Tuesday, 29 April 2014

The Trail Running Team Weekend

Well what a weekend I have had. This weekend was, of course the Lake district selection weekend for The Trail Running Team. I'm still digesting everything that I experienced and will no doubt have more to say on quite a few subjects over the coming weeks. Right now I'm buzzing with excitement; I don't think I've ever felt quite so motivated before!

I'd travelled up from Cornwall with Wanda Summers and her friend Steve and we had a mammoth ten hour journey. We arrived to find our hosts Simon and Julie had saved us some food though which was kind of them and soon we were fed and watered, had introduced ourselves to a few of the others and made and arrangement to be up at 7 for a pre-breakfast run.

Now its not often I find myself crawling into bed with a Welshman but confusion over the allocation of beds and my arrival in the room after lights out brought this event close to a reality! Some hasty negotiations with the Youth Hostel staff soon led to me being found a bed of my own though and all was well with the world!

In the morning we were surprised to find the rain had stopped and a few of us headed out the door for a quick run. This was limited by the need to return for breakfast but got us out in the open and enjoying the scenic hills. The rain returned on the way back but did nothing to quell the thrill of a fast couple of miles down to the hostel.

After breakfast - full English of course - the rest of the group started to arrive and before long we were getting to know each other before heading upstairs for a quick photo and the start of the day proper.

Following a welcome from Simon we were introduced to the Berghaus trail running product line. 

To support the needs of their sponsored athletes Philippe & Anna Gatta in their attempt to run the Great Himalaya Trail Berghaus created a range of super light high performance clothing.  The highlight was the Hyper Smock, the worlds lightest fully water proof jacket, weighing in at only 84 grams. Also on show was the Vapour claw shoe; a fairly lightweight model with an aggressive sole clearly designed with UK trails in mind, plus a very nice looking mid layer - the Hypertherm Jacket, which, through clever use of different materials, could be reversed to give more or less insulation as required.

Hyper smock
Hyper Therm Jacket
Vapour Claw

mmmmm...Apple Crumble!
Next up we were treated to a very informative talk from Torq fitness regarding nutrition and the Torq fueling system. Torq are making use of the latest research and have created a range of products - gels, drinks and bars - that each make use of a 2:1 mix of Maltodextrin and Fructose to aid in uptake.

We got to taste the product range while at lunch. The fact they have managed to pull off palatable flavours such as Rhubarb & Custard, Apple Crumble and Blackcurrant Yoghurt is nothing short of miraculous.

After lunch came the guest speakers:

Steve Birkinshaw was first up. With a list of achievements as long as his arm, not least the 2012 victory at the Dragon's back were were treated to a mixture of advice on training, dealing with negative thoughts and an overview of his preparations for his next challenge - an attempt on the record for the fastest navigation of every one of 214 Wainwrights. 

Next Came Helene Whitaker. Helene won the Dragon's back outright in 1992 and came 4th twenty years later in 2012. Her honest appraisal of her own strengths and weaknesses and determination to do what was necessary to overcome them left an impression; not a strong navigator (hilarious to hear her tell of once taking a bearing on a sheep!) she made sure she had run the entire Dragon's back course beforehand to ensure she knew where she was going.

In both talks what struck me was, as with many other people here this weekend, that these two ordinary people were achieving extraordinary feats through hard work and determination. Occasionally though the competitive killer instinct could be seen shining through as they spoke of the races they had been involved in.

Later on we were privileged to watch the film of the Dragon's back race with Steve in attendance. Its a brilliant film, made more so by the company in the room at the time and I'd advise anyone with an interest in trail running to seek it out.

Before that though we headed out for the second run of the day. Essentially following the same path as before but with a little more time on our hands we climbed up to Red Tarn below the final slopes of Helvellyn and I arrived just in time to see Steve and a number of others strip off and dive into the freezing waters! No thanks!


The next morning we had another chance to go running. There were three groups - Steve leading the way with a fast group, Helene's husband and another guide whose name, to my shame, I have forgotten (Joanne?) took a middle pace group while Helene herself led a fast hike.

