Thursday, 13 April 2017

Exmoor Coast Ultra - improving but still no cigar.

After getting back from skiing I'd tried to manage a long day out each week, so that I could at least get some miles and height gain in the bag even if I couldn't really run. Two weeks ago I had the usual sociable day sweeping on the Lakeland 100 recce from Buttermere to Dalemain (33 miles and 5300 ft) followed a week later by a trip from Keswick to Wasdale via Walla Crag, Watendlath and Scafell Pike, returning via Black Sail, Kirk Fell and Cat Bells terrace (34 miles and 9000ft). But these were at scarcely more than walking pace; the Exmoor Coast Ultra, while in the same general scope of distance and climb at 33 miles and 6500ft, would have to be done at a slightly faster clip to beat the the fairly challenging cutoffs. Still, it would be a good test of whether I could actually run (or more accurately, shuffle) on what I believed was a slowly improving knee.

Just to check that I could at least jog, I tried 4 miles along the canal on the Thursday evening. I managed just slower than 12 minute mile pace, at which the knee felt that it had been used but had no real pain or swelling. Good enough.

It's a fairly long drive down to North Devon from Chester, but the weather delivered a beautiful evening; it held through until Saturday morning and even as I left the hotel in Lynmouth it was clear we were in for a stunning day by the sea. The car parking field was about half a mile from the start at Hunter's Inn (no problem) but also several hundred feet vertically above it, so a potential problem for after the finish.....

Registration and briefing was all very smooth, and we were off onto the course shortly after 8am. I'd run this event before back in 2013 but I couldn't remember a lot about it except that there were a few steepish climbs but with a lot of cruisy territory in between. It's billed as the most "extreme" of the Endurancelife Coastal series but none of the races are particularly gnarly; not too much climbing and the ground underfoot normally easy going. But they are stressed as running events, the total time allowed for the 33 miles at Exmoor is eight and a quarter hours with proportional cut-offs along the way, so although you can walk the steeper climbs you need to get along a bit in between them. My aim for the day was to get around comfortably within the cut-offs but to finish with no significant damage to my knee.

As we crossed the Heddon Valley a half mile after the start to begin the first climb, I was in last place. It was a long crocodile up the single track path with too much effort required to pull out onto the much lumpier ground to the side and pass, so I settled in for an easy walk to the clifftop and the start of a beautiful undulating track along the cliff edges. This gradually gained height then cut inland for a few hundred yards to the summit of Holdstone Down, the high point of the course about four miles after the start. We were up into the sunshine now, away from the north-facing cliffs, and the day was really starting to warm up. I had generally just gone along with the flow up until here, passing the occasional tail-ender, and by the time we reached the first checkpoint a short way after the summit my watch showed an average pace approaching 15 minute miles. Not really good enough.

From here it was a steady 3 mile descent down an inland valley back to the start area at Hunter's Inn. A nice gradient but plenty of places with stones and tree roots so I took it very carefully, however at least the average pace was going up slightly.

The Endurancelife Coastal events follow a common formula, with at least four races on the day over the same ground. Usually there is a "10k" route with a loop back to the start, then a longer loop which when added to the 10k makes a trail marathon. A short-cut part way along the second loop affords a half marathon, while the ultra comprises the marathon course plus a second lap of the 10k loop. So we had now completed the first lap of the 10k (in the Exmoor event actually about seven and a half miles) and were about to set off on the second longer loop eastwards along the coast.

The climb up to cliff level in this direction was a long easy gradient for maybe a mile or so. Everyone in my bit of the field (ie the back!) was walking up the hill, but it was easily runnable so I settled into a steady jog. I passed at least 20 runners but as soon as we got to the level or slightly descending ground over the top around half of them came past me again. This was to be the pattern of the day, I would gain places on the climbs then lose them again on the long cruisy downhills. Uninjured I would normally take these at the speed of the slope, ie with no braking applied, but I had warned myself severely before the start that this would be a really bad idea today; the continuous loading on the knee was bound to cause swelling and any bad landing could put my recuperation back several weeks. When fit I would expect to cover ground like this at eight or nine minute mile pace, but my watch at the end revealed that my fastest mile had been 11 minutes and 30 seconds  -  just what the doctor ordered.

We carried on eastwards along fine cliff paths to the next checkpoint at Woody Bay, then another stiff climb and a long gentle descent into the top end of Lynton, from where a traversing track led along the valley side above the town and eventually down to a checkpoint at Watersmeet. One thing that I had remembered from my previous visit was the long descent of Countisbury Hill, but I couldn't remember how you got up there. I soon found out, I had obviously blanked from my memory probably the toughest climb of the day, directly up a hot, sheltered and grassy coombe. It felt good though to pass quite a few other runners on the way up. The downs were starting to hurt a bit more so I took a couple of painkillers in the knowledge that I was now over half way through the course as it turned back westward at the top of Countisbury. On the plus side my average pace had improved to around 13 and a half minute miles.

Down the hill and along the short Lynmouth seafront led to the next climb back to the cliff top, this time a much gentler one which could be taken at a better speed. A gently undulating stretch along a lower cliff route than the one we had come out on got us back to Woody Bay, from where it was just a three mile up and over back to Hunter's Inn. Although we now had the full heat of the day there was a gentle breeze along the cliffs so it never felt like an unbearably hot event (though I suppose setting off up the 3000ft climb from Courmayeur with the needle at 35 degrees last summer may have redefined what I think of as "hot"....). All that was left was to repeat the seven mile loop we had done first thing that morning.

