Starting to get ever so slightly, just a little bit nervous….

A big race is coming… or should I say a BIG race.  The Trail des Citadelles – 73km/45miles and 3600 metres of vertical height gain.  Would be nice if it was all up and then all down but it’s an undulator, in fact I think it’s a quadruple bagger.

It’s my goal race for spring, I’ve been “training” for this for about 4 months and I hope that I’ve put enough work in to do well.  I know that I’ll get through this one, but I want to get a time of 10 hours.  This may be very, very optimistic.

I have really studied the course though.  I’ve worked out my splits, which is something I have never done before and I’m more than likely a bit fitter than in 2009 when I did my first 45 miler in 10h 13mins.  (that one only had a measly 1500 metres height gain).

We’ll see.  I’m getting  nervous, but I’m also pretty excited – expect a report here after the 31st.

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Merrell Mix Master 2

Mix Master – Cut Faster!

Before we begin…

So, those Mix Masters hey? Are they any good?

Oh yes.

I really, really like them. Of course they are not without faults, but what shoe isn’t.  Firstly lets have a look at what I love about them

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I don’t normally buy the same shoe again, I like to try lots of different shoes, I bought this one again, I’ve now owned two pairs.

They are well made, but there are no frills here, the shoe comprises of a mesh upper, coupled with a reasonably grippy sole, it has some plastic overlays which run up to the laces and a nice rubber toe bumper. ‘Nuff said.   For the majority of the terrain I run they are great, I find them secure enough for high mountain runs, great fun for fast downhill running and they work well in deep snow.  I have to cross loads of wide streams on one particular route and I have found that their ability to shed water is exceptional.

In a UK 10/Eur 44.5 the shoe weighs exactly 268 grams and has a 4mm drop.  However, I have found that the differential is reduced somewhat if you remove the insoles, The shoe then seems to run flat… What kind of hocus pokus-ery is going on here?  Ground feel (without insoles) is great, obviously not as good as the Trail Glove, but nice enough all the same.  It’s a tough job finding the perfect mix of protection and ground feel, but for me – without the insoles – the Mix Master is close to perfect.

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So I like the ride, I like the mix of ground feel and protection… What about the fit I hear you say?

The fit

These fit.  Enough room for me up front, whilst not allowing movement from the middle of the foot back to the heel.  I can wiggle my toes, but my foot does not slip or slide inside the shoe.  A few folks suggest that they were too tight for the toes, that this shoe was less anatomical than the Trail Glove – I’d counter that and say that without the insoles the Mix Master feels wider in the forefoot than the same size Trail Glove.  Simply put the fit is perfect.

So what’s not to like?

Not much at all, I did mention that they were not without faults.  But, saying that, we can’t expect a shoe to perform well in all conditions.  I really only have two small problems both of which are not “deal breakers.”   Firstly the grip is not amazing, I don’t find the sticky rubber anyway near as sticky as an Inov-8.  And If you are looking for something to run through mud  these may not be the shoe for you – The lugs are of a reasonable size but nothing like a dedicated fell running shoe for finding traction.  In a nutshell – they are very good for loose and dry, not so good for sloppy and wet.  However, I found it quite surprising that on hard pack snow and ice they grip quite well.

My other small gripe is that on my first pair the uppers came away from the sole on the inside edge after just over 300 miles.  Now I’ll add a caveat: I absolutely thrashed my first pair, running a lot of rough trails, and also running off trail bushwhacking style on more than a few occasions   I suspect that it had a lot to do with this.  I also dried them very close to the fire and sometimes on top of a radiator… It’ll be interesting to see if my second pair has the same issues now that it’s warm enough to dry them outside and my bushwhacking tendencies have been tempered somewhat.

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The shoe reviewed in four words…

Wow, I love it.

Race Report – Les Trail des Pieds Cloutés 2013, Ganac

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What a fantastic race.  I love this race.  There are a number of reasons why:

  1. It’s five minutes on foot up the road from where I live. I didn’t drive.
  2. I run these trails all the time so I know the course very well.
  3. It’s a beautifully designed course, with two major climbs through forests, some real gnarly descending and it finishes with a small up hill kick in the ass.

So what’s it like?

Okay, it’s pretty tough, it’s quite a fast race at 19 km and it packs in over 1100 metres of positive vertical.  Or for my English readers, the course is 12 miles long and has an accumulated height gain of 3608 ft.  (Strangely as I run more and more here in France I’m still measuring distance in miles, but I like to use metres for height… Plain weird).  The race can be run as an individual or split in half and run as a two person relay.  There’s three aid stations with water and some bits and bobs, you get a nice T-shirt and a free beer afterwards.   All this for the princely sum of 10 Euros, and they had real Coke.

