Marathon hopes dashed

As the sun sets on this rainy Saturday evening, so too it sets on my hopes for a sub 3 hour marathon in July.  

Rainy Gold Coast Sunset

Today the training plan called for 30km, with the first 10km fast (sub 4min/km pace) and the next 20km comfortable. This was to be a key session in my Gold Coast Marathon training plan. But unfortunately today ends the same way the previous 16 days have: with me unable to run a step. With only 5 weeks to go until race day, it’s the final nail in the coffin.

Everything changed so quickly.  

Six weeks ago I tore my left groin muscle, and followed that up with a nasty stomach virus. A week later I had the run of my life, setting a 10km PB and placing 5th overall. Things were going so well that I adjusted my 2:53 marathon target down to 2:48. I needed a week to recover from that race, but during the following week I felt some lower stomach muscle tightness at the start of a fast run. I pushed through it OK and then had a couple of easy days leading into the Byron Bay triathlon.

Loading my bike into the car the night before Byron, I didn’t feel quite right but couldn’t put my finger on it. Was it just race nerves? I finished packing the car and decided to see how I felt in the morning. The next morning my lower stomach/groin felt noticeably tender and I reluctantly decided not to race. Over the next few days it didn’t improve and I realised I’d made the right decision. This was confirmed by a visit to the doctor who immediately booked me in for an ultrasound to look for an inguinal hernia. 

I’ve had an inguinal hernia before, but on my right side. The pain felt similar but not exactly the same. With a day to kill before my ultrasound, I consulted Dr Google and came upon the sports hernia (also known as “Footballer’s Groin”). Notably, this starts with a groin injury, then gets better with rest, but returns with activity. A sports hernia is loosely defined as a strain (or tear) to the muscles/tendons/ligaments of the lower stomach wall and/or groin.  Regardless of whether it was an inguinal hernia or a sports hernia, some marathoners out there appeared to be able to train through it (with some discomfort), and defer treatment until after their race.

Could my marathon be saved? I decide to head out for my scheduled 15km “fast” and see. 

I’d been dreading this run even before the injury. My last 10km “fast” had been a sufferfest and I was sure I wouldn’t be able to do 5 more.

But I did.

The stomach muscles hurt but were bearable, and the pain in my lungs and legs soon drowned them out. I just managed to sneak in under the target 4:02min/km pace. I came straight home – not even a warm down – and then the pain began. And grew. And GREW! The rest of the day was a blur of lower stomach/groin pain, and it was pretty clear that I would NOT be training through this injury.

That was the 16 days ago – the last time I ran.

The following day the ultrasound revealed a slight “indirect” inguinal hernia. The doctor called to tell me she’d put me on the public waiting list for surgery, but also that the hernia was small, had probably been there for a while, and probably didn’t need an operation. She didn’t think it was the cause of my pain, suspecting that it was perhaps some torn stomach muscles. She expected that if I listened to my body and didn’t aggravate it, the pain ought to clear up before I got summoned for surgery, and then I could remove myself from the list.

So this was GOOD news: probably no operation required. Hooray!!  (my last hernia operation was a train wreck and had to be redone). But hang on, what say the pain hasn’t cleared up when I hit the top of the list? Do I end up having an operation I perhaps don’t need? 

Nerang mtb trails

For the last two weeks I’ve exercised to pain tolerance. I’ve been able to cycle, and I’ve been able to swim (but no kicking so pull-bouy only). To be honest, I’ve been smashing the bike and absolutely loving it! I’ve had three long mountain bike rides and found a whole warren of new trails. The injury’s a little better, but even a run across the road is enough to tell me I can’t run yet. Today’s 30km run is certainly not an option!

So the Gold Coast marathon in 5 weeks is out.  No worries. Another time.

The next problem is the Challenge Gold Coast half ironman which is 12 weeks away. Even if I just treat this race as a social affair, I still need to be able to run/walk for 21km. I tried a 5km walk last week and that left me aching, so I have some way to go. 