The ups felt maybe a little steeper but I still felt I was going strongly enought and the high point soon arrived. So close to the end I permitted myself a bit more speed on the descent than first time round (this is where my staggeringly swift eleven and a half minute mile came in!) while still remaining careful. I told myself all the slowing down would be good quad excercise. Then we were back to base and through the finishing flags to a cup of tea and a laze in the sunshine. No significant soreness so job done.

In the company of two marathon finishers I made my way up the hardest climb of the day  -  the one back up to the car park after we had relaxed for a while; the day was still good enough to drive the majority of the 200-odd miles back to Chester with the top down.

My finishing time was 7 hours 36 minutes, which put me in 61st place out of 99 starters. I would have been happy to accept that if offered it at the start. I'd had a day out which needed a bit more than walking pace. But I can't help feeling that it was a bit of a contrast to the same event 4 years earlier, when my finish in about an hour less (6:35) got me an 18th place (incidentally, that time would still have got 19th place this year). If you assume that to attempt the Dragon's Back you really need to be in the best shape of your life, then I'm still way off the pace. But at least it's progress with no setbacks.  So far, not great but still in the game.

Wednesday, 29 March 2017

Knees and Dragons

Well I thought I ought to get at least one post on the board during March. I've been a bit quiet. But that's because things haven't really been going to plan.

It started back in February. After a month off over Christmas and New Year due to a bad cold I was up and running again until a careless foot placement during the South Devon Coast Ultra on the first weekend of the month over-rotated a knee which has been missing its ACL for nearly 20 years now. It hurt at the time but I expected to be back in action after a week or two. The same thing had happened before and it hadn't caused too much disruption. I was along to the physio two days after the event and came out hopeful and with a plan of action to get going again.

After a week the swelling had gone down and I was jogging round the block at 10 minute mile pace. Then I did a few repeats on my local hill; I felt a twinge or two on the downhills but nothing untoward, until the following morning when the pain and swelling were back worse than before, and this time they didn't want to shift. By the end of February I seemed to be no better off than when I'd first caused the problem; every time I tried to start running again I was back to square one. My year's programme of races seemed to be an impossible project; I wondered if this time it actually was the end of the road. I have enough friends who can still get around the hills but because of chronic injuries can't run a step.

As February blended into March I made a decision. I needed to keep fit so I would just go out walking over the hills, at whatever speed I could. Uphills get your heart rate up at any speed.When and if I was able to contemplate races again, that could take care of itself. I have two local hills that I go to regularly; Eddisbury Hill at Delamere which is about a 300ft climb and Moel Famau in the Clwyds which is nearer to a 1000ft rise. I decided that I would go to each once a week and gradually build up the laps, then go for a longer outing over other hills once a week as well. I decided to forget about distance and just think of building up time. 

My knee still hurts with pretty well every movement, but my criterion for progress has been swelling. If it swells after an outing I take it easy until it goes down again. Touch wood, the amount I can do, if I treat things carefully is steadily going up. By 18th March, I clearly wasn't in a fit state to attempt the Hardmoors 55 which I had entered, but I managed 27 miles along Offa's Dyke with a climb of over 5000ft. Not much above a 3mph average and sore at the end but recovered overnight, which was just as well as I was going skiing the next day. A week in Tignes was no problem, I guess because there is no real impact from skiing and the exercise probably did the joint some good anyway. A day after my return I did my normal sweeping job at the Lakeland 100 recce, this time from Buttermere to Dalemain, 33 miles and another 5000ft of ascent. The speed of the back of the field presented no problems and it was another 9 hours or so on the feet without too much damage.

Looking at my log it's been a strange year so far. At (almost) the end of March I've covered far fewer miles than in any recent year (313 compared with over 400 in the next worst year) but more feet of ascent (62,000 compared with just over 50,000 next best). I'm up to jogging a bit now but this isn't running. I haven't attempted even a 10 minute mile trip along the canal yet as I'm not ready for it.

I had entered the Exmoor Coastal "Ultra Plus" which is in about 10 days time. At 45 miles and over 10,000ft of ascent, when I planned it I felt it would be a perfect workout 6 weeks ahead of the Dragon's Back. Now it's too much. It requires 4mph to meet the cut-offs and I suspect that I either wouldn't make that, or if I did I might do damage which would put me back weeks again. I've transferred to the standard "Ultra" on the same course (33 miles and 6,000ft); I'll try this a little faster than I've been moving to date (if I don't I won't finish!) and see how it goes.

Which brings us back to the Dragon's Back, which was my main target for the year, and which kicks off on 22 May, less than two months away now. I had decided that I had to travel faster than on my previous attempt in 2015, to give more cushion against the cutoff times and I clearly won't be able to do that now whatever happens. Several times over the past six weeks I've been on the point of pulling out of the race. But it's a big commitment already and I won't be any younger in two years time; this year may well be my last shot.

On the other hand, the DB doesn't need great speed. It needs the ability to climb hills all day, navigate over difficult ground and keep going for what amounts to an ultra a day for five days. And having made a previous attempt I've learned a lot about how to best manage participation in the event, both during the running time and the overnight stops. So at the moment I'm still hoping to make the start line. If I can do a big back-to-back over some DB or similar territory without resulting in too much knee swelling sometime in the next 4 weeks, I think I'll be good to go.

