Friday 15 December 2017

Camelbak Circuit Vest review

For the majority of this year, I have been using Camelbak packs and bottles; I’ve always liked the look of the packs but have steered away in the past as I’ve used bottles and wasn’t keen on the idea of using a bladder. All that changed earlier in the year when Camelbak UK provided me with one of their new Ultra Pro race vests, which was designed to use soft flasks. This became my pack of choice for racing and training, particularly for those times when a medium sized pack is needed.

Camelbak UK thought it might be an interesting experiment to see how I might get on with a pack designed for a bladder, rather than flasks. To this end, I have been using a Circuit Race Vest, kindly provided by Camelbak UK, for the majority of my recent adventures and I’d like to share a few thoughts here.

The contact surface is made up of a 3D vented mesh which is slightly padded and stretchy in all directions which makes for an incredibly comfortable fit. Due to this being a minimal weight pack, there are no torso side pockets pack as seen on many other packs (like the Camelbak Ultra Pro vest), instead there is a double strap which can be adjusted on the fly; this is an important feature, allowing you to tighten the fit as you drink your way through the water bladder. As an additional bonus, this set-up makes the pack cooler when running in hot conditions and doesn’t feel all-encompassing like some packs. Total pack weight (without the bladder) is 180 grams.

The main compartment comes in at 3.5 litres capacity but you will lose some of that when you pack the bladder. The sides of the compartment are a very stretchy mesh which provide a degree of self-compression and, along with the side straps, allows you to run with no bounce from the contents. 

There is no zip to seal off the compartment, just a gently elasticated opening. The pack sits down the middle of your back, rather than wrapping around you (keeping you cooler) but this does mean that you have to be careful how you load up the pack as the opening may not close off completely. This is even more apparent if you are using the bladder too.

I really like the front of the pack; it is nice and simple and uncluttered. You have two large pouches which are very versatile. These are much bigger than normal bottle/soft flask holders but can still be used for these items. You can easily get in the kind of gear you would need on a long run or race, having everything close to hand, whether that be clothing or nutrition. The pouches have a locking bungie cord round the lip so everything is safe.

On the left strap, above the large pouch is a nice zipped pocket, useful for a phone or more nutrition. I really like the big loop added to the zip meaning you could access this pocket even with cold hands. On the opposite side are a couple of small pockets with simple fold over openings. I have to admit that I found these a bit redundant for my use; they were quite small and cannot be zipped up which meant I only ever put in some lip balm. Personally, I would have preferred either another zipped pocket like the left side or just one bigger open pocket, for me, this would be more versatile.

The front is finished off with a few loops, giving you a number of options to route your bladder tube and the two chest straps which are adjustable by height and width; one strap is elasticated and one not, though, and I really like this, you could swap these straps round to give you the most comfortable fit.

And so to the bladder itself; the Camelbak Crux Reservoir. This is my first drinks reservoir so it is important to mention that I do not have any point of reference other than using a soft flask. The bladder has a 1.5 litre capacity and, for me, will give about three hours of hydration. This is significant as I’ll only get a couple of hours from two soft flasks. 

The robust reservoir has a built-in handle which makes filling very easy and the large cap has a reassuring seal, only taking about one quick rotation to open or close. There is a long drinking tube, giving you a number of options to route from the pack to your mouth. 

The drinking end has a bite valve which gives a good mouthful of drink per sip, though you do need to adjust the orientation of the valve to get your natural bite and the opening correctly aligned. There is also a shut off valve, though once I was up and running, I didn’t use this as the bite valve gave a good enough sealThe main feature of the new Crux reservoir is that it delivers 20% more water per sip which is great for hydrating quickly on the move.

Having now had a trial with the bladder, I can see the advantages, specifically the ability to drink hands-free which is really useful when using poles and the fact that you can carry more liquid with you when out on a long run. I made full use of this when supporting a group on the first two legs of The Bob Graham Round. Being able to carry enough hydration, particularly on the second leg which has very few natural water sources, was a real bonus and I was able to power hike with poles on all the climbs, still taking in water at the same time; I liked that.

If you are a regular hydration bladder user and are looking for a smaller pack for long runs or races, this pack would tick all the boxes, it’s really comfortable, lightweight and has all that accessible storage up front. What more could you want?

For me personally, I am still struggling with the logistics of using a bladder. I really like the ability to drink hands free, the fact that I can drink when running downhill which is more difficult with bottles/flasks and can carry more hydration for long runs when there is a lack of refill opportunities. However, I just cannot gauge how much I am drinking; too fast or too slow, both situations worry me (perhaps I’m just too regimented in my approach). When I used the pack and bladder supporting on the first two legs of a Bob Graham Round, I found that, although the two legs were about the same time, I ran out of drink on leg one and didn’t finish it on leg two. It might be that I need more time with the set-up but I am struggling.

Another issue I have is that you have to take the bladder out of the pack to refill it, often along with some of your kit too. This is a minor irritation during a longer training run but a major problem in a race. I suppose everyone has their preferences and this pack will suit those who love their reservoirs.