The time has come to get a second opinion from a more sports-focused medical professional. I’m hopeful that 12 weeks is long enough to get me running again, but more importantly, I want to confirm whether an operation is required… BEFORE the hospital surgeons strap me down and cut me up!

Surgeon

Crikey, this getting old stuff is… well… getting old!

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Gold Coast Bulletin 10km

Time: 36:39. 5th overall from 634 finishers. 1st in Age Group.

The quest for a podium place continues! Although I finished 1st in my Age Group and 5th overall, this was a Fun Run so there were no Age Group presentations. You had to be one of the top 3 men or women overall to get a public handshake, and a there were a few dollars up for grabs too. Dang! I may have been 5th, but I was a looong way back from 3rd (2 1/2 minutes). 

The build-up to this race had been less than ideal. After returning from a week away on holiday, I’d come down with a nasty stomach bug that  confined me to my bed for 5 days and saw me lose 2kg – down to an all-time low of 67 kg. I was definitely over the stomach bug by race morning, but I still felt weak from the illness and wasn’t even sure I’d be able to run. Not knowing what to expect, I decided to aim for my 38:15 PB (targeting 3:45 – 3:50 min/km) and see what happened.

The atmosphere at the start line was low-key and relaxed. I couldn’t have a proper warm-up because I was looking after my son Tyrone who was racing in the 2.5km race that started 10 mins after mine. So I did a few hundred metres jogs up and down the road. I was able to relax when a friend (who wasn’t running and also had a son in the race) offered to get him to the start line. Figuring Tyrone would do about 15 mins for 2.5km, and me about 40 mins for 10km, I arranged to meet him in the kids pick-up area about 15 mins after he finished. That wasn’t how it turned out at all!

Tyrone at the start

Tyrone at the start line

It’s a real advantage to do some research into a race before you arrive. I’d seen that last year only a dozen or so runners had cracked 40 mins, so when they called us up, I confidently went to the front of the line. Normally I’d be lurking quite a few rows back! Looking around, I saw a guy called Markus who had a similar 5km PB to me (about 18 mins), and had run about 38 mins here last year. I figured I’d try to stick with Markus and if I could I ought to get close to my PB. I’d also noticed that last year he’d run the first km in 3:30ish – a little quicker than I would like to – so I would be happy to give him a small gap off the line.

And we are off

And we’re off! (tucked into the second row, white hat)

With a very  casual “2-1-Go” we were off, and Michael Shelley (an Olympian and the eventual race winner) disappeared down the road. Immediately it funnelled from 2 lanes to 1, so I went pretty hard to ensure I didn’t get boxed in. After about 400m I eased off to a sustainable pace, and the runners behind closed back up. At this point Markus, and a few others, came past me. The pace felt OK so I just sat on the back of this little group. I was happy to us through the first km in 3:40. 

Just before 2km we hit the hill. It’s a short, sharp little hill – about 100m at 10% – and this early in the race it didn’t cause any problems. Coming back down it later on would be a different story! Down the other side of the hill were about 1500m of little rollers. The guys around me seemed to be going a little quicker (and harder?) on the uphills but I was making a conscious effort to increase my cadence on the downhills and kept opening a gap on them.

Course profile and pace

10km course profile and pace

Just before we hit the flat section at 3.5km, a couple of guys who sounded like they were breathing quite hard, caught up to me and Markus, making it a foursome again. We continued on at a steady pace, clocking kilometres 3, 4 and 5 all in 3:42.  I was feeling really fresh and, whilst going hard, was not struggling.

Being an out and back course, we were able to see the leaders coming back the other way. Michael Shelley (who ran 29:24) was miles out in front. Our group was collectively in 7th place, and I could see the 6th place guy was fading, while the lead female (Tamlyn) was sitting in 5th perhaps 100m ahead of us.

Cruising to the turnaround

Cruising to the 5km turnaround with my two red friends

At the 5km turn I decided it was time to increase the effort and see if we could catch the two ahead. Within a few hundred metres my group of four was gone and I was on my own. Oh well, I’d made my move. Game On!