Here's hoping anyway.


Wednesday, 22 February 2017

The Shoe Thing



Well my recent knee mishap down in Devon looks like it's going to keep me out of action for a bit longer than I'd planned; no use fretting about it, I'll just do what I can do, be patient, and if I have to miss an event or two that's life. We're so fortunate to be able to do what we do that the odd setback isn't too important in the overall scheme of things. I'll be back sometime. But the natural consequence of not getting out so much is to spend more time finding out what other people are doing and in particular reading the contributions to the Facebook groups a bit more than I usually do.

A topic that seems to come back time and again is shoes.  Give me some advice about shoes. And then of course the enquirer gets as many different opinions as people who choose to answer and so, I guess, learns nothing. I've mused about shoes a a bit a couple of times before in these pages but never altogether comprehensively, so this time I'll try to cover the subject as well as I can.

A couple of things before we start (well, four actually).

First the usual health warning. I'm not a coach, nor an equipment manufacturer or seller, nor even a particularly competent runner. I just get interested in the things that make up our sport. What you get here is just my opinions, based on what I've experienced and what I see around me. I would be surprised if you agreed with everything I said, less surprised if you agreed with nothing. All comments are always welcome.

Second, in case this spreads wider than the usual group of friends who know me and my wanderings, you might ask who is this guy and what gives him the right to launch out into a topic than he can clearly have only an amateur competence in. Well nothing really. I'm just a runner like, I assume, most people reading this. I started running ultras about ten years ago when I was 58 and since then I've done around 70 of them, ranging from the 35 mile nice morning out ones to some of the 200 mile adventures like the Northern Traverse and the Tor des Geants.  I've sometimes worked hard for my better times (it's all relative of course!), sneaking under 10 hours for both the Lakeland 50 and the Highland Fling and with a just about respectable 22 hours odd for the West Highland Way, but more often I've gone out simply to complete the course and enjoy the trip. For many of us I think that's enough. But I think I've learned a bit along the way and as an engineer by profession I like to reason out what's happening and put it into context so I can improve both my performance and the experience  -  at my age you tend to accept any edge you can get.

Third, those who have followed my technical ramblings before will know that they don't end up with any advice. What I'm trying to do is to tease out down and understand all the factors that govern choice. I'm convinced that the best way for all of us is to understand what's going on and how it affects us, then to make our own choices based on what we want to get out of the game, rather than following specific advice which may have worked well for the adviser but may not for us. But if you pick up just one thing here that helps you make a better shoe choice it will have been worthwhile the few minutes you spent reading it.

And finally, this won't be a short trip, so if you're going to stay the course then pour the G&T or whatever and settle down for the journey.

The Off-road Shoe Marketplace

The diversity we see in the market now is a fairly recent thing. When I started 10 years ago the choice was fairly limited. Fell running had been an established sport for many years but it takes a hardy soul to wear a fell shoe for 24 hours solid.  One or two "trail shoes" were starting to appear but they had their limitations. I completed my first West Highland Way and Lakeland 100 races in road shoes, they seemed the best bet for me at the time.  But there weren't so many people at the races then either. I entered my first UTMB about three weeks after entries opened and there were still plenty of places left. Waiting lists and ballots were generally unheard of. The marketplace explosion in shoes was created by the explosion in race participation  -  manufacturers follow the money  - so now we have hundreds of options to choose from, all offering something slightly different, something slightly better or worse; and that's why we 're here  -  how to make the choice?

The best place to start is to ask yourself one or two (!) questions about what you want your shoes to do; what is your personal specification?


What do I want from my shoes ?

What shape are my feet ?
How old am I ?
How heavy am I?
What is my running style ?
What surface(s) do I want to run on ?
What surfaces am I confident/ nervous on ?
How far do I want to run ?
How fast do I want to run ?
Am I happy to have different shoes for different events ?
How much am I prepared to pay (say, each year) for shoes ?

There will be more questions and we don't have to answer any of them just yet; the point is, if you and another runner answer any of these differently, then probably the same shoes won't suit you both.

But keeping these questions in mind, let's go on to look at some of the properties that shoes have, and how they affect us.


Shape and Fit

Whatever else a shoe may be able to do, if it doesn't fit your foot shape it's likely to be bad news. All blisters come from relative movement between shoe and foot; there is no other cause. Some shoes are wider than others, some are higher or lower in the toebox, some allow more or less tightening via the lacing system over the instep. So however strong the recommendation of a particular brand or model from other users, if they don't get at least somewhere near fitting your feet properly then forget them. For most general situations I prefer a snug fit around the heel and instep but with maybe a centimeter clear at the toe and a few millimeters along either side of the forefoot. This allows a bit of toe wiggle room and space for feet to swell a bit over a longer distance, prevents overheating and stops my toes banging into the front of the shoe on descents. The only time I will change my choice is if the run involves significant amounts of seriously technical ground. In terrain like the Glyders and Snowdon Hoseshoe in Wales, or the Scafell and Pillar sections of the BGR, your foot is as likely to be landing on a sideways-sloping surface as on the level and under these conditions any play in the forefoot causes side movement inside the shoe, with a risk of both blisters and ankle turning, so on this type of ground I like to have a snug fit throughout.