We were together up to the Tarn and then split into our respective groups.  To my surprise, rather than following the obvious path up to Swirral edge we were directed up a ridiculously steep grassy hill to reach the summit of Catsye Cam. This is probably bread and butter for the fell runners among our group but it was hard going for me. Worth it though as the views were incredible at the top and we had a great downhill onto Swirral edge, before a scramble up the edge itself. Every now and then I remember how much I miss climbing and how I must make the effort to get out more and this was one of those times. Topping out onto the summit of Helvellyn we proceeded then onto a series of rounded tops - some of the "Dodds", a group of grassy rolling fells - before finally dropping down via a stream crossing to return to the Hostel.


Having run almost exclusively on the coast paths this day was a massive eye opener for me; I could have just carried on all day exploring this runner's paradise!

So that was it, I'd done some cool runs, met some amazing people and learnt an awful lot. I still have a lot to learn but my confidence is up and I'm motivated as hell to get out and run long. Thank you everyone, its been an awesome weekend and one I won't ever forget!

Thursday, 24 April 2014

Trail Report - Coverack to Helford

Following on from the last outing on the Lizard I thought I might take a look at the section of coast running North from Coverack over Easter weekend. Having had a couple of days of good weather my long run was, predictably, scheduled for the first day of rain in a week or so. That said, the day dawned sunny and calm and I couldn't believe my luck as I got out of the car at Coverack.

The road down to the harbour was closed for some sort of works which must be a nightmare for the locals, though there is a car park on entering the village with an honesty box and adjacent toilet block.

Looking back to Coverack from Lowland point
After a quick stop at the latter I was off; with no signs to show the way I followed the road left and soon reached a gate barring the way and sporting an official looking sign. The coast path revealed itself on the right and led down and around what my nostrils revealed to be a sewerage works but soon I was out in the open and away from the village. The next mile is simply stunning, running just above sea level over boulders and open grassland. It was very dry underfoot but the presence of well maintained stepping stones gave a hint as to what the terrain might be like in less pleasant conditions. 

Soon I was at the aptly named Lowland Point. On rounding the headland a less attractive sight comes into view - the industrial landscape of Dean Quarry. A nice official sign warns of the dangers of straying from the path though I think work here has now stopped. 

Danger Will Robinson!

A well maintained (and signposted) gravel track skirts the quarry and before long drops down to Godrevy Cove (its a common theme throughout Cornwall that place names are repeated, often at different ends of the county, as they often describe some aspect of the landscape. "Godrevi" it turns out, translates to "Small farms"). 

Godrevy Cove

This is a private beach and the last part of the actual coast that the coast path traverses for a few miles. At the back of the beach is a bridge which leads to a path running steeply up through farmland and eventually to the road. From here its a couple of miles of road running, skirting another quarry and leading you through Porthoustock.  

The Giant's Quoits

On the way I passed the Giant's Quoits, a stack of rocks that had stood a Manacles Point for thousands of years and were moved to accommodate the expanding quarry during the 1960's.

After Porthoustock the route continues a little way along the road, until a path can be taken just left of the Porthkerris Divers site sign. This passes the well sign posted Fat Apples Cafe before rejoining the road into Porthallow. Here, on the beach, is a sign informing travellers that they have reached the half way point on the South West Coast Path - which runs from Minehead to Poole.


A boat on Porthallow beach


Leaving Porthallow via a set of steep steps the path has been diverted slightly through farmland due to a section of rockfall. Some fields and beautiful narrow trails follow, this year the Blackthorn is full of blossom, hopefully signalling a good harvest of Sloes in the autumn, and they compete for space here with the ever golden gorse.

A headland is soon apparent with a coast guard lookout at its extremity. This is Nare Point. The inlet beyond I had thought was the Helford but this was where things went a little wrong for me. 

Nare Point
 After following the track from the Coast Guard's I soon reached a small group of houses which I now know is Flushing

Looking across the creek I could see a village with a church and I followed the signs along the water through a beautiful bluebell wood in full flower. After following various paths up to, and into, various gardens and back down to the water I realised this was not the Helford (on reflection it was way too narrow). 

Lost in the woods
At low tide this is the coast path

Looking across the water I could see what I thought was a coast path sign. Retracing my steps I read the signage properly and discovered I had followed directions for a low tide only route.  Turning inland and onto the road again a hilly couple of miles ran behind Gillan Creek, via some dream properties with boats moored up close by before reaching St Anthony - the village I had seen from the other side.  

St Anthony

Gillan Creek

Lugger on Gillan Creek
Leaving the village the path climbs steeply to a headland then cuts back and drops down into woodland. The path here is covered in roots and demands your attention before, finally, arriving at Helford village. I arrived just in time to see the end of the Easter Egg pushing race!   