Km 6 was done in 3:38, then it was 3:42 and 3:44 for kms 7 and 8 as we worked back uphill through the rollers. I was slowly reeling in 6th, and caught him just at the top of the hill, 2km from home. I blasted out of control down the other side, and then set about closing in on Tamlyn who was now only 50m up the road, but she wasn’t yielding!

Flying solo

The last two km were crowded as we wound through roundabouts, with the half marathon runners coming towards us, and the dregs of the 2.5km runners/walkers going in the same direction as us. Tamlyn opted to run the right-hand side of the course which was shorter, but meant she had to dodge the oncoming runners, sometimes up onto the footpath. I stayed left, on the marked course, and was making up time on the straights but then losing bits on the right-hand bends. Eventually I realised it was a head-to-head race and my principles faltered as I jumped inside a cone and followed her through one of the shortened corners.

With 500m to go she seemed to tire and I was suddenly up onto her. I put my foot down to make the pass and blasted into the stadium. There were 2.5km walkers everywhere and suddenly we had to slow down to weave our way through them. With the stadium noise, and the walkers all about, I couldn’t tell if she’d closed back up, so I did the full Sally Pearson “up on the toes” sprint down the finish carpet and across the line. 36:39 and 5th place! I’d done the last two km in 3:37 and 3:18 (about 70m short).

The finish line

Make the pain stop… ahhh, the finish line!

I turned to look back and Tamlyn was just cruising in, 7 seconds back down the finish straight. I wandered back to congratulate her, but as she came across the line she was arms in the air and engulfed by media. Of course! She was the women’s race winner and now $1000 richer! I got to chat with her later, once things had settled down a bit.

And then Tyrone was at my side. He looked pretty smashed himself. I asked if he’d been waiting long, and he said he’d just got in!? That couldn’t be right. He told me he’d enjoyed the run more than any other, and had passed a lot of people going up the hill. The hill? There’s no hill on the 2.5km course! He thought he’d come in the top 10. Later I checked the results and couldn’t bear to tell him that he’d run a 25:07 and come in 141st place.

In hindsight, my brain wasn’t working too well that day. It turned out that the first few minutes of 2.5km runners missed the turnaround at 1.25km and went on to run 5km. Once the organisers rushed race marshalls in place, they turned the rest of the field at the correct place. Meanwhile, Tyrone and co tackled the big hill on the 5km course, and he romped home to beat his 5km PB by 5 minutes! They eventually created a new category for these “5km Super Kids”. The end result? He got 4th boy and 8th overall. Awesome!! 

Father and son finished

This was a dream race for me – beyond my wildest expectations. It was a negative split, with the first 5km done in 18:30 and the last in 18:09 (which is only 19 seconds off my 5km PB). My conclusion? A week of gastro pre-race is the perfect taper!

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Luke Harrop Sprint Tri 2014

1:06:55 – Swim 13:57, Bike 35:25, Run 17:33

Almost a podium. ALMOST!

I ended up 4th place in my Age Group, only 12 seconds off 3rd. That’s pretty darned exciting for me because I’ve never podiumed in any race, ever.

Ironically, I had no idea where I’d finished and thought I’d be in my usual 10th-20th range. We just happened to catch some of the presentations while the kids were getting their hotdogs, and when they announced the 40-44 podium, I recognised the 3rd place-getter as one of the guys I’d been closing in on during the run.  I ran 3 minutes faster than him and was closing fast, but was unable to catch him before the end. With hundreds of people on the multi-lap run course, and no category letters on the athletes, he was just another target to chase. Little did I realise that he was the podium! C’est la vie.

I had a pretty good race. My two previous sprint distance triathlons were 1:10 and 1:11, so 1:06 was easily a PB. Last time I raced here I punctured. There was no puncture this time, but the race didn’t all go to plan!

Swim – 750m in 13:57 –  31st/71 in AG

My usual starting position is in the middle of the field, near the back. I tried something a little different this time. I watched a club-mate, Warwick, in the wave before me. He swims similar times to me. He started on the left, with noone in front and one guy behind, and made it cleanly around the left-hand turn buoy about 100m away. So I positioned myself left. BUT, I turned to look back just before the gun and there were 5 rows of guys behind me. Whoops! My Age Group was a lot bigger.