So if the run involves both technical and easier ground we are already into a compromise, and that will be a feature of this post. You have to make a judgement on the individual event. I may decide that there is sufficient technical ground to need the better control so I'll put up with a bit of discomfort on the easy ground. For me, an event like the Lakes 10 Peaks would come into this category. Conversely, in a race like the Lakeland 100 which has miles and miles of fairly comfortable trail interspersed with short sections of technical ground I would go for a more comfortable fit and take things a bit more carefully when the ground dictated. Another runner might make a completely different judgement, but hopefully would do so in full knowledge of the possible consequences.

But however you choose to compromise, it is likely that for every runner there are many shoe designs on the market that he or she should never wear.

One last thing about fit. On your feet you have a system of shoes, socks and maybe tape, lubrication and so on. Everything you change affects fit. Shoes that fit perfectly when they're dry may be a problem when wet.  Different socks can put you up a whole shoe size. Feet swell over the course of a long race. You have to plan what you're going to do.


Cushioning

Why do you need cushioning? Well, maybe you don't. But every time your foot lands it experiences a force several times your weight as it hits the floor, and that force has to be absorbed somewhere. The heavier you are, the bigger the force. If you land with a slightly bent knee you can absorb a lot into your muscles as your leg bends ready for the next take-off, but most of us aren't perfect and some of it gets absorbed elsewhere, such as in the soft tissue around and between your joints. Cartilege deteriorates and thins with age. I'm an inch shorter now than when I was at my tallest which is a result of spine compression. A similar thing is happening in knees and ankles, etc, so a 50 year old runner can absorb far less in his joints than a 30 year old, all other things equal. When the capacity you have to absorb the force is not enough, something starts to hurt. The damage you do is cumulative. The more times your foot lands, the more times that force has to be absorbed. Most of us could run a mile along a beach barefoot; 100 miles, maybe not.

So to start with, all other things being equal, older and heavier runners need more cushioning in their shoes than younger and lighter ones.

When I started ultras, you could basically buy road shoes with cushioning or trail shoes without. Some trail shoes had rock plates in the sole to spread the load from sharp stones and prevent bruising, but not cushioning as we know it now. I was good for 30 miles or so in trail shoes, after that the continual battering would get my feet and reduce me to a hobble. I had several bouts of plantar fasciitis which I could have done without. The only way I could complete longer races was in road shoes. Then came Hokas. It all became much more comfortable; the only problem was that you had these great unmanoeverable clown feet which meant that on technical ground you had to be very careful (and often very slow). After a year or two of ridicule and debate, the rest of the business had to admit that Hoka were on to something. Other manufacturers started to produce cushioned shoes, and Hoka offered models which progressively backed off from extreme cushioning to get back some control, so we now have a marketplace spectrum to provide as much cushioning as you want or need.

I was personally drawn to Hokas as soon as they came out. Their original designs, the Bondi and the Mafate were a poor fit on my foot  -  too broad in the forefoot and too low in the toebox - but I was prepared to live with this for the comfort they gave over long distances. Stony tracks 80 miles into a race, such as the Lairig Mhor on the West Highland Way or Longsleddale and Garburn on the Lakeland, became a pleasant cruise rather than a teeth-gritting slog. But Hokas got narrower with the Stinson then the Rapa Nui (and now the Speedgoat) and Skechers produced their GoRun Ultra, so I had more choice and have stuck with these still heavily cushioned shoes for all my long events to the present time.

But even if you find a perfectly fitting model, the inescapable compromise you have to make is cushioning versus control. Cushioning means that the height at which the sole of your foot sits relative to the ground goes up (cushioning means a thicker shoe base). On uneven ground there will be sideways forces transmitted from the ground at the base of the shoe sole which are counteracted by forces you put into your foot by your muscles. Because these are separated by the thickness of the sole it creates a twisting force on your foot, and the thicker the sole the greater this force becomes. The likelihood of turning an ankle on uneven ground increases dramatically as you increase sole thickness  -   so on uneven ground in cushioned shoes you have to run much more carefully!

Drop

Now here we're going to get a bit technical and you may not agree with my interpretations, but here they are anyway. We originally spent most of our time on all fours and our back legs took their share of the weight on the forefoot and toes. Then over a few thousand years we learned to stand on just two legs. Over the years our lives got easier to the point where the predominant form of motion for humans was walking rather than running. If you walk, even with bare feet, the natural gait is to land on your heels (try walking on your toes or forefoot, it doesn't feel right).  Walking is easier with a bit of a pad under the heel (less strain on calves and Achilles, etc) so nowadays almost every street shoe you see will have some degree of heel. When you stand in a shoe, the height that your forefoot is below your heel is known as the drop  - yes, I know everyone knows that already but I think it's worth refocussing on for a minute or two.

When many people rediscover running as an adult, they speed up their walking gait until both feet are in the air at the same time (definition of running) but still land on their heels. Road shoe manufacturers recognised this many years ago and were happy to produce shoes with heels that had plenty of cushioning in the heel to soften the in blow, and so maintained a high "drop" similar to our street shoes. I started road running about three years before drifting into trail ultras and was a typical case. My shoe of choice was the Asics Nimbus -  lots of cushion and a big drop (currently 10mm but used to be more).  Over my first few years on the trails I tried various off road shoes; I found all of them painful once I'd gone  beyond 30 miles or so but the ones that seemed to work best were Salomon Speedcross  -  rather unsurprisingly a shoe with a slightly cushioned heel and a significant drop.  I know many runners still swear by these for races as long as the Spine, but they either have a more efficient style than me or maybe a bit more soft tissue left in their joints.

