’s loads of room.
Price: £120
Pros: Wide toe box.  Great for soft ground.
Cons: Struggling to find any yet.
Verdict: Great all-rounder.  Reasonably priced and readily available.
For the technical stuff, click here

If I were to only buy/own one pair of trail shoes, these would be the ones.  Although if I only owned one pair of trail shoes, it probably meant that my house had burned down. 

I’ve flitted in and out of Inov-8 shoes since I bought my first Roclites back in 2008.  They are are reliable and trustworthy brand and probably worn by half the field in any UK trail or hill race.  Like most running brands, their products have come on leaps and bounds over the past few years. 

The Terraclaws provide fantastic traction in most conditions, but come into their own when it’s wet and muddy.  After wearing Salomon S-lab Sense – which are useless on soft ground - for six months prior to getting the Terraclaws, it took me a few runs to have confidence in the grip, but once I ‘let go’ I could feel the difference.    

The toe cap is also double layered to offer better protection, lugs are positioned wide enough so they don’t clog and the tongue is stitched at an angle so it doesn’t slide. 

I’ve worn these on the road on the run up my local hills and haven’t noticed I’m wearing trail shoes, so that’s a good sign.  

They’re perfect for the UK hills in the winter and stomping about on my favourite Kilpartick, Pentland and Lake District hills.  And I would wear them in an ultra-distance race if I were expecting sloppy conditions.    

Marco wore them on the Lakeland 100 (it's been hot and dry that past few years) and swears by them, but they wouldn’t be my first choice for hard packed or dry trail. Mind you, in the latter stages when my feet are feeling a bit fat, I might just swap into them.  I’ll be packing them just in case. 

Fit: Sizes come up small.
Price: $125
Pros:  Very comfortable.  Lacing system is great. 
Cons: Not available in the UK. Sizing, especially as you’re likely to order online.  The soft heel feels great once the shoes are on.  It’s a bit tricky to
get them on because the heel keeps collapsing.
Verdict: Lightweight, flexible, responsive
For technical stuff, click here

I’ve had a pair of the original Helios for a while, but they’re a little too neat for me.  See aforementioned comment about space.  They’re OK for about 5/6 miles, but then my toes start to hurt.  I have, however, worn them on few runs in the Kilpatrick Hills and they are kick-ass on wet grass.

Some of my Centurion Running team mates are big fans of the Helios, so when I heard there was an updated version out, I was keen to try them out.  Nothing to do with pretty colour, honest.  OK, little bit about the pretty colour.  Unfortunately, they are not available in the UK (yet?), so I had to order them from Germany.

I’m glad I did as the Helios 2.0 are considerably better.  Light, soft and super flexible…they are like slippers.  They’re great on grass and mud, but cushioned and springy on tarmac.  I would even wear them as road shoes.  

It’s worth noting that Centurion RD James Elson wore a pair of Helios SR when he ran a GB team qualifying distance of 242km at the Athens 24 hour.  Although they wouldn’t be my first choice shoe for a road ultra … wearing the new Helios 2.0 wouldn’t be the wackiest idea.

One concern I have is that I can feel the rocks and stones when I wear them.  I wouldn’t change that though, as the benefit of wearing them on trails and soft ground outweighs any negatives. I just probably wouldn’t wear them on rocky course like the Lakeland 100.  Could get away with it on a Lakeland 50, but that’s a personal choice. Anything over 50 miles and the rocks would play havoc with my feet.   They’d be perfect on trails like the Thames Path, South Downs and Ridgeway though. 

Again, the sizing is an issue.  Even though I went a half size up on the ones I have, I could have done with another half size.  That’s two sizes up on my dress shoes.  It was too much of a pain in ass to send them back to Germany, so they’ll do.   That does, however, mean I probably won’t do any ultra races in them.

Fit: Slim.  Standard.  I have 5.5 and there’s plenty of room.  Possibly too much space for
training, but ideal for ultra-race fat feet.
Price: £145
Pros: Fighting talk
Cons: The price tag is eye watering.  Same colour, again.
Verdict: Unless it’s really muddy, these will remain my racing shoes. 

For technical stuff, click here

Ah the ruby slippers.  The Rolls Royce of trail running shoes.  I’ve been in love with the shoes since I bought my first Sense Ultra 4 last summer. 

At first (online) glance, I failed to see any difference in the 4 and 5.  To be honest, the only reason I bought the updated version was because my 4s have served their time after maxing out at 600 miles.  They were sent to Salomon heaven after a heavy duty weekend on the South Downs Way.

They are my race face shoes.  At the risk of sounding like a complete t*t, they make me feel nimble and fast.  I appreciate that’s on my head, but there are definitely mental benefits in the magic shoes. 