I went hard to the first buoy and rounded it OK. 100m further we turned left again at a 2nd buoy. This was messy but I was still well-placed.  I was expecting the pace to drop off now as people settled into a rhythm, but it didn’t. I’d gone out very hard and was still breathing every 2nd stroke and was unable to lower my HR which felt waaaay too high. I tried to slow down but immediately people started swimming up my legs, and coming round both sides of me, boxing me in. I was simply unable to get my breath back.

So I took the Emergency Exit. I made a sharp LH turn, straight over the legs of the guy next to me, and straight out the side. Then I floated on my back for a bit to get my breath back. Ahhh. After that I was able to settle into a steady 3-2-3 breathing pattern and find some feet. My goggles were leaking slightly and the tint was too dark, but nothing to worry about. I switched it up to 3-2-2-3 near the end and was starting to feel positive again. The Garmin read 970m which agreed with others’, so perhaps it was slightly long.

I hit the sand running hard and feeling good. I really need to practice a crowded swim start and regaining my breath while swimming after 200m at full speed!

Bike – 20km in 35:25 (includes T1 and T2) – 6th/71 in AG

T1 was 1:52 and T2 was 1:36, so actual ride time was 32:03 at 37.9km/hr and 256W (260 normalised). My pre-race target was 260-270W. 

Straight out of transition, my shoe started spinning around on the pedal, clipped the ground, and fell off. Bugger! I had to run back and put it on, which cost me 10sec (arghh!). I really need to try tying the pedal to the chain stay with a rubber band next time.

I rode pretty hard. There was a tailwind heading north and I made a lot of time on people here as I tried to keep my power up.  Going south there was a head-wind where, in hindsight, I perhaps didn’t push hard enough. Power-wise, 256W is on par with about 29:40 around Barrier Reef, where I‘d ridden 273W and 260W in the build-up. My HR was a few beats higher which is no surprise after swimming first.

Several club-mates, who I know are at a similar level to me, went 1 minute quicker than me. I felt I went pretty hard but I guess I need to turn myself inside out for that extra minute!?! The published bike times do include T1 and T2, so they might have picked up some time there. But 1 min? That’s 15W for me, and that’s the difference between being ready to run, and ready to lie down!

Drafting was a bit of an issue. For slower riders, it would be hard not to draft. Riders were 3-4 wide at points. Personally, I only had one guy pass me so opportunities to cheat were very limited. Several times I passed guys who latched on. This really bugs me! Once I wildly signalled to the draft-busters going the other way and complained loudly. That guy seemed to get the hint!

Run – 5km in 17:33 – 1st/71 in AG

Yet another short run course sees me achieve my all time run PB in a triathlon! I measured it at 4.7km so this is equivalent to about 18:30 for 5km.

My run was awesome. I felt great. I flew out of transition but then eased off so I didn’t get a stitch (as happened here in 2012 when I hit the first hill going too hard), and then I built nicely. I certainly could have found 12 seconds, if only I knew! My run km splits were: 3:53, 3:47, 3:47, 3:36, 3:29 (pace). I never felt out of breath and possibly had another couple of even faster kms in me. The GC marathon pace training – fast 10km runs at 4min/km and below – have been really effective.

Tris by position

Overall I’m really pleased with this race. It was my best overall placing, along with my best run and best ride; my swim was typical. It’s been almost a year since my last triathlon and I’ve hit the ground running. Give me another 20 years and a podium spot will be mine, for sure!

Happy SPTC clubbies

Happy SPTC clubbies


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The sub 3 hour marathon training plan

With the 2014 Gold Coast Marathon fast approaching (13 weeks away), it’s time I mapped out a marathon training plan. The goal is simple: a sub 3 hour marathon. In theory, this is achievable based on last November’s 5km time of 17:50, and 2012’s half marathon time of 1:22 - the McMillan calculator has me running between 2:53 and 2:54. But as last year’s 3:38 detonation proved, there will be no sub 3 hour marathon without some serious training. Cue the marathon training plan!