View from Helford Village

In all its about 13 miles; maybe 11 or a little less if the low tide crossing can be made. Whilst there is a little too much road for my liking the variety encountered, from wild coastline, to industrial wasteland, peaceful woodlands and picture postcard waterways this really is a classic route. turning around the clouds had moved in and before long it was raining. Still I really enjoyed the journey back and felt strong even at the finish which was a welcome change to my recent runs.

For anyone who's interested here's the route on Strava:

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Red Venom Calf Compression

The first time I saw calf guards being worn I laughed and pointed. But, following a series of calf strains and in desperation I bought a pair for myself and never looked back. In my own experiment of one I have concluded that they work. I have never had a calf strain while wearing calf guards and wear them pretty much all the time now. Its up to others to scientifically measure and verify the various claims about their benefits; there is already some evidence that suggests their effects may be somewhat less significant than some have claimed. For me though I feel better when I run and recover better afterwards.

Of course there is a drawback - there always is - and in this case its the price. Frankly, £30 to £45 for a pair of elasticated tubes feels like a liberty.

So imagine my excitement when I found a company offering compression gear, including calf guards, at a significantly reduced price. In fact the company - Red Venom - have a tag line of "Same quality, 1/3 price". Too good to be true? Well this is what I wanted to find out and at this price I was prepared to take the risk.

Red Venom produce all sorts of compression wear - which I have yet to try out - including more than one type of calf compression. The ones I bought are the graduated compression calf guards. These sell for £12.50. Yes, that's £12.50! They are similar in appearance to Compressport's offering with a grey cuff at top and bottom; since I have a pair of Compressport calf guards already its only natural that I compare the two products when measuring Red Venom's claims of quality.

My ultra running persona
I should take time to compliment Red Venom on a really great name; if I'm going to be a walking advertising hoarding for a clothing company then one that shares a name with a Marvel comic character is always going to get my vote. Unfortunately, the large red decal used on most of their gear is replaced by some rather indistinct embroidery for the calf guards which is a shame; with a name like Red Venom there can be no font too small in my opinion.

So un-wrapping the calf guards my first thoughts were that they looked small. for anyone that hasn't met me I should point out I am 6 foot 2. Compressport calf guards are just barely long enough - the Red Venom ones are definitely shorter. Its an unusual thing, sizing. for some reason none of the major manufacturers, with the exception of Salomon, offer multiple lengths for the various girths (sizing is based on a measurement around the fattest part of the calf muscle). Compressport, bizarrely, provide slightly longer length for the widest fittings. My experience is that the people with the biggest calfs are often short and stocky whilst many taller people have skinny legs so why this decision was taken I don't know. What this means is that, for a lanky bugger like me, the Red Venom calf guards only cover the larger upper calf and don't reach down over the lower leg to the ankle. Most of the calf strains I've had have been low down on the Soleus, so this does cause me a bit of a problem. However, if you are not super tall, or primarily want to protect the upper calf - the Gastrocnemius - then these concerns will be largely irrelevant.

Showing the relative sizes - and a lovely pair of legs!!

Its also clear when handling them that they are made from a thinner material than Compressport. This requires a little more care putting them on but there seems no difference in the feeling once on. As far as I can tell the compression is very similar and perfectly adequate.

So, in conclusion, if you are of average height or less, or only concerned with protecting the upper calf, then the Red Venom graduated compression calf guards are well worth a try. At less than half the price of the Compressport product you can't go wrong. I wear mine for shorter runs mid week but, because of the shorter length will tend to wear a longer model on long runs and races (to be perfectly honest I've just bought a long pair of Salomon Exo Calf as even the Compressport ones aren't really long enough). However, If Red Venom ever start offering a long version of each size as Salomon do there really would be no contest.