What I find interesting is that this pack has now become my go to kit on training runs and I even chose to race with it at the Hardmoors 60 mile race in September. I love the pack for its light weight and comfort. You can pull in the straps on the run to keep everything snug, it is probably the coolest pack to run/race in as the contact points are minimal, along with the vented mesh design and you have those big pouches up front for easy access to nutrition, kit or hydration flasks. For the Hardmoors 60, I used the pack with a Camelbak Ultra Handheld Chill Flask, another Camelbak Quick Stow flask in one pouch and my nutrition in the other pouch. This worked like a dream and will be a combination I’ll use again and again. Additionally, for the three weeks I was out in Chamonix during the summer, I never went anywhere without the Crux Reservoir; just being able to easily carry that volume of water and sip constantly really helped me avoid the dehydration I suffered from the previous summer.

The way I am looking at the Circuit Race Vest is that it is a cracking mid-sized pack with a number of variations as to how you might utilise the components depending on your preferences and the training/race context, this may or may not involve the reservoir, but it’s good to have that as an option.

Sunday 15 October 2017

Love to Run Coaching

From a personal point of view, this will be my most significant post to date.

Over the last year, I have been coaching a number of athletes, helping them to achieve their personal running goals whilst training with greater structure, specificity and variety.

Watching each athlete progress has been an incredibly rewarding experience. The holistic process of combining my sports psychology background, sports science degree and the experience gained from training and racing at a competitive level for 35 years to produce bespoke training programmes based around each athlete’s level of experience, running aspirations and lifestyle has been so fulfilling.

Earlier this year, I decided that I wanted to pursue this venture to a new level, taking on a few more athletes of varying abilities whilst also putting together a business plan.

So, ladies and gentlemen, I take great pride in announcing the launch, to the wider public, of Love to Run Coaching

There is a wide range of online coaching packages available depending on the level of coaching input required; monthly or weekly general structure through to very prescriptive, session by session details, all with frequent support, review and adaptation.

For those of you that know me personally, you will appreciate how excited I am about this venture.

If anyone, regardless of your experience or aspirations, would like to get in touch to discuss how we might be able to work together, please email me and we can set up a free consultation.

Don’t be a runner who just runs, become a runner who trains!

Monday 9 October 2017

TDS race video

If you want to see a real phoenix from the flames recovery, go get a coffee and take a look at how the TDS race in Chamonix this summer panned out for me.

Thursday 24 August 2017

Camelbak Ultra Handheld Chill flask review

I have been a fan of handheld drinks bottles for many years, starting to use one back in 2013 when training and racing in the West Highland Way Race. I think, at the time, I picked up a simple Camelbak handheld strap and drinks bottle that was in a bargain bucket in a local shop; I have been using it ever since.

I like to use it in races where you have support or the kit requirements mean that you don't have to carry a full race pack, but I especially use a handheld bottle on training runs of up to about 2 hours where, again, I might not use a pack but still want to keep on top on my hydration, equating to at least one run a week when I make use of a handheld.

Over the last couple of years I have become a big convert to soft flasks in my race vests but have always had to carry a traditional bottle in hand. I was pleased when Camelbak, offered to send me one of their new Ultra Handheld Chill Flasks for a review.

The product includes both the "holster" and a rather clever insulated 500ml soft flask.

The holster has a nicely padded and ventilated mesh as the palm contact point which insulates your hand from the cold but equally allows sweat to dissipate on hot days. There are also double pockets, both of which are made of stretchy mesh and can accommodate a surprising amount, including a phone in the zippered pocket, though this obviously adds to the weight. I usually put a few electrolyte tablets in a pocket on hot days.

What I really like is the criss-cross elastic strap configuration which is used to hold the product on your hand. Traditionally, a handheld simply has an adjustable loop through which you slide your hand, giving no alternative options to readjust your grip. The Camelbak has four elastic straps that criss-cross each other giving numerous options; changing grip is useful over long runs.

The straps also have a thin rubber strip on the back, meaning that the holster grips your hand rather than you having to grip the bottle. I like that, it's so much more comfortable than a traditional handheld.

The soft flask is a 500ml bottle with a slightly wider top than some flasks meaning that refilling is easy and even adding powders/tablets/electrolytes is simple.

In addition to a normal bite valve, there is an extra twist locking mechanism to prevent leaking. This may be a bit of over-kill, but it certainly works well. I generally run with the lock set to open all the time.

What makes this flask special is the insulation which keeps your drinks cool for longer. I'm not a big fan of warm water when running, give me a nice cool drink every time. It should be noted that, with the insulation layer, the actual volume of drink that you can get in the flask is slightly less than the 500ml advertised, especially important to remember if you are mixing powders to a specific concentration.

The flask is really well made and feels robust. I've given it a pretty good bashing over the last six weeks and the whole product still looks like new.

My only real issue with the Ultra Handheld Chill, other than the slightly smaller capacity, is that I found it difficult to remove and replace the flask. It is a tight fit in the holster which is obviously needed to give that security I was talking about previously where you don't even have to grip the bottle, this is a trade off against the ease of which you can swap bottles. When on longer runs, I usually just dip the bottle in a stream, keeping it in the holster. I have two of the Camelbak Quick Stow flasks but as I've tried to move from an empty flask to a new full one it's been quite a battle. I have come to the conclusion that, in an ultra race, I would run with the Chill flask in hand and a Quick Stow flask in my vest pack, just filling up the handheld without taking it from the holster and sipping from the Quick Stow when/if needed. I'm probably going to use this system in anger in the Hardmoors 60 in mid September. I understand the need for the tight fit, and not everyone will be swapping flasks mid race, but I like to on occasions.