I’ve looked at three different plans, each quite different from the other. Here’s a summary of them:

1. The Gold Coast Airport Marathon’s own (2009) Advanced 20 week plan. 

Up until a couple of years ago, entering the GC Marathon would give you access to a suite of Pat Carroll designed training plans in PDF format – beginner, intermediate and advanced – across the marathon, half marathon and 10km distances. 

GCM advanced plan

The “Advanced” plan has you running 5 days a week. There’s typically two speed sessions, one long session and the other two sessions are easy runs. The long run builds to 3 hours at 6, 5 and 4 weeks out, and then tapers down. It is periodised with a recovery week roughly every 4 weeks. There’s the option of doing a race in place of the long run on the weekend before the recovery week.  Volume-wise, it peaks at about 7 hours per week, which (depending on pace) is probably around 85km per week.

I really like the balance of this plan, and had great success using the half-marathon plan. My only complaint is that it is completely generic and doesn’t take your target race time into consideration. For example, the long runs are all done at “Comfortable” (conversational) pace. If I don’t have someone to chat with (and for most of the long runs I won’t), that pace could be tricky to judge. I’d like to target a specific pace range, and perhaps even have that pace vary during the run (it might increase in thirds, or have some faster intervals within it). 

2. The MyAsics Website

This year the Gold Coast Marathon provides targeted training plans through the MyAsics website. You tell them what event you want to do, and what your current PB is over any distance, and it generates a 14 week plan for you. It took a few attempts before I found the right PB to generate a 2:54 marathon plan (that ought to give me enough of a buffer). 

Myasics plan

There’s a lot to like about this plan. You can choose whether to run 2, 3 or 4 days a week, and you can move the run days (which suits me as I like to run my long run on Saturday, and most plans do it on Sunday). Each week there tends to be 1 or 2 easy jogs, 1 or 2 fast runs and one long run. Each run has a target pace, and sometimes the pace is mixed up during the run. My favourite feature is the ability to import the plan into your calendar (by subscribing to an ICS) so I don’t have to manually enter the runs each week, and I don’t have to keep going back to the website! (you can print it too).

The plan is not obviously periodised but there are a couple of easier weeks in there. The long run builds quite sharply (in 5-7km increments) to a peak of 37km at 3 weeks out – and that’s run at a cracking 4:11 min/km pace. That’s 2:56 marathon pace, and would leave you 25 mins to cover the last 5.2km for your sub 3 hour marathon… in training!!. Volume-wise it peaks at 57km per week.

My concern with this plan is twofold. First, the short runs are too short: two of the four weekly runs are 5km jogs. Who runs 5km?!? My second concern is the aggressiveness of the long run build-up. I’m not sure my legs can handle such a fast increase, nor sustain the pace required through the final month. BUT, if they did, the sub 3 hour marathon would be a shoo-in!

3. Runners World “SmartCoach” plan

The SmartCoach training plan is a customisable 16 week plan which is keyed off your current PB time. Plugging in an 18 min 5km generates a plan for a 2:50 marathon. It has you running 4 days a week, and again you can set your long run day, and also your initial weekly mileage (I went for 58-66km). As with the MyAsics plan, the four runs tend to be two easy runs, one tempo/speedwork, and one long run. You can print the plan (I print to PDF) so you don’t have to go back to the website. If you pay them some dosh, you can get more features.

Smartcoach plan

The plan is periodised with an easier week every 4 weeks. The runs all have pace targets, but the long runs are all run at the same pace – 4:35 min/km – which is also the pace for the easy runs. This is very similar to the Pat Carroll plans, except “Comfortable” has been defined as a set pace. The long run peaks at 32km on four occasions at 3, 5, 7 and 10 weeks out from the race; at the prescribed pace, this is roughly 2.5 hours long. Volume-wise it peaks at 74km per week.

Which Plan?

three cup trickNone of the plans are quite what I’m after. There are two areas where they don’t quite deliver.