They also had a meal and a band after the race and a demonstration of the traditional nail making that used to be the big industry in the valley Barguillère in times past.  It’s all very well done.

Race day stuff

The weather held up.  Last year it rained a bit.  This year there was cloud and some sun, but the course had received a good soaking the night before so it was pretty muddy.  In fact I’d say this is the muddiest I’ve raced in France so far.  And do you know what? –  It brought a metaphorically nostalgic tear to my eye as I cast my mind back to the mudfests of England and Wales…

Anyway.  On with the report:

So not surprisingly I didn’t win.  The men’s race was won by Christian Montuelle in the near inhuman time of 1h30’08, he beat Romain de Stofflet, last years winner and all round  young dude (he’s what 18 I think) by just over a minute.  Romain was followed 2 minutes later by Nicolas Miquel.  All of them were bloody quick in my opinion.

The ladies race was won by Nedage Servant in 1h48’29, Followed a little later by Cecile Cambus in 1h52’39 and third place went to Anne Marie Miquel with the respectful time of 2h14’55.

The full results are available here.

There were over 300 runners and 234 finished the individual race.

My race

So having no real mud running options I decided to use my Merrell Mix Master shoes (review coming real soon).   I’ve found out during the race that they are not suitable for shorter distances in the mud mainly due to the lack of grip.   For the fashionistas; I wore quite a cool race day combo of long Ronhill trail shorts a nice old NB Top and an Inov8 Buff type thing.  Thankfully I didn’t have to crack out the Lycra, but I noticed many among the crowd dressed in all sorts of leggings and windproof top combinations.  I smiled smugly for I was not going to be the one who would over heat today.

The race was started by the mayor of Ganac.  You probably know this already but every small village in France has a mayor, and Ganac is no exception.  He even fooled us all by starting the countdown deliberately early – what a joker.  Once we were off for real I had my first real problem.  I fell.  Badly.  Ten seconds in to the race and I came down like the proverbial ton of bricks. I scrapped the skin off the palms of both hand (for I fell in the “Superman” position).  Ripped my knee to shreds and took a big gash out of my elbow.  For an awful few seconds I thought that I was going to be trampled to death by the on coming surge of runners.  I was fortunately picked up by a kind chap and set on my way, everything hurt and I felt deeply upset – In fact you could describe my feelings at that point as “pissed off.”   I was stumbling along losing places by the second, on lookers were turning away in disgust at my bloody appearance, my race number was flapping around shredded and held on only by two safety pins.  I managed to get myself together – first job try and pin the damn number back on.  Second job – run as fast as you can… I had some places to make up so I bombed it.

So much for a steady start, I told myself before the race to go out strong but not too fast. My strategy had gone out of the window and I had nothing to lose, my knee felt okay to run on, in fact it was my hands that were causing the most pain, with all that gravel still stuck inside them.  So I ran fast, real fast. (It was all down hill anyway).  I just went for it, flat out, passing people all the way – I was flying.  That was until the first climb – Bang – back down to the low gear.

I ground out most of the climb using the famous HOK technique (Hands On Knees) managing a few sporadic burst of running here and there.  I held out okay on the first steep section and managed to put in a bit of an effort on the undulating trail in the woods above Micou.  That bit was good.  I got in to a rhythm and things settled down, the pain from my fall was going away.  I even tried speaking to another runner at that point, congratulating him on a well chosen pair of “chaussures” (He had a nice grippy pair of La Sportivas on).

We soon hit the first descent leaving the hamlet of Micou together, but as I was slipping all over the track I let him get away. Damn those grippy La Sportivas.   At the bottom was the point where you handed your imaginery batten over to your partner if you were in the relay.   I was happy to be under an hour at this stage, my goal of a sub 2 hour finish was still quite alive, I was even happier when they called out my position as 30th!  I didn’t stop for long at the aid station – just a quick swig of water and I was off.  The second climb started from here after a nice easy loop of the river Ganac and it’s waterfalls.  I settled down a bit and I scoffed a gel to make sure that I had enough umph for the second half.  I got to the top of the hill and was asked by the marshals if my knee was alright.  At this point it had stopped bleeding  but there was a long stream of blood running down my leg and the wound looked pretty nasty… I told them that I was alright, our exchange in French went something like this,

Marshal:  “Ca va le genou?”

Me:  “Oui, ça va”

Quality language skills.

After that brief “ça va? Ca va.” I got on with the second muddy descent down to Cazals.  After crossing through this typically quaint village the race hits the trails and paths that connect up some of the small hamlets of the valley, eventually coming out at Brassac.  Here there was ever such a small bit of road, which at the time was welcome as I was slipping a lot on the muddier parts, the trail then went past a church down another track before the sting in the tail – a last climb back to Ganac of perhaps 100 metres… Needless to say I walked most of that bit.