There is another way to run, and that is to land on your mid to forefoot. It was promoted heavily by the barefoot running fraternity for a while following (or maybe just alongside) Chris McDougall's book "Born to Run". The extreme forms of this, running actually barefoot, in thin rubber skin-tight shoes or sandals, still have a following but never really hit the mainstream, but landing further forward than your heel certainly has. And if you run like this, you don't need a specifically cushioned heel; in fact, if you run like this too higher drop simply gets in the way, especially when descending.
A lot of modern trail shoes cater for this style, with much lower drops down to 2 or 3mm for some models.

Now I'm not saying here that there is a right way to run, both styles work for lots of runners. But you need to know which you are, and buy shoes accordingly, otherwise something's going to hurt.

Here's a personal experience. As I said, I was a heel-strike runner happy with shoes with a big drop and heel cushioning. Speedcross were good for shorter events, and Asics Nimbus were, with a bit of understanding, OK for the longer ones (I'd completed the Lakeland 100, the West Highland Way, the CCC and plenty of other longish outings in road shoes). But the long distance comfort afforded by Hokas was unbelievable, so I was prepared to make some compromises. One was that the fit wasn't the best for me, but another was that Hokas typically have a 4mm drop. To start with this caused a lot of Achilles discomfort as I stretched them an additional 6mm or so on every single step. But I gradually learned to adjust my posture and land a bit further forward so that I could take full advantage of what the Hokas had to offer. Over a period of maybe 3 or 4 years I gradually became a forefoot runner.

Then, after maybe 4 years of running exclusively in fully cushioned shoes (either Hokas, or more often Skechers, which also have a 4mm drop) I decided I needed something a bit more precise to deal more competently with shorter races on more technical ground. I dug an old pair of Speedcross out of the loft and tried them; they just didn't feel right, too much heel getting in the way. Since then I've played around with one or two other options. Not sure I've found the right one yet but I had an interesting experience with Scott Kinabalus. These are normally felt to be a cushioned shoe (but of course not in the Hoka or Skecher league) with a medium drop. Almost without thinking I committed to a 35 mile outing in them and got back feeling totally comfortable. So my conclusion has to be that landing further forward on your foot has to be a better energy absorber and kinder to your joints and feet than heel striking.

Grip

Of all the attributes a shoe has, grip is the one that is possibly closest to the trail or fell runner's heart  -  is it going to keep me upright?

First, to get the engineering understood, there are two mechanisms behind what we refer to as "grip".

If you are running over a smooth, hard surface then the grip you have is by friction. If you put your foot on a large rock which lies at 30 degrees off the horizontal, friction is all you have to stop it sliding off. Now the force you generate from friction depends on a number of things, some of which we'll come to later, but the important ones for now are (a) how much rubber you can get onto the ground, and (b) the coefficient of friction between your shoe and the ground. F1 teams knew all about this light years ago; it took the climbing world a while to cotton on, and now at last the runners are starting to catch up.

How much rubber you can get down depends on the tread pattern. For maximum grip you need no tread at all  - think of racing slick tyres or smooth-soled climbing shoes; but that comes with a penalty - as soon as it rains the F1 guys need some tread to squish the water out of the way   -   and they don't have to contend with wet grass. Simplifying the other property a bit, the coefficient of friction depends on how hard the rubber on the sole is. The softer the rubber, the more it sticks to the rock   -   but the faster it wears out.

So we're already into some compromises, and we haven't considered yet the other type of grip.

When you're contending with a muddy bank or steep wet grass, friction is no use to you, the sort of grip you need here is mechanical interference, that is you want pointy bits on the sole of your shoe to dig in to the surface and provide a "lock" against sliding sideways (or upwards or downwards). Again there are two properties that determine the effectiveness of the grip  - the profile of the pointy bits (are they like needles or thumbs?) and the hardness of the material. Narrower spikes and harder materials dig in easier, but of course as you expect by now there are downsides. Steel spikes may be great for snow or cross country courses but on anything else they won't do your balance or your feet any favours. Narrow rubber lugs dig well into mud, especially if the rubber is hard, but then you won't get a lot of friction from them when you hit the rocks. Another factor I think you need to look for if you're interested in getting the most out of a mechanical interference grip is how well the sole sheds the mud it has been gripping; running with clods of mud on your feet after the first hundred yards is no help to anyone. This again is a compromise between grip and the ability to self-clean. Steep-angled spikes will grip the surface better and give a surer footing, but you need a shallower angle to effectively shed the debris between strides.

On most off-road outings, some footfalls will be mostly secured by friction and some by interference, and some by a combination of both.

The only real conclusion you can draw from this is that if any shoe manufacturer claims that their particular model is the bees knees for grip on all surfaces, then they're being a bit economical with the truth.

Each of us has to make our own compromises guided by the questions I raised at the start -  who are you and what do you want to achieve. For what it's worth, here is my own reasoning (which will suit me and possibly no-one else).  For long runs I put a high premium on comfort, so effective cushioning is my priority. The shoes that come with this comfort may not have a great grip on any surface; I'm prepared to put up with that and go carefully. On shorter races if I know it's predominantly mud/grass, or on the other hand rock/stones, I will choose soles with the appropriate grip. If it's a mix, I always prefer to have security on rock, purely on the basis that falling over on mud or grass is messy but doesn't hurt, whereas getting it wrong on rock does.