With it's light weight and really comfortable grip, I love this handheld flask and grab it by instinct as I head out the door on those medium to long runs. It is such an easy way to stay on top of your hydration for the minimum amount of effort.

The Ultra Handheld Chill Flask can be found at with a SRP of £39.99

Thursday 17 August 2017

TDS training in Chamonix

Having arrived in Chamonix two and a half weeks before the start of the TDS, I have had enough time to get in a couple of training sessions where I could get up to at least 2500m altitude. One of the lessons I learnt from last year and from again checking out the route, is that we spend a lot of time above 2000m and I want to at spend some time training at those kinds of altitude.

View from apartment

The first session took me up to the top of Le Brevant (2525m) and a second outing saw me climb past the half-way staging of the Aiguille du Midi cable car (about 2550m). I power hiked both climbs using my running poles and was pleased with how I felt on both days, especially the second session where I did a bit more running around at altitude. I'm now having a few days away from the altitude, mainly to give my quads a chance to recover from the LONG downhills.

Another important point from last year that I wanted to address was the cumulative dehydration that I suffered during the build up to the race. It is, once again, daft hot (for someone who lives in the wettest place in England) and I am determined to stay on top of my hydration. To help with this, I packed a Camelbak hydration bladder and basically carry it everywhere with me, drip feeding water constantly. So far, this seems to be keeping me hydrated.

I post some more thoughts prior to the race but I've got my head well and truly in the go-out-and-enjoy-it mode and that's exactly what I'm going to try and do.

If you are stuck in a cold/wet/flat place, I'm sorry about this video of some clips from these two high training sessions.

Tuesday 8 August 2017

Race analysis - Lightbulb moment

My mind is now well and truly focused on the TDS race in just four weeks time. I must admit that I've had a bit of a mojo loss over the last two weeks, dropping my training back to odd days when I might go for a 30 minute jog. I can't necessarily put my finger on the exact reason why, but there are a number of factors that have come into play.

I think I probably over-cooked the training a little bit too much as we came towards the end of the school term, combined with struggling to recover from digging so deep on the Billy Bland Challenge relay. Throw in a over night Bob Graham support straight from work and a slight increase in training mileage; I should have seen this coming. My hip flexors took a bit of a kicking during this period, so I've been happy to ease right back to allow things to recover.

With a bit of soul searching, I think I've also hit on another factor which might be contributing to a lack of motivation. I've said all year that I am not going to race hard at the TDS. After the DNF last year, I just want to enjoy the day and complete the route. I don't mind any runner beating me; if they are faster than me on the day, good luck to them, but I hate being beaten by a course. I need to tame the TDS course. So far this year, I've done a number of competitive races or challenges which have maintained the fire in my belly, suddenly I'm saying to myself that this is not a competitive outing and I think that this might be impacting on my mojo at the moment.

Having said all that, the last couple of days have been better and I've enjoyed my easy runs out. Suddenly, someone has flicked a switch and I'm all excited about the day out in Chamonix.

With that in mind, I thought I'd have a look at last year's TDS results and think about my pacing for this year; I want to be a bit slower over those first few hours. I made a note of my splits for the initial few legs and, just out of interest, thought I'd take a look at what the winner did over those same few legs. The first two legs were pretty much as you'd expect when you contrast an old git like me to one of the world's top ultra-runners. However, the next section; the first serious climb of the race up to 2603 metres, boom! I was one minute QUICKER than the winner. That will go a long way to explaining the dramatic implosion that occurred in the following few hours. I was digging so deep and now I know why.

I always enjoy a bit of analysis so started pulling up some other race results, particularly those where I've had some serious problems. What about the Hardmoors 110 a few months ago? After a steady start, I ran the section from Ravenscar to Saltburn in about 5:40 hours. I did some (admittedly rather basic) calculations based on the winners splits (Jason Millward, who smashed the course record) and estimated that he ran the same section in about 5:28 hours. This is with Jason aiming to become the first person to run sub 20 hours (which he did with an amazing run) and me hoping to run about 23 hours. Too fast meant that I arrived at Saltburn feeling pretty grim and struggled for many hours after that.

During the Hardmoors 60 last September, I remember having a surge in pace from Sandsend to Robin Hood's Bay along a particularly fast trail and road section. I haven't got splits to compare, but I do remember pushing the pace at this point and then having a real problem an hour later which led to a battle over the final few hours.

Add in the ridiculous pace I started the Keswick Mountain Festival 50k last year and the Billy Bland Challenge relay from a couple of months ago where I ran with a 170bpm heart rate for 2:40 hours and, again, imploded.... I am spotting a trend here.

Over the last couple of years, there have been a number of races where my brain has been writing cheques that my body just cannot cash.

A few years ago, this was never going to be a problem; I had turned myself from a fairly fast runner in races up to 90 minutes into a diesel engine that could run all day. That has all changed over the last 24 months where I've really worked on my speed. There were a number of reasons behind this: it should enable me to maintain a steady ultra pace for longer as it should feel easier, less blood will be diverted to the working muscles when at the slower pace meaning my digestion should be better and finally, if I want to increase the run-all-day pace, I have to push up the ceiling of my flat out pace first.