There’s enough protection and cushioning for me, and I never have feet issues when I wear them.  That’s rare for me, as my feet will always be my weakest link.  With the Sensifit, Endofit and Quicklace system, my feet feel 100% secure with zero movement - uphill and downhill.

Changes are quite minimal on the S-Lab Sense 5, just some fine tuning.  The upper material is lighter and there’s slight modification to the tread design.  Both contributing factors to making it the lightest Sense shoe to date.  The lightweight upper mesh keeps out debris and the contragrip outsole seems to provide more grip on rocks.

I sometimes give the shoe a hard time when I end up on my backside on slippy terrain, which is a bit ridiculous as they’re just not made for soft ground.  They perform best on dry trails.  It’s like running in spikes on the road and complaining about the discomfort.

Quick summary...

Inov8 Terraclaw 250
La Sportiva Helios 2.0
Salomon S-Lab Sense Ultra 5
Wide toe box
Slim. Standard
16mm and 8mm
19mm and 15mm
18mm and 14mm
Benefits (or just marketing spiel) 
Dual-C sticky rubber outsole

Multi-directional lug pattern, which allows for quite debris release.

Double layered toe cap
Welded overlay that wraps forefoot

Welded sewn tongue, to restrict sliding
HyDrain Mesh for maximum breathability and fast drainage

Fast lacing system for easy on and off

Integral gusseted tongue and new heel cup design for comfort.

MorphoDynamic mouded sole and cushioned platform
Lightweight materials and welded construction make this the lightest Sense shoe yet.  

Quick drying breathable mesh

Quicklace and pocket

Endofit and Sensifit for precise foothold in varying terrain.

Molded EVA and Contagrip  

Saturday, 6 February 2016

Ultimate Direction SJ Ultra Vest 3.0

I've been an Ultimate Direction enthusiast since I bought my first SJ pack in 2013 and was delighted to be a brand ambassador a year later.

Like many running products, things have changed dramatically in the last few as technology is changing, the market is becoming more competitive, runners are demanding more and athletes are contributing more at the design process.

For me, the key priorities for a pack are fit, weight and accessibility: Like many female ultra-runners, I've got quite a small frame so if anything is loose it rubs and chafes;  I need to be able to access things from the pack without contortion;  And I don't want to carry additional weight before I've even filled the pack.  The lighter, the better.  I've pretty much fine-tuned essential race kit to the absolute minimum requirement, and have therefore managed to fit everything into the UD Women's Ultra Vest

On a side note, noise annoys me so any rustling, clicking and swooshing of fluid  drive me nuts.  I don't want straps and whistles that smack me in the face when it's windy.  Fiddly clips that I can't operate when my hands are cold are a no no.  And it has to accommodate soft flasks - see comment on noise issues.  I'm also a big fan of taking pictures (much to the annoyance of my running companions) so I need somewhere to keep my phone safe and dry.  I'm definitely one those aforementioned runners that demand more.

So...there's a new Scott Jurek designed pack out next month. The Ultimate Direction SJ Ultra Vest 3.0.

It's been a pleasure testing the sample, as it ticks all the boxes for me.  It's not just an improvement, colour change  or updated version of the original signature vest or 2.0, it's radically different.

It's made with new flexible mesh material, which make it very light (176g) and breathable and the sides are open for maximum ventilation. There's one large pocket at the back, which could be used for a two litre bladder or emergency/essential kit - freeing up all the front holsters for soft bottles, food and a phone/camera.   There's also a back zip pocket - with key clip - and pole holders.

I have running packs for various occasions - short runs, long runs, bad weather runs, commuting - but I think this is the closest I've found to a good all-rounder.  It's simple and light enough for short runs that might just require a bottle, snack and jacket.  Yet roomy enough for an ultra-race that requires full kit.

To give you an idea of flexible mesh (picture left) and the capacity , this is the pack empty and with mandatory race kit list.  I've used Lakeland 100 as example, which includes:

Back main pocket
Taped seamed waterproofs: Top and bottom
Spare base layers: Top and bottom
Hat/buff and gloves
Emergency food (400 calories)
Foil blanket
Map and compass
Route book

Back zip pocket
First aid kit
Head torch and back-up light 

Front pockets
Soft flask
Mobile phone
Electrolyte tablets
Whistle (attached)
Race food - I've included gels and bars

The only teeny negative that might concern some runners, is that it's not weather proof.  I'm not overly bothered about waterproofing (or back sweat proofing) as that just adds to weight and increases the chafe factor.   Even if a pack were waterproof, would you trust it? If there's a chance of rain - eh, I live in Scotland - I put everything I need to protect in zip-locked bags.