A last point about grip. All runners are not equal. A perfomer with good balance, confidence in the surroundings and his ability to deal with them, such that he or she is able to put his feet in the right places and weight all his footfalls correctly, will find grip where less able runners will be struggling, even when wearing the same shoes. Another reason to think twice about recommendations  -  who is doing the recommending?

For interest, here are a range of shoe soles with differing approaches to and strengths/weaknesses on grip. I have experience with all of them except the Innov8's - I tried Innov8 in the past but they don't work as a package for my particular needs, although they are possibly the most popular brand among UK off-road runners.


Hoka Stinson Evo - tiny lugs, OK on hard dry ground,
difficult in mud, useless on steep wet grass













Hoka Speedgoat, a bit better on mud than Stinson, still bad on wet grass












Salomon Speedcross, classic all-rounder, lugs OK on mud and grass, also OK
on rock as rubber is quite soft, but lugs wear down quickly












Scott Kinabalu, quite similar to Speedcross but grip on rock not so good
because rubber is harder.














Skechers GoRun Ultra, great grip on rock due to large lugs and soft
rubber, OK but not as good on mud and grass. I would love to see this sole
on a closer fitting, less cushioned shoe.










Innov8 Roclite, rock grip from large lugs















Innov8 Mudclaw, small sharp lugs for interference grip in mud, lower
surface area compromises rock grip cf Rocklite




















Upper toughness


(Millionaire runners don't need to read this section, they can just keep buying new shoes)

A few years back I'd got quite into Hoka Stinsons. They were a good fit for me, the comfort was amazing and the grip on rock wasn't too bad.  I could deal with the odd bit of "technical" ground in them, I had found them absolutely fine on the Lakeland 100. Then I made the mistake of taking them on a trip around the Welsh 3000's. Starting in a nearly new pair, the 30 mile trip ruined them, producing three long gashes in the uppers, just from the casual brushing against rocks and loose scree that this sort of outing gives any shoe. There was a fashion for soft fabric uppers a few years back; thankfully it seems to be receeding now but it's a point I wouldn't have considered before that experience. When considering a new (to me) shoe now I think about what terrain I might use them on and whether the uppers will be up to it. I expect to get at least 500 miles out of a pair of shoes so having the uppers fall apart is just frustrating.




Water Resistance


I'm not talking about waterproofing here, I'm talking about the ability of your shoes do look after your feet in the face of typical conditions in the mountain areas of the UK.  The only other areas I have experience of are the Alps and North America, where the mountains are bigger but paradoxically the conditions are normally kinder. It rains, it stops, it dries out.  Here in Britain we have events where you can guarantee wet ground even in the middle of a dry summer. With one or two exceptions, most of the shoes you see in the marketplace were designed with the North American or Alpine markets as their target - this is where the money is.

In the Lakeland 100 you will get wet feet about 10 miles after the start. In the Dragons Back, you may avoid a shin deep session on Day 1 but you won't on Day 2.  In the Lakes 3 x 3000 you descend the wettest valley in the Lakes well before half way. I could go on but if you're reading this you know these things, you've been there. The key thing is, on many events your shoes get thoroughly wet from total immersion and then they nearly always stay wet until the end of the race. Wet shoes increase in weight (weigh some of your own dry then soaked through!) and the constant wetness increases the chance of blisters and trenchfoot, two common ultra running problems.

But there are nearly always drier sections in between the immersions (not counting the Pennine Way.....) and if your shoes are able to shed the water they have picked up then at least their weight goes down again and you have some chance of getting dry feet again. The key here is to look for uppers made from non-absorbent materials and no more padding than you really need. I find that the padding around the tongue, top edge, and inside the heel tend to become waterlogged in a lot of shoes. The padding feels great when you try the shoe on in the shop but becomes next to useless after immersion. Again it's a personal compromise between padding for comfort and the ability to shed water, but I suspect many of us don't need the padding we're often sold, particularly if the shoe is basically a good fit. I've bever been afraid of cutting some out if I felt it wasn't helpful.

Lacing Systems

This may seem a bit of a trivial point but in my view it's not. So long as you have shoes with a reasonable fit, what is likely to make them wonderful or so-so is the hold on your foot around the arch and instep. Get this too loose and you risk turned ankles on uneven ground and black toenails on descents; get it too tight and you get instep discomfort and bruising before you've realised it's happening. But everyone's foot is slightly different and will need different tightness and ease in different areas.

I've never understood the Salomon quick lacing system. For a company that normally has such well thought out designs it appears to me no more that a gimmick. OK, you can put your shoes on faster, but if you're only going to do that once in a 100 mile race that doesn't seem to me to be a great selling point. You lose the ability to control the tightness separately at different places in the lace system. Your foot maybe happier with tight lacing down near the toe and looser higher up, or vice-versa. You can control this by putting in some intermediate knots as you lace up the shoe. Most shoes nowadays have an extra pair of eyelets to create a lace lock at the top of the lacing as shown in the picture below:


lace lock at top (before tying final knot)














But I personally find if I use this I just get bruising in this area, so I use a similar lock but lower down the laces:














It's clear that you can play around with this fine tuning much better the more eyelets you have. Most shoes seem to have five or six pairs plus the extra top one. Hokas, having started with the Salomon quick lace system, seem a bit measly in only giving you four. I quite like the Speedgoats but I can never get them laced to my satisfaction.