In the end I dropped a few places but I was very happy with my sub 2 hour time of 1h55’18 and 37th position.  Not too bad considering everything that happend at the start.  And with an improvement of 23 minutes from last years race, I can say that my training is working pretty well.  Indecently I think that I beat everyone that was using poles (or cheating sticks as I prefer to call them).  I was chicked, but I wasn’t poled.  Good stuff.

Your Race Face – Should You Shave Before A Race?

(This is one for the guys really, sorry about that, but girls, if you would like to comment about your shaving habits please feel free…)

So, what’s your’s like?  I’ve been told that your “race face” is not too far off your “sex face.”  

Heaven forbid.

Here are a couple of examples of mine –

 Note the grim determination, the concentration…

…The gritted teeth…

…But also note the lack of a full hairy beard…

These photo’s were taken near to the end of two fast races, a 10km and a 19km to be exact.  During both I suffered quite a bit but finished in reasonable times.  You’ll notice that in the first picture I’m quite well shaved, but this really isn’t a true representation of myself –   I don’t have a very posh job so I don’t have to be well presented, I normally go at least a week, even two before a shave, I have what I call a “cyclic beard”  Normally I look a touch grizzly.

That’s great, I certainly save a lot of money where razor blades are concerned, but I wondered recently why I felt the need to spruce up before a race, it’s not as if by having a shave I’ll make my race photo’s look any better.  No, my race face is a scary thing to behold with or without a beard.  Anyway to the point of it all… Last autumn I had a conversation with a friend of mine, Yann, who in his youth was a sponsored windsurfer.  He told me that his coach always said to them, “Do not shave before a race.”  I asked him if this was just a superstition, but he thought not, he alluded to it being a hormonal thing, and that you might lose some power if you shaved the night before…  So I thought could I do better next time if I didn’t shave?

The Evidence – Should us guys shave before a race…

After a trawl of the internet I couldn’t find anything specific for the sport of mountain running, or indeed running in general,  but I was able to find this from the British Journal of Sports Medicine’s blog…

“Some athletes shave with a vengeance : cyclists shave their legs by tradition and to make easier cleaning road rash and massages, swimmers may even shave their entire body (particularly before swimming suits were authorized) to minimize friction, and body builders go for a full body shave for aesthetic reasons (1). Conversely, in boxing, rugby and other sports where high power production is required, many athletes prefer to wait till after the competition before shaving. They do that to avoid any negative effect of shaving on explosive strength (2). Although to our knowledge there is no scientific rationale for this commonplace idea, shaving one’s beard just before a physical performance is said to impair the nervous flux involved in force production (2).”

And here’s the study…

Twenty university students (23.4 ± years; 177.6 cm and 74.2 kg), all trained athletes, were included during bench press tests. There were studied in two cross-over sessions undertaken in a random order, assessing force, velocity and power peaks. One session was with beard shaving 2 to 3 hours prior to the test, and the other was with no beard shaving in the preceding 36 hours.

After several warm-up sets using light weights of their choice, subjects performed five consecutive bench press lifts (load corresponding to 50-70 % of their own one-repetition maximum ) with pushes at the highest possible velocity. Lifts were performed using an Olympic bar and plates equipped with an inertial dynamometer using accelerometry (Myotest S.A., Switzerland) reported as a valid and reliable method to assess maximal force, velocity and power from loads corresponding to 30-70% of the one-repetition maximum (6). Analysis of variance for repeated measurements were used to detect differences between the sessions. Results from bench press tests described an homogeneous group of subjects trained in this particular movement of strength training with unchanged performances between the first and second tests (P=0.43).

And the conclusion:

The performances in maximal power, velocity and force appeared unchanged by the shaving status (P=0.39). Beard shaving shortly before exercise did not appear to affect muscle force production although our results did not assess a possible influence on nervous flux. Our results suggest that the “Samson negative effect” of beard shaving is truly a myth. However, modifying their routine and beliefs could influence their psychological disposition for optimal performance, and change the image they want to project. Therefore, athletes may not be shaved before competing, but from now on they should invoke a better reason than optimization of force production.

Full text available here

Just In case you skipped all that..

It seems that beard shaving does not have a negative effect, but of course if you have a  coach like Yann’s that tells you not to shave and you then perform well, you may attribute part of that great performance to not shaving…

So in the interests of “science” I tried it for myself.  I had a race last Saturday (report is coming soon) and I deliberately did not shave for a week.   And the results –  I set a personal best, in fact I beat my time for the race by 23 minutes and I romped in 37th out 234 finishers.

So my conclusions are thus – Get a hairy race face and set a personal best – beards are cool, and I do think that some of last Saturday’s race photo’s looked a bit better too, I will be repeating this experiment at the end of the month when I run the Trail des Citadels 73km race.