During my apprenticeship years as an ultra runner, I didn't have this turn of speed. I just started at an easy pace and kept it going, appearing to race a strong second half of the races, overtaking lots of other runners. In reality, this simply means not slowing down as much as everyone else. I had no ammunition to add in mid race surges. Now I have that ammunition but I'm not using it wisely.

This has been quite a revelation for me. The speed work I've been doing has obviously made a big difference to my racing, giving me this extra ammunition but I have to question the way in which I've been using this ammo. When setting out to improve my basic speed, I had specific reasons for doing this and a plan of how I was going to implement this in races, however, I seem to have veered away from this plan during races. This has certainly not been a conscious decision, but I must admit that I have enjoyed running faster in both training and racing.

What I need to do now is get back to doing what I used to do well; hammer out a strong second half to a race. I've got two more ultras to race this year; the TDS and the Hardmoors 60 and I really want to execute a good race plan in the manner I envisaged a couple of years ago.

Monday 24 July 2017

The Billy Bland Challenge

Once upon a time..... (well about a month ago), twenty runners and goodness knows how many supporters, drivers, photographers, physios and more, all came together to have an awesome day out on the Lake District fells. This is a snapshot of the day, through the eyes of Mountain Fuel co-owner, Rupert Bonington.

On Sunday 25th June at 5am, Team Mountain Fuel made fell running history with the first competitive head-to-head race involving the Billy Bland Challenge and with that, six records. The challenge is based on the famous Bob Graham round and is a 66 mile, 42 peak challenge; with a 24hr time limit, it is considered one the biggest challenges in English fell running, involving a 27000 ft of ascent up Skiddaw and Blencathra, over the Helvellyn range, the Langdale pikes, Scafell, Wasdale and Great Gable, starting and finishing at the Moot Hall in Keswick.

Two mixed teams of men and women, including vets and open runners, raced against each other in an attempt to beat the mixed team record of 16hrs 49 minutes with aspirations of also being one of the fastest times and getting close to legendary fell runner Billy Bland’s time of 13hrs 53 minutes on the Bob Graham Round. Both teams consisted of 10 runners, with two runners each running one of the five legs together. The team was made up of a collective mix of ultra, trail and fell runners, including local Keswick AC runners (some of whom hold individual leg records and were part of the Keswick AC record breaking time of 12hrs 25 minutes) along with other Team Mountain Fuel runners from around the country, including some Team GB Mountain Running representatives.
Leg 1 pairs
It was a damp, cloudy and windy start at 5am with leg 1 starting from the Moot Hall in Keswick, crossing three fells and finishing in Threlkeld. The first leg was a battle of the over 40 vets (closer to 50’s for 3 of them) and saw co-owner of Mountain Fuel, Rupert Bonington run with Kirsty Hall a British Champion fell runner versus local Bob Graham legends Andrew Slattery and Steve Angus. After slogging it out over 12 miles and 5500ft of ascent over fells, bogs and a river, the race came to the final descent of around 1 ½ miles, where both teams chose to race down the steepest slope of Blencathra, the route is aptly named by locals as the Parachute Drop due to its steep nature. After running down rocky scree, sliding down steep grass and stumbling though heather and bracken then fording back and forth across steep mountain streams Rupert and Kirsty completed the leg in 2 hours 40 mins to record the fastest time for a mixed pair. Unfortunately, due to a sprained ankle injury Steve and Andrew finished the leg a few minutes behind in 2 hours 43 minutes.
Calum and Ben

Leg 2 is seen as a leg with plenty of good running despite its steep climbs, once up top you run across the undulating Dodd fell tops to Helvellyn and finish with a couple of steep sharp climbs and descents to Dunmail Raise. The leg saw fell running champion Ben Mounsey and local top fell runner Calum Tinnion versus international mountain trail runner Alex Pilcher and Ultra Runner Mārcis Gubāts. Ben and Calum’s fell experience proved its worth as they were able to work together to navigate the leg at break neck speed knocking 7 minutes off the leg record finishing in 2 hours 20 mins some 40 minutes ahead of Alex and Marcis who unfortunately had navigation issues. This leg is around 13 miles and 6000ft of ascent and covers 12 fell tops.


 Leg 3 is a tough one with every type of terrain that the Lake District can throw at you, including a climb if you choose to scramble up the nerve jangling Broad Stand (Thank you to Keswick AC ladies who had a handy rope set up for their record breaking attempt). This leg also includes England’s highest peak, Scafell Pike. James Appleton and Mark Lamb had it all to do as their team was some 45 minutes behind the pairing of veteran Phil Winskill and Mark McGoldrick, however somehow they managed to close the gap between the teams to 5 seconds by the time they sprinted into Wasdale in a record breaking time of 3 hours 2 minutes, this knocked 8 minutes of the previous record which James was also a part of and now also means that mark hold the fastest men’s times for Leg 1 and Leg 3. This was a phenomenal feat having run 15.5 miles with 7400ft of ascent while ascending and descending 15 fell tops. Phil and Mark completed the run in a fast 3 hours 45 mins.