Friday, 13 November 2015

Petzl TIKKA RXP and e+LITE review

The great head torch debate is a subject that never dies.  Along with trail shoes, packs and the controversial Hoka and poles, it's a topic that reappears and is discussed at great length on social media pages.

Like most products the technology is forever changing.  No sooner have your settled on a head torch and a bigger (or smaller and lighter) and better one is released.  And like most products, personal choice boils down to budget and what you expect from it.  Everybody knows someone who swears by a £10 effort from Argos, but you get what you pay for.

I was lucky enough to receive a Petzl NAO when I won the Lakeland 100 last year.  The NAO is the Rolls Royce of head torches and the pioneer of reactive lighting.  It comes with a rechargeable lithium battery and  could light up a house.  All great.   But there's a time and place for the NAO. It's not for everyone and it's certainly not my go-to head torch.  Firstly it's a bit overcomplicated for me and I was never confident I had it on the right setting. Put it on constant rapid movement mode and it will last an hour. In most situations it can been quite excessive if you only need to see where you're putting your feet.  Plus, it's not exactly comfortable. Wear it for a lengthy period of time and it hurts.  I used it during Spartathlon and it was a bit overkill for a course that's predominately road.  Plus, it took about two days to get the indent off my forehead!

So, along came the Petzl TIKKA RXP, which I used for the first time during the White Rose Ultra earlier this month.  Now this is a go-to head torch.  It uses similar reactive technology as the Petzl Nao, but is more of a toned-down version.

I'm not a very techie person, but I like gadgets. When it comes to a head torch, I want it to be bright (215 lumens), light (111g), comfortable, rechargeable (can use AAA batteries too) and have a decent battery life (up to 10 hours) and beam (70 metres).  I just want to put it on...and run.    The TIKKA RXP ticks all the boxes me. Plus, it's competitively priced at £90.

If a new head torch is on your Christmas wishlist, I'd recommend putting the TIKKA RXP on your letter to Santa.  It's everything you need for trail, night and ultra running - and more! 

E02-P3-ELITE LowResAnother fabulous bit of kit is the Petzl e+LITE. I wouldn't want to get stuck up a mountain with it, but for races that require a back-up light source or to make yourself visible on night runs, this is ideal.   I've used it on city runs when the street lighting is a bit sparse. Weighing in at 27g it's the equivalent of carrying a matchbox, so you can stick it in your pocket or pack for emergencies.   Have you ever tried to change the battery in your main light in the dark?  I have and it's nothing short of a nightmare. 

Considering the size and weight, you'll be amazed by the brightness - 26 lumens.  And the battery can last for 75 hours.   Search online and you can pick up an e+LITE for about £15.  Small price to pay for something that might just save you in an emergency.   Just be careful when you're packing it.  I lost my first one on a night canal run before I'd even had a chance to switch it on!

PERFORMANCE series headlamps [EN] with REACTIVE LIGHTING Technology. Beyond power...Intelligence from Petzl-sport on Vimeo.

Thursday, 5 November 2015

The Idiots' Guide to Running The White Rose 60

Having only recently discovered that I didn't have the points to enter UTMB next year,  I was in the frustrating position where I had to run a race to, well, run a race.  It's a topic that has been discussed and slammed at great length, but I wouldn't get a foot in the door without the nine points required.  I was two short and realistically my only options were the White Rose 60 last weekend and the CTS in Dorset in December.

While still nursing the aftermath of Spartathlon, I chose the White Rose 60.   It was always going to be a big ask, but all I had to do was get around in one piece.  Ships burned.  No excuses.

As a late entry - with low expectations on racing 60 miles - only a few people knew I was doing it.   Even the super-observant John Kynaston missed my name on the entry list.  He was surprised to see me at race registration, but within five minutes we'd already agreed on a mini competition - cloest lap times - and he was relaying stories of the good old days when he used to beat me. #backinthedayJK

The White Rose Ultra has three race options: 30, 60 and 100.  The 30 mile is stunning loop around the High Peak, Colne Valley and Pennines. The 60 is two loops and the 100 in three loops with an extra bit thrown in.  It's relatively low key and relaxed.  A sharp contrast to my last gig in Greece.

I was so unprepared for the race that I was still debating shoe choice at registration.  I had no expectations and no course knowledge, but was hoping to finish in 10 hours something.  Just plucking numbers with a goal of 5ish hour laps.  Mainly because I had to drive back to Glasgow after the race.

At 8am the 30 and 60 mile participants we set off.    The 100 mile race started at midnight, so most were already one lap down. There was no
distinction between who was in what race, so it was hard to tell who was competing against who.