When A Run is Really a Walk…

Am I really a runner?   I say that because I seem to spend an inordinate amount of time actually not running.  For example:  I do not run whilst making breakfast for the family; I do not run during my job; I do not run whilst watching TV.  In actual fact according to my Dailymile page I’m a runner for an average of only 6 hours a week.

6 hours a week?  Out of a possible what…hang on, I’ll just get the calculator… 168 hours in total.  Okay some of those I’ll be asleep, let’s say an average of 8 hours a day, so that’s 56 hours… Damn, I sleep more than I run.

So there you go – if I was to actually use a term to define myself then, “sleeper” would be more accurate than “runner.”  Shit.

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There’s me doing what I do best – sleeping. This time just after the birth of my first child. God I was tired

And it gets worse.  (This is actually the main point of this post.)  When I run, half the time I’m not actually running!  That’s right when I’m running what I’m really doing is walking…

Oh, but believe me, my intentions are good.  I dress in runners clothes; I wear trail running shoes, I even sometimes carry a water bottle and generally set my stopwatch off when I start.  I have one of those visor hats and I wear a Buff.  And I do usually start off at a brisk jogging pace.  All good so far.

The trouble starts when I hit the trail.  My local “Big run” is just over a vertical kilometre  form the start of the trail head to the top of the first peak – Le Picou.  A great path that winds its way steeply up through the forests above Ganac then out on to the open pastures that are full of rogue cattle in the summer and even roguier looking hunters in the winter.  It culminates in a super steep climb to the top of Le Picou, an iconic point in the Barguillère valley at 1601 metres.

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And it goes up all the way.

I usually manage to “run” the first 20 metres as I leave the village, but I am soon greeted by  a narrow steep and rocky path and I’m forced to walk.  Pretty much after that I’ll have a token shuffle now and then but the majority of my human powered locomotion will be walking not running.

Pen-y-fan fell race in the UK.  At this point we're "running" as soon as we got past the photographer, it's back to walking...

Pen-y-fan fell race in the UK. At this point we’re “running” as soon as we got past the photographer, it’s back to walking…

Now we’re not talking about namby pamby ambling here, oh no, we’re talking about the hardcore hands-on-knees (what I call HOK, or HOKing) style of mountain climbing.  Everyone reverts to this at times, even the good runners.  It’s okay.

It’s just I seem to do it quite often, very frequently in fact.  Very quickly I came to the realisation that what I’m doing on the mountain isn’t really a “run.”   When I leave the comfort of my warm bed and my partner says, “oh are you going for a run?”  I normally reply, “yes dear,”  what I should really be saying is this: “Actually dear, I’m putting on my running clothes, but essentially I’m going for a hike”  Because that’s the reality of it.

But there is a difference between what I do and what walkers do.  For a start, your average walker must take at least three different items of emergency clothing, a GPS, a lunch box, gaiters, full waterproof clothing, an emergency shelter and a satellite phone.  And this is just his summer gear.  When I do my thing I look like a “runner.”

Another thing that separates me from the Goretex brigade is the fact that once I’m at the top I do find myself running back down again.  Okay, I’ll admit it, you kind of don’t have to put any effort in to the down hill bit.  Of course, there’s a fair amount of skill required and you do need to develop the legs a bit, but in terms of raw energy, I usually don’t feel the need to breath very hard at all, It feels quite easy.

So maybe I need to define myself differently, I may not be a proper walker or neither a proper runner – so what am I?  A “fast hiker” maybe?  If I wore a back pack all the time I could be a “fast packer.”  Hmm.  The French have a term for fast hiking in the mountains; “Le Randonée Sportif.”   Perhaps that’s me a “Sportif randonneur?”

I don’t know, and really do I care?  Do I really have to define myself anyway?  Why can’t I call my walking, “running?”  Who cares about labels anyway?

There are of course a few fleetingly blinding moments when fitness finds me and I’m sure as hell that I am actually a runner.  And to be even more specific – a runner of the mountains.  One of these moments occurred last summer.  I hit the trail with two handheld water bottles, wearing just a pair of shorts and shoes and with the sun beating down on my head (I think I did have my visor hat thing on – basically I looked shit hot.)   Now I don’t know if there were some freaky gamma rays being emitted that day, but I had the feeling that I could run the damn hill.  And that’s what happened  – I ran all the way, right (almost) to the top – 1000 vertical metres.

I was very pleased with myself.

Okay you could argue that I’d have been quicker walking some bits due to the “fairy stepping” nature of my gait, but it was proper running, real and beautiful.  I was “in the zone” and best off all I could truthfully say that I had actually gone for a run.

View of Le Picou from mid way up the summer pastures.  I love this run... err...walk

View of Le Picou from mid way up the summer pastures. I love this run… err…walk