Phil and Mark

Mark and James
Leg 4 climbs out of the Wasdale valley up the steep face of Yewbarrow and it was here that the chase was on. Having a 5 second lead meant that the teams ran head to head with the lead changing hands over and over again until Jacob Snochowski and England mountain runner  Nichola Jackson managed to pull away between Kirk Fell and Great Gable. By this stage, ultra running veteran Dave Troman was dropping back off the pace, but with the help of team mate Lee Newton and some grit and determination they battled on, scrambling up and over the rocky terrain. Jacob and Nichola were incredible, beating the men’s record by 19 minutes at 2 hours 36 minutes with Lee and Dave also coming in under the record in 2 hours 41 minutes. This time was half an hour quicker than when Dave had last run it as part of the vets team and 29 minutes quicker for Lee in comparison to his time the previous year! The teams ran just over 11 miles with around 6200ft of ascent while ascending and descending 9 fell tops.

The race is on!
Lee, me, Jacob and Nichola

Game face on (trying not to implode!)
Leg 5, the finale. Ten minutes separated the teams and as the pace was so fast they were very nearly caught out as they’d been enjoying the views relaxing. No time for a warm up and the first team were off, Dan Page and Ste Lord, both experienced Ultra Runners, but by no means fell runners and they were up against veteran ladies and GB vest Mountain Runners Sally Fawcett and Julie Briscoe. The final leg consists of 3 fells and a 10k road section and while being marginally the shortest is equally brutal due to the transition from fell to road and the speeds you can travel. Dan and Ste ran an incredible leg based on their experience and were able to touch the Moot Hall door to stop the challenge in 1 hour 30 minutes having managed some sub 5 minute miles across the 11 miles and 2400ft of ascent. Sally and Julie were equally amazing creating a new fastest ladies time of 1 hour 35 minutes which included 6 minute miles on the road section back to the Moot Hall.

Dan and Ste

Sally and Julie
The teams were roared home by everyone involved, from the team who were up on the fells filming and photographing to the friends who drove runners around the Lakes, this was a special moment for everyone. This is not a race where you win a medal or a t-shirt, there is in fact no official race. This is a challenge for clubs or teams to have a fantastic time on the fells and attempt to post their fastest times. Having it as a head to head race certainly helped the teams run faster and made it more of a spectacle for all involved.

Sunday 16 July 2017

The Irish Bob Graham Round

Some clips from leg 1 and leg 2 of a successful Bob Graham Round from Newcastle AC members Mark, Stephen and Dominic (and Justin). Awesome night out on the fells. Glad to see I can still navigate too.

Saturday 17 June 2017

Camelbak Ultra Pro race vest review

For many years, I’ve admired the build of Camelbak’s running packs but have always steered myself away from them as I’m not a bladder man; I like my bottles and/or soft flasks as I like to know how much I’m drinking. The packs have always looked well thought out and have a nice shape to them, looking like they would be really comfortable for trail running. I became very interested earlier this year when I noticed that Camelbak had produced a minimalist race vest designed for use with soft flasks, the Ultra Pro Vest.

I was very kindly sent a pack to try out by Burton McCall Ltd, UK distributor for Camelbak.

The first thing you notice is just how light the pack is, weighing in at a svelte 180g. This is definitely a minimalist pack and gives the impression that it is made for racing, this is not an expedition pack. There are lots of easily accessible pockets of varying sizes to suit every eventuality of kit we are determined (or instructed) to carry.

I particularly liked the large zipped pocket on the upper left chest strap which can take a mobile phone but I tended to use it for trail snacks and energy bars.

On the opposite chest strap is a small two pocket combination, useful for items like salt tabs and also includes a whistle, which is clipped to the strap (no flapping around – nice touch.) 

The under arm pockets are simple stretch mesh affairs, but can take good stash of bits and bobs. Over the late winter/early spring months, I kept hat and gloves in these pockets for easy access. What I really liked about these side pockets was that I could easily reach back to use them, even when running at a good pace. I have struggled to contort my arms to reach these type of pockets on some other race vests but had no problem with the Camelbak.

On your back, you have the main storage compartment for those items for which you don’t need immediate access. For a minimalist pack, you can get a fair amount of gear in there and, I’m sure that if you really thought it through, you could probably squeeze in compulsory kit for events like The Lakeland 100. When I was forced to stuff a number of bigger clothing items in during the recent Hardmoors 110 mile race, I found that the shape of the pack was altered to the point where the set-up I had on the straps was no longer comfortable and I had to readjust on the move. The minimalist nature of the pack will not cope with extra fleece jumpers and jackets, but I don’t think that was really in the design brief. When packed to the correct capacity, this is a very comfortable pack.

One more pocket design I liked was the outer mesh pocket on the back. I could stuff a light jacket, maps, extra gloves, hat and food into this space and still reach back and access anything whilst on the run. When I’m racing, I really don’t want to be taking my pack off to reach essential items, I could even put a small video camera in any one of the pockets; this is a versatile little pack.

The pack comes in three different sizes (S, M and L with an online size guide) with the medium fitting me nicely though I did have to spend a lot of time on my first few training runs with the pack trying different chest strap options until I found the best combination. Initially, the fully loaded bottles were bouncing around a lot, but persistence paid off and I got the perfect fit. Both front chest straps are adjustable in width and height.