Cost and Purchase

Although it shouldn't, with the cost of a new pair of shoes ranging from around £30 to £140 or more, I'm sure cost plays it's part in most runners' choices. I think I'm fairly typical of a mid to back of pack operator in that I cover about 2000 miles a year. The general wisdom is that most cushioning is losing effectiveness after 500 miles or so, and I find the soles of my shoes have pretty well gone after that sort of mileage anyway, so that adds up to around four pairs a year. That's potentially significant money.

When trying a shoe that I haven't used before I always buy the first pair from a proper running or outdoor shop. At least there you can play around to see if the fit feels initially OK. I always take the socks and insoles that I expect to wear when using the shoes. You also need a place that has a bit of a ramp with various stones on so you can get some idea of what the friction feels like. But that's about all you can do. I find that you can't tell whether a model is going to be a long-term friend or not until you've run a few hundred miles in it including a couple of races.

For shoes that I know that I will buy again I just keep a regular (say once a month) eye on the internet; the deals are around, particularly if you are happy with last year's graphics. I find you have to buy when the best discounts are available (I sometimes buy two or three pairs if the offer is particularly good) rather than waiting until you need the shoes. My average shell out seems to be £50-60 a pair over recent years.

And finally....

So where has all this lot got us?

I'm sure I'm still going to see plenty of Facebook posts saying "I'm going to do the.... (insert race)...can anyone recommend shoes for it?" But I hope I've sown at least a few seeds of doubt that even for a specific event, unless the adviser is somewhere near the same age, ability, fitness, foot shape and running style as the inquirer, then success is by no means assured.

So by all means listen to the advice, but then be clear about what sort of runner you are, what exactly you want to achieve.........the make your own decision!




Monday, 6 February 2017

Brought to one's Knees

I had done the Endurancelife South Devon Coast Ultra back in 2015 and enjoyed it, so I decided that rather than running around potentially cold and miserable mountains for my February outing this year that I would return to the lovely scenery and better climate of South Devon once again. The Friday afternoon drive down wasn't too promising; I went through several deluges which were only adding to the dousing that the West Country had endured over the preceding two or three days. But after checking in at the Globe Inn at Frogmore near Kingsbridge and enjoying a good meal and a pint of the local, I had a final look at Saturday's forecast which showed uninterrupted sunshine through to mid afternoon, followed by a return to heavy rain showers. No problem, should be done and dusted by then. A good night's sleep and a (fairly) early start.

In 2015 it was possible to drive down through the narrow, sunken Devon lanes to the start point at Beesands, a few miles East of Start Point, but this year I guess the locals had held sway over the event organisers so cars were banned and we parked about 3 miles from the village for a shuttle bus down to the event base and registration. At the briefing at 8am the marshal in charge told us to be careful because "the course is extremely wet and slippery"; from a personal viewpoint a few hours later it was clear that this fellow had never enjoyed the aquatic delights of the Lakes or the Dales after a bit of rain. An inch or two of mud in places and the odd puddle really doesn't class as "wet" for most of us.

Anyway, we were off at around 8.30am and almost immediately onto the beautiful South West Coast Path. The course follows this westward for about 11 miles, past Start Point and Prawle Point lighthouses and around to the deep inlet at Salcombe. From here, after a short loop inland it goes back along the coast for a mile or two then strikes inland with more purpose, heading north over a series of ups and downs over fields, tracks and the odd bit of sunken lane to return to the coast at the north end of Slapton Sands. A flat couple of miles back south along the causeway between the sea and the inland lake leads to the village of Torcross, where a climb over a headland leads to the final mile back along the shore to the starting point at Beesands. Runners participating in the simultaneous "marathon" event will have done their shift by here, but Ultra suitors are treated to an extra "10k" loop back out to Start Point lighthouse then some more inland hills and  vales back to the finish.  In all it's billed as 34,3 miles and 4809 ft of ascent, though I remembered from 2015 that my Suunto, while agreeing pretty well with the distance, clocked up a few hundred feet of additional uphill  - a free gift from Devon I suppose.

It was initially a chilly enough morning, 4 or 5 degrees I guess, but the sun sooned warmed us up to sweating and hats, gloves and layers came off as we followed the undulating and interesting but always easily runnable path westwards. In 2015 I had finished in comfortably under 7 hours by running a final average pace of 12 minute 16 second miles. My aim today was to try to run an even paced race but to see if I could maintain nearer to 12 minute miles throughout. All seemed to be going well to plan as I approached the first timing point at Salcombe, about 11 miles in, with an average of 11.50 showing on the watch.

Then in the final few strides of easy woodland path leading out to the road and the checkpoint, I somehow put a foot wrong and wrenched my knee. In a ski crash nearly twenty years ago now I ruptured the ACL in this knee and by the time the problem was diagnosed it was too late to fix it, so I'm left with a knee that has more potential movement in the joint than the remaining soft tissues can happily cope with.  I've learned that with care this can be managed but I still occasionally get it wrong and load it suddenly in the wrong direction. Usually I get away with a sharp stab of pain, two or three limping strides and a quick return to normal but with the reminder to pay better attention to where I'm putting my feet. This time though it really made my eyes water for a few second as I hopped to a standstill.