Friday, 4 April 2014

The chance of a lifetime

Oh my, I don't know where to start - well I do but this is quite surreal and my head is in a bit of a funny place right now but here goes:

A month or so ago I saw an ad on the right hand side of my Facebook feed for a competition to become a member of the Berghaus trail team.  Crucially this was open to runners of all abilities and would give four non-elite runners access to the kind of kit, training and advice that is usually only available to the top athletes.  For those that are selected the following year offers a number of perks:
  • £1000 worth of Berghaus kit
  • Nutritional products from TORQ Fitness
  • A three day training and preparation trip running in the Alps around the UTMB course (weather dependent) around Chamonix from 1st to 3rd July 2014
  • Appearances in features in Trail Running Magazine
  • Support and advice throughout the season 
There was a bit of form filling to do including a personal statement about who I am and what my running goals and experience are and that was it, done.  Now, to be honest I enter quite a few competitions as you never know eh? But really, I didn't expect anything to come of it.

Until today. I got an email at 5:30 pm to say I had been short listed! There are one hundred of us and we are required to attend a training day either in the Lakes or London (no contest, Lakes every time) and following that the list will be whittled down to four.  We all get an amazing opportunity to run in the Lakes with the Berghaus crew, including Steve Birkinshaw - a top trail runner with a string of major achievements under his belt (he's previously won the Lakeland 100 and OMM, among others). So, even if I don't end up as one of the lucky four I still think this will be the chance of the lifetime, I can't wait!

Trail Report: Lizard to Coverack

I've run the west coast of the Lizard more times than I can remember. Its one of my favourites, plus I can get to Gunwalloe in fifteen minutes from home so it makes a good starting place.

I fancied a change this weekend so I headed down to Lizard with a view to running a few miles up the East coast. Whilst I know some of the tourist spots along this coast and, some years ago, dived a fair bit from Porthkerris, I've never run - or walked - this stretch of coastline before.

On arriving at Lizard village there is ample parking (at this time of year anyway) on the green - an honesty box awaits your contribution - though there is also a paying car park closer to Lizard point, by the lighthouse.

I opted for the former and the dog and I were soon under way, following first the road, then a track down to the Lighthouse where a steep path leads on to the coast path just east of the Lizard. Its possible to walk straight down to Lizard point by following the road a little further should you wish to tick the box of visiting the Southern-most point but been there, done that so I took the most direct route.

Turning left the path runs under the imposing wall of the lighthouse before skirting around the picture postcard perfection of Housel Bay and on to Bass point, where the Loyds signal station awaits - this rather odd looking half house half castle is the oldest surviving communications station in the world and was used in the first transmissions by Marconi at the turn of the twentieth century.

From here a couple of ups and downs lead to the newly built Lizard Lifeboat station which is periodically open to the public. This was only built a few years back and replaces the long defunct structure at Lizard point.

Soon after you will drop down to a little treasure - Church Cove (not to be confused with ... ahem ... Church Cove at Gunwalloe on the West side of the Lizard) - where a few cottages sit above a tiny slipway flanked by high cliffs.  The path actually runs behind the houses but its worth a detour to check out the slipway.

Moving on the path continues on towards Cadgwith, passing the incredible collapsed cave of the Devil's Frying Pan. Cadgwith itself is a beautiful village, with a small fishing fleet and an abundance of thatched cottages. This is the architypal Cornish coastal village and is often busy with tourists in the summer.

Leaving Cadgwith I could see the rain was on its way. However the sun found a break in the clouds and for a moment or two the coast was flooded with an eerie orange light before the flat grey clouds descended once more and closed the gap in the sky.

The next feature encountered is the Poltesco valley. Once a thriving port due to the abundance of Pilchards and later the site of a Serpentine factory there are many ruined buildings to explore, plus a very impressive wooden bridge across the stream.

Its a good climb up from here - one of many on this stretch of coastline. But before long you are popping unexpectantly out onto a pitch and put golf course below a caravan site. From here the path leads you to the road and down to Kennack Sands. This is a really lovely beach split by a small headland and with wetlands behind, a toilet block and during the summer at least a cafe.

If anything the going gets tougher now with some very steep climbs. At one point the path drops down again to sea level and I was surprised to find the bridge across the stream had been ripped from its moorings in the winter storms.

After a while the houses of Coverack come into view but its not all over yet. The final mile into Coverack is very steep, technical and, frankly, not that run-able, at least not when its wet.

By now the rain had set in and on arriving at Coverack we did't hang around before turning round and heading for home. All in all, its eleven miles from Lizard to Coverack. There are a few options to cut the return journey short, either cutting inland at Church Cove, Bass Point or Housel Bay should your legs or timescale require it.

All in all this is a superb run taking in a rugged, varied piece of the coast path with some beautiful coves and villages along the way.