Now for the main shift from Camelbak; the Quick Stow 500ml soft flasks. On some other race vests, the flasks are designed to be used whilst staying in the chest pouch, this does involve a degree of neck craning unless you use flasks with straws, as I do. As the name suggests, the Camelbak flasks are more of a half-way house between traditional bottles and “stowed” soft flasks. You take them out of the pouch to drink from and are then able to quickly pop them back in place once finished drinking, as you would with traditional bottles. This system does work but it’s a little bit trickier, making it a trade-off between not quite having the ease and speed of a bottle whilst enjoying the greater comfort of a soft flask. I guess you pays your money and takes your choice.

The flasks themselves are really well made, feeling robust, and are a nice shape to hold and stow away on the run. They have a slightly larger opening than some other flasks which makes adding powders to you drinks a bit easier.

In addition to a normal bite valve, there is an extra twist locking mechanism to prevent leaking. This may be a bit of over-kill, but it certainly works well.

On really long runs/races, I still prefer to drink from the flasks without taking them out of the pouch, so I am delighted that pretty much any type of flask will fit and I could substitute my straw flasks when required.

To really set this pack off nicely, I would like to have seen some sort of facility for carrying running poles. I know this will not be an issue for lots of ultra-runners who do not use poles, but I am sitting on a plane as I write this having just had a week training in Chamonix (sorry everyone ;-) ) and I like running poles, particularly in the BIG mountains. There are other packs in the Camelbak range that do provide a harness for running poles, such as the Ultra 10 vest.

Those of you that know me personally or who read this blog regularly will know that I am a self-confessed kit nerd and I will only use equipment that I think will aid my performance, to this end, after a month or so of training with this pack I decided to use it as my pack for the recent Hardmoors 110 mile race. 

This was a supported race meaning I could go for minimalist kit, seeing my crew every 60 – 90 minutes. However, during the hours of darkness we were required to carry more mandatory kit which the pack swallowed with ease. The Camelbak Ultra Pro Vest performed flawlessly, to the point that I didn’t really know I was wearing it for long periods of time and I guess that is just about the nicest comment you can make about any race vest.

Saturday 20 May 2017

Hardmoors 110 race report

I came into the Hardmoors 110 feeling really confident and excited to be back on the race route, previously done in 2014. The H55 in mid March had gone exactly to plan, with the idea that I would run steady and simply ease off every time I felt a tough patch was imminent. The aim wasn't to run a super fast time but to consolidate my position in the Hardmoors Grand Slam. I was delighted with 6th place and even happier with the way I recovered and got back into full training so quickly.

Having done relatively little distance work so far this year, it was nice to finally build up some weekly mileage, putting together a block of four weeks, including some recces of the route out along the coast. I was definitely ready.

On Friday, Tracey and I met up with my dad in Helmsley, parking up the campervan (with the bed already laid out ready to take some tired bodies at the finish) and transferred all our kit over into dad's nice new car. Sorry about the mess, dad! We made our way over to Filey, had a look at the start/registration area and, finally, checked in to our caravan for the night, about 3 miles from the start.

Up at about 6am, shovel in a bowl of Morning Fuel and we were good to go. As ever, it was great to catch up with friends at registration and to feel the subtle blend of excitement, trepidation and outright "what the hell am I doing?" in the air. Tracey and I had a wander over to the cafe to have a cappuccino - all was good with the world.

The general plan was to get to Saltburn (about 53 miles) for as little effort as possible and see what happens after that. With that in mind, I was quite happy to settle into an easy pace just a little way back from the leaders and potter along. As always, you make friends quickly with those around you and I was soon chatting away with Tony and Nick. We scooted through Scarborough where I had a quick chat with Andy who was taking on the H200, I'll say it again 200 miles! (You can see a great video from my friend John Kynaston on Andy and Sarah's attempt at the 200 here.) I met the crew just after Scarborough to make sure I had enough drink to get through to Ravenscar, the 22 mile point.

Everything felt really easy at this point; running was comfortable and I was eating and drinking exactly as planned. At Ravenscar, the race takes an out and back route so we were able to get an idea of the state of play at the front; Jason (quick high five) and Chris looked comfortable, along with another couple of runners and our group was now joined by Peter. A nice psychological boost to be so close to the leaders without really pushing things. I had a nice chat with Tracey, my dad and John Kynaston in the checkpoint, loaded up and set off towards Robin Hood's Bay.

We had nice running conditions for most of the daylight hours; a little overcast but perhaps a bit windy - certainly not as hot as the previous day. It was somewhere along here that Nick pushed on and was not seen by us again. He went on the hunt down the leaders and finally finished in second place; a really well executed race plan.

Things were progressing nicely as we ticked off the miles along the coast, the usual battle through the crowds in Whitby and the long tarmac section to Sandsend. It was lovely to get a boost from the one-person-cheerleading-crew that is Emma Hardwick at Sandsend. I had a few minutes with my support crew here, getting some Morning Fuel and chocolate soya milk shake in and climbed the steps from the checkpoint in really good spirits.

The next big question was would I be able to take the beach route at Runswick Bay or would the high tide force me round the longer/higher route. As I approached along the cliffs, I tried to make out whether people were walking along the beach or not; it was difficult to tell, but with no marshal to direct me onto the upper route, I made my way down. I just about made it through the rocks and onto the road at the village itself, literally just. I have no idea whether those ahead of me made it through, but it must have been touch and go for them. I met Shirley (race director) in the village and she kindly pointed out the route up to the checkpoint. I think this was the only part of the race route that I've never done before, always using the road on previous occasions. I'd had a look at the Cleveland Way Google Maps street view the day before so was ready for the detour.