Two or three runners around were concerned, but as the checkpoint was in sight I told them I would be OK. On the first attempt I couldn't put any weight on my right leg at all, but with a bit of patience and persistence I hobbled along to the checkpoint. Luckily there were plenty of other runners around, dibbing in, filling up with water and food and so on, so the checkpoint crew were too occupied to notice that I wasn't really functioning normally. I wasn't sure what was going to happen or whether the situation was recoverable, so I deliberately took my time filling up my water bottle and eating some biscuits and jelly babies. The track away from the checkpoint was slightly uphill and nearly everyone was setting off walking for a short way, eating what food they had picked up, so I followed them moving as normally as possible until I was clear. For the first two or three hundred yards I was convinced I was going to have to go back, any forward movement was just too painful, but then I managed to ease into an uneven but steady walk. Although everyone was passing me the track was still gently uphill so I didn't prompt too many questions. After 10 minutes or so I was still making progress, enough to consider what the action plan should be.

I couldn't walk the rest of the course, even if I wanted to. Although the time limit for the whole distance only required a speed of 3 and a bit miles an hour, the cut off at marathon distance demanded an average of over 4 miles an hour, and with the time I'd lost faffing about already that wasn't going to happen. 

But I didn't know exactly what I'd done to my knee so I still had hopes that things might improve. Thinking back to a conversation I'd had with the knee surgeon a few years ago, he'd basically said that if there was no loss of movement, no swelling and no noise coming from the joint, exercise was unlikely to make things worse. I was still able to bend and straighten it, I couldn't see any swelling through my running tights and there was certainly no noise. It just hurt every time I put weight on it. I decided to take a couple of paracetamol and push on to see if I could improve things  -  the next checkpoint was only three or four miles away and I could duck out there if things didn't work out. 

We had now reached the first longer climb as the course turned inland. I concentrated on walking as strongly as I could and was encouraged to find that I was actually starting to catch people up again. At the top it levelled out onto a soft farm track which stayed horizontal for a few hundred yards; I tried a tentative jog. It was neither pretty nor pleasant to execute but I settled into a shuffle that was at least better than walking pace. I found over the next mile or so that I could keep this up on the flat, or on gentle uphills. Downhills were painful, particularly the steeper ones down the odd tarmac lane, but as the painkillers kicked in a bit things got manageable and I started to take a bit of a perverse pleasure in making my hard-won miles.

I was into and out of the next checkpoint deliberately fast before I had a chance to change my mind, and from that point on I was pretty sure that barring any further mishaps I would make it to the finish. It was frustrating not to be able to cash in on the many long, gentle "money-for-jam" descents, but I was in a whole better place than I had been an hour or two so earlier. For a while I was catching up with a lady runner on the ups but she was getting away on the flats and downs; she turned out to be Sharon whose name I was aware of on Facebook, and we ran together and chatted for a mile or two. I was quicker through the next checkpoint though as I didn't need to refill water. I expected her to catch up but I didn't see her again.

All the little ups and downs along the inland section were each still several hundred feet of climb, so it was good to be on the final descent down to the northern end. from here there was a horizontal mile or so through some woods then we were back on the coast for the long straight run down the causeway southwards. I remembered that I had been able to hold a steady 10 minute mile pace down here two years earlier but today that meant too aggressive a stride so I was much slower. It was a strange feeling to be wanting the long flat section to be over so that I could have a bit of a mental relaxation going up hill again! But I was eventually up and over the headland with Beesands back in sight. 

Since getting into my shuffling pace again I had been wondering whether I could finish inside 8 hours.  The last finishers normally seemed to be somewhere near the 9 hour mark so at least 8 would be respectable. As I reached Beesands and set out on the final "10k" loop (actually 7 miles), it looked as though if I could keep my act together I might have a chance of 7 and a half.  Another long-awaited landmark was coming up, in fifteen minutes I could have another couple of painkillers, so I set out on the southward cliff path again with a bit of vigour. We had had the best of the day though, it was getting colder again so another layer went on. I seemed to make good progress out to the Start Point lighthouse. On the slightly descending track onward from here there was no dancing from rock to rock as I had over six hours earlier, this time I was looking for soft spots to land on carefully between them. A climb back up from near sea level brought me to the final checkpoint; another one where there was no need to stop, just dib in, grab a handful of jelly babies and go, time for the end now.

But there were still two final dips down and re-ascents to manage -  hard roads, slippery tracks and soggy lanes to the end. Then I was up the last hill and past the "one mile to go" sign. The final run in was down a gentle grass slope through two or three fields, and just at the top of this the weather forecast proved accurate again, a torrential shower, the first of the day, accompanied me to the finish.

I eventually shuffled over the line 7 hours and 26 minutes after setting out, 35 minutes longer than in 2015. I was in 62nd place out of 130 starters. After completing 23 of the 34 miles after my little knee event, I felt that it was a result. 

There was a changing tent so I could strip off the sweaty and muddy stuff before heading for the bus, but the shower continued so persistently that my new dry clothes were pretty well soaked again by the time I got there. Sharon was on the bus, she must have tracked me all the way round the second half of the course to finish only a few minutes after me.

A couple of hours up the M5 I pulled into a service station for a meal. I got out of the car and found I could barely walk. It's surprising what a few paracetamol and a bit of adrenalin can achieve.

Postscript

After a night's sleep I've discovered that I do have some swelling around the knee and can't bend it much beyond ninety degrees. But with a bit of strapping I manged a gentle walk with Jan around the city walls this afternoon. It will be a call to the physio first thing in the morning but I'm hopeful that I can get through this in a couple of weeks or so. We'll see.