There's a lot of road on the course - maybe 40% - but it was either up or down.  And what was off road was boggy.  Bit of a mixed bagged really, so glad I chose my Salomon S-lab Sense.

There are stocked checkpoints every five miles, so it was easy to break down the lap into six sections. I carried my own Torq bars, Shot Bloks and Gu gels though.

Pic by SportSunday
My plan was to take the first lap steady, stick with people and get my bearings.  Although the course is well-marked it's a bit tricky and easy to miss some of the turn offs.  I was called back once (thanks Kate) and was very hesitant at some junctions until other runners caught up and kept me right.

The weather was absolutely glorious.  Hard to believe it was November 1.  At points it was quite toasty and I got really dehydrated and had a tough couple of miles before the CP at 21 miles.

I was back at race HQ in 5 hours 17, quickly picked up some supplies and moved out onto lap two. Speaking to some of the 30 runners, they couldn't fathom why anyone would want to go out for another lap, but I was fairly relax about it.  Maybe because I am used to lapped races, but I think it was because I could relax and just enjoy it having already covered the course.

With Chris Baynham-Hughes. Pic: Mark Oliver 
Starting out on lap two I realised I'd forgotten to pick up my bottle of Coke.  Giving my inability to eat - and my caffeine addiction - I rely quite heavily on Coke during races.  All I could think about for the first five miles was Coke - and CP didn't have any.  Crisis.

Pushing on I spotted Matt and Rich Wilson ahead.  I'd overtaken Matt in the Lakeland 100 last year and the Lakeland 50 this year, which he wasn't enamoured about.  It was pretty apparent they (Matt most likely being the instigator) weren't happy about me catching them, as they seemed to find another gear.  But the gap remained the same for a few miles.

Most of the route is on country roads and trails, with a few road crossings to negotiate.  Approaching a road crossing at around 37 miles, I made the assumption that the roads were really quiet (as they had been all day) and ran straight out.  Not wise, as I was hit side on by a car.  I was knocked onto my right side and just lay on the road - trying to assess the damage.  Another car stopped and there was a bit of frantic panic above me, but I don't really recall what happened.

The poor lady who hit me was obviously shaken and kept repeating that I'd just run out in front of her.  The other chap was trying to help me up but I was bit shocked and trying to let the initial pain subside.  He was really kind and asked to give me a lift home or to the hospital.  He looked a bit baffled when I declined as "I was in the middle of a race".  Really I was thinking: "Naw, mate.  I need to the two points for UTMB".

I pretty much left them standing and got going again.  With my heart rate maxed out and on the brink of tears,  I couldn't believe what just happened.  To be honest, the fact that it hasn't happened to me before beggar's belief.  I was just really lucky it was a cautious driver and not some boy racer - or anyone who drives a Merc.

My shoulder, hips and ribs took the brunt of the hit and fall, but it wasn't too painful.  Although I was winded and had some discomfort across my chest, I made the decision to keep going.  Then my next thought was: Those fecking Wilson Brothers have got away.

Being super cautious on the roads and sticking to running towards the traffic, I crossed over to take the left turn to see Frank's crew waiting at the junction.  I planned on being cheeky and asking if they had any Coke, only to see on approach a little angel with a can of Coke his hand.  They had overheard me asking at the last checkpoint.  It was a god send.

By the time I got to 45 miles, I'd caught up with the Wilson Brothers again, but they kept pulling away. Ideally I would have liked to have passed them, but I didn't want it as much as Matt did - who was checking every half mile to see where I was.  Watching the turning headtorches made me laugh.

I was just quite happy with finishing.  I never knew where I was in the race.  It wasn't until I got to a CP at 51 miles that I was told I was first lady and 5th overall.  After I was trying to work out if I could break the ladies record set by Shelli Gordon last year in 11:08.

The shuddering was hurting my chest and ribs and I was so paranoid that I'd fall, but I knew if I was going to miss the record it would only be by a couple of minutes.   My friend and CR teamie Eddie had sent me a charm bracelet with the words "make it happen" on a few weeks earlier and I started chanting this over and over.  Still not the craziest thing I'd done that day.  I finished in 11:05.

It was definitely adrenaline that kept me going, as within half an hour of finishing I was feeling it.  I could barely get my shoes off. The four-hour drive home was horrendous, arriving after 1am - and then I couldn't sleep for the pain in my ribs and hip.

A race too far for me, so time for some proper recovery now.  Even without the incident, my body is broken and I'm knackered.    I would normally use the expression "I feel like I've been hit by a bus" but I don't want to pre-empt anything.

Full results here

1st (joint Jonathan Pritchard and John Hill) 10:55
3rd (joint) Richard Wilson and Matt Wilson) 11:00
5th (first female) Debbie Martin-Consani 11:05