I really enjoyed my few minutes at this checkpoint, catching up with my crew, but also seeing Shelli (on her way to finishing first lady in the 200 mile race) and Heather (part of her support crew). For the first time, I didn't have as much desire to eat at this point, perhaps just a few mouthfuls, but I got my bottles filled and took some jelly with me, still feeling like I was running well. During the early part of the year, I have been trialling a new product from Mountain Fuel with great success. Unfortunately, the batch of samples has run low so I tried to buy an alternative to get me through this race, however, I was aware that this alternative contained quite a lot of processed sugars which I generally try to avoid in races. I had been using them in training and all seemed good, but I wonder if this played a part in my race outcome.

I was running on my own now, probably in 4th place, occasionally passing a 200 mile runner and somehow trying to put into words have bloody amazing they were. Words like legend, machine and phenomenal just don't seem to be enough.

Photo - Melanie Pallister

I was really looking forward to Saltburn. For me, a significant point in the race: finishing with the coastline, turning back towards the finish, the race really starts here, a change of socks and shoes and a chance to meet "The Happy Crew". It was so uplifting to meet a group of our close friends, who have nothing to do with ultra-running, who decided to spend their Saturday afternoon/evening driving over to Saltburn to cheer me on. (OK, the traditional fish and chips might have had a small part to play.)

Photo - Melanie Pallister

Despite all this positivity, I really struggled to eat or drink anything, I just couldn't take anything with flavour at all. After a few minutes, I needed to get moving again, so grabbed a jelly and took water with me, hugs all round and set off towards Slapewath. Looking at the race splits, I ran quite a swift leg from Runswick Bay to Saltburn. At the time it didn't feel fast, but I think that might have played a role in how things unfolded over the second half of the race. Oops!

Things were feeling a little different now.... and not in a good way. I was conscious that I wasn't eating particularly well and was only really managing to get water in. I was still moving OK, but suddenly felt that I needed to force some calories in. I got a jelly pouch in, along with some water and instantly felt better (psychologically?)

Through Guisborough Woods, out to Roseberry Topping and down to Cockshaw Woods, I was moving but leaking time with every mile. There was no major catastrophe, just a gradual slide which I felt was getting out of hand. By now it was water only. I think what I needed to do was take a bit of a regroup with my crew, but in the heat of battle I felt I needed to keep moving to make up for the time I was losing. What a plonker!

At Cockshaw Woods, I needed to collect all my mandatory kit for the night ahead. We ticked off all the items, I grabbed some food in the hope that I might be able to get some in and set off. It was starting to get really cold by this point so I donned extra layers.

The original plan was that I wouldn't see my crew again until Clay Bank, some 14 miles ahead. I knew I was sliding towards a dark place and my crew could see this happening. They suggested that they could meet me again on the long road up onto the moors just after Kildale. What a great idea! I still took all my night gear just in case there was a problem but it was a nice lift to know I could break down this next long leg a little.

I actually felt OK on the climb to Captain Cook's Monument, but struggled on the flat and descent down to Kildale village; this was getting ugly. I knew that a runner was slowly catching me and my competitive urges kept driving me on, but I really should have regrouped when I was with my crew after Kildale; get myself sorted for the long night ahead. Instead, I grabbed some food that I knew I couldn't eat and pushed on.

It was getting seriously cold by now and very windy. I had a thick jacket on with gloves and a buff, I was warm but had to keep moving to remain so. To add to the adventure, a hill mist had developed which made the light from my head torch reflect back, so I had to carry the head torch in my hand in order to see properly.

As I made my way to Bloworth Crossing, steadily uphill with too many walking breaks, I could see a head torch behind, slowly gaining on me. Stupidly, I thought I might be able to tag onto this runner and get dragged along to Clay Bank. It turned out to be Pete, who I was running with along the coast earlier. He was grinding out a really good steady pace and caught me just as we reached Bloworth Crossing. I really tried, with his encouragement, to stay with him but it just wasn't happening and in no time his light was gone.

All I could think about was meeting Tracey and my dad at Clay Bank. I felt as if I was in some kind of a tunnel, limited by the extent of my torch light and all I could do was try to get out of the other end of the tunnel as best I could. After what seemed like an eternity, I finally dropped down to the road at Clay Bank. I needed to sit down. I was so desperate to eat something but as Tracey and my dad placed various foods in my hands, my stomach turned. Eventually, it got to the point where I started retching and brought up some liquid. Oh, great - the only thing I've managed to get in me for the last few hours is now on the roadside. Still, I did feel a bit better. Tracey suggested some Tictacs to clear my palate, which seemed to work and I felt a bit better.

The plan at Clay Bank was for me to grab my running poles to help my power hiking over the Three Sisters and on towards Osmotherley. Since starting to use poles when training for UTMB in 2014, I've become really confident with them and can power hike to great effect. In the end, I kept using the poles in this race right to the finish and am so glad I put them in the car, just in case. As well as the poles, I also put on another layer which at least showed I still had some lucidity at this point. It was bitterly cold and I wasn't moving fast so I had to layer up. I finally set off up the hill with Tictacs in my mouth, poles in my hand and four layers of clothing on my back.

I did feel a little better and was pleased with the way I attacked the three climbs towards Lordstones, even managing to get a jelly in as I topped out on the first climb; the first calories I'd put in for hours. I made sure I had a look for "Tony Robinson's gate" from the Coast to Coast series (if you watched it, you'll know what I mean), so I must have had some whits about me. The climb up Carlton Bank was tough and hit me with force. The next 4 miles to Scarth Nick were a nightmare. The lack of calories really showed; I was tired beyond belief and actually started to run with my eyes closed for a few seconds at a time, weaving across the track, all I wanted to do was sleep. I've never slept in a race before but this sudden feeling took root and I got the plan in my head that I would have a short nap at the next checkpoint which might reboot the system.

Eventually, I arrived at the checkpoint, climbed in the car, explained the plan and asked my dad to wake me in 10 minutes. Tracey said I was asleep in less than 10 seconds. After what felt like a minute, my dad woke me and said that 10 minutes was up - give me another 10 was my immediate reply. Finally, after 25 minutes asleep, they woke me and I felt slightly recovered. I immediately got some sugary drink in me and some food - this was the turning point. It was still bitterly cold, dark and windy but I distinctly remember Tracey saying if I don't get going soon I might never get going. That was a little kick up the bum and I thought about the Grand Slam; the main goal for this season was on the line here - did I really want it or was I happy to take the easy option and stay in the car? After a stop of 45 minutes in total, it was Game On!

In that instant, everything changed for the better. My mind and body were now in a good place and I set off towards Osmotherley with renewed purpose. I'm not saying I was bouncing along but at least I was moving better and was in a more solid psychological state. In no time I was up in the woods, going past the mast and looking for the right turn to drop down the diagonal path. Where the bloomin' 'ek is the path? Suddenly, I was out in the open field at the top of the hill instead of the bottom; I'd missed the path - I don't make navigation errors in these races, this is bonkers. I got my map out, worked out what I'd done and could see where I needed to go. I didn't want to take any short cuts so, instead of continuing to run along the top edge of the field which would have brought me down to the Cleveland Way further along, turned right and fought my way down through the forest to pick up the diagonal path as best I could. Two sides of a triangle done instead of one! Oh well, one small error I could live with, nothing major in the wider scheme of this race.

The navigating fun and games were not over. I was happily running down the road into the dark and quite streets of Osmotherley and before I knew it I had run right through the village, past the centre, past the pub, past the hall and out the other side, missing the small turning for the race route. Bloomin' 'ek again! Again, I had to double back to get back on route. Despite the two errors, my mind was in a good place because I was now running OK. I power hiked the long climb up to Square Corner and arrived feeling much better than the last time I saw my crew. To be safe, I decided to have another sit in the car before the longer stretch to Sutton Bank. Another 10 minutes would probably pay dividends later. I changed my bigger head torch for a smaller one with just an hour of darkness left and set off.

I took walking breaks on any inclines, but was happy to do so as I was power hiking really strongly by now and I was getting Mountain Fuel Xtreme Energy drinks back in. I'm not saying it was fast, but it was forward progress. Finally, the headtorch could go into my pack. To illustrate how my mindset had changed, I was now looking ahead to see if I could see any runners to chase; I was now back in a race.

Sutton Bank is a great spot for support as you can see your crew twice in a short space of time. Again, I had a quick 5 minutes sit in the car, some soya chocolate dessert and I was off round the White Horse loop, again hoping I might see another runner to chase and wanting to avoid anyone chasing me - I saw no one. At Hambledon, I had one final sit down before the last push to Helmsley; two more desserts, see you guys at the finish.

I was starting to warm up over this final section as the wind dropped and the sun came out. I had to stop and take some layers off and try to stuff them into my rather minimalist pack, but just about managed. I admit I had a few walking breaks along the flat road but I was on my way home now and I didn't care. My dad ran out to meet me in the fields above Helmsley and Tracey joined us for the final stretch through the town and up to the finish at the sports club. We finally came into the finish in 6th place in round about 24:20 hours. Blimey that was an adventure!

This race needs a proper blog post with some reflection on what happened, but I am immensely proud of the way the three of us managed to turn round a desperate situation and salvage a good result. The role of a good support crew cannot be overestimated. I am pleased with the final placing, especially with the speed of the front three runners who posted some amazing times; Jason Millward having the mental and physical strength to set a target of breaking the course record and running sub 20 hours is phenomenal (read how a race should be run here, Jason's blog). Obviously, I am disappointed with the time having spent over 1:30 hours sitting in the car at various times, but that has been overshadowed by the satisfaction of digging myself out of a very dark place that could have easily resulted in a DNF. More reflection to come I think.

I cannot thank Tracey and my dad enough for the role they played in this adventure. Crewing is a tough job when things are going well, but to cope with a deteriorating situation and manage to turn it round shows their worth; They really earned their bacon sandwiched after this one. As ever, Jon and Shirley put on a fantastic event, assisted by all their helpers and marshals; I cannot recommend the Hardmoors races enough. Thank you for the company to all those runners that I shared some of the trail with. Finally, a special thank you to the Happy Crew at Saltburn and Emma at Sandsend; those little moments are very important.

You win or you learn!