The first area is volume. Last year I increased my weekly volume from my typical 40-60km per week up to 80-100km. This coincided with me setting my 5km PB, and led to me comfortably completing my first ultra-marathon. I concluded that running more is better. But to temper this, I tried to run every day for 100 days and broke down with a calf injury after 35. I concluded that recovery is important. So I’d like to increase my run volume up to 80km per week, but still include plenty of recovery days.

The second area is variety - specifically, my current fortnightly crop of trail running, hill running and track running. These sessions don’t really fit into any of these plans, but they are a regular routine, one that I enjoy, and one that I want to keep doing after this marathon is over, so I’d like to fit them in somehow. 

Prior to doing this analysis, I’d spent a week on the MyAsics plan, and then switched over to the SmartCoach plan for two weeks. Now that I’ve reviewed them, I’m leaning back towards the MyAsics plan, but with modifications:

  • Where it says to jog 5km, I’ll jog 10km (unless I’m feeling weary). That gives me an extra 5-10km per week.
     
  • Some Tuesdays I’ll run track intervals instead of the “10-15km fast”… maybe… those 4 min/km fast runs could be vital to hitting and holding that 4:04 min/km marathon pace in July! 
     
  • When I need some green, I can simply swap one of those Monday/Friday “easy jogs” for an easy trail run
     
  • My Thursday hills run – well, that just doesn’t fit…. BUT I could perhaps incorporate the plan’s “10km fast” as a warm-up for my 10km hills session? That’d be a tough 20km and I’d have to be ready to scratch the hills if they began to compromise my ability to perform the most crucial run every week – the Saturday morning long run.

With the MyAsics plan and these tweaks, I get everything I want: runs with target paces, trail runs, my track sessions, my hills, and an extra 15-20km per week to push the maximum weekly mileage up close to the magic 80km.  If I want more recovery, I can drop the extras and still feel like I’m on plan, and on target!

Lock it in, Eddy!

Lock it in eddie

 

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Watch your Step!

Is your foot landing where you think it is?

Several months ago I made an interesting discovery. I was running a pretty rough trail in Nerang Forest Park. Big loose rocks littered the fire-road, and beneath them were ruts and ridges. I was picking a path two strides ahead – building a semi-smooth map across the landscape – my mind barely able to keep up with my feet.  Anticipating the gaps in the terrain is like Galaga for your feet!

Galaga
Trail running – it’s like Galaga for your feet!

I was a bit rusty at this trail running lark – I hadn’t been running off-road much lately. But I knew from my years as a kid running around the hills up behind our house, that it should feel smooth and fluid. Instead, it felt lumpy and unstable. I was rolling my foot on rocks I hadn’t seen; the feedback from the ground through my shoe described a different terrain to the one I was navigating. It was as if I was running on a different trail to the one I was looking at. Rather than building confidence as the run went on, I was losing confidence – I was slowing down and becoming more cautious.

How had I become so bad at this? A fortnight earlier I’d taken a massive tumble, tripping on a hidden rock going down the Warrie trail. A week before that I’d caught my foot several times running Polly’s Kitchen, but luckily managed to stay upright (a fall down Polly’s is likely a bone-breaker!).

Initially I’d blamed my trail running shoes. My Inov-8 285′s have big protruding lugs, and taper to a slight point (think “ballet”) at the toes. They are a joy to run in – light and flexible,  giving great rock protection underfoot while still allowing me to feel the ground. But every now and then those lugs were catching rocks and sending me plummeting earthwards.

Inov-8 Roclite 285s

But the big lugs and pointy toes couldn’t explain why the smooth patch of ground I was aiming my foot into, felt like a lumpy riverbed when my foot landed. What the hell was going on down there?

And this was the revelation: I decided to look down.

Let’s be clear, looking down while running over uneven ground is not a very smart thing to do. Continue for any period of time and you’ll be inspecting the ground from a lot closer than you intended. But I didn’t need to look for long – I immediately saw the problem: I had no feet. My feet must’ve fallen off several kms earlier and I was now running on raw, bloodied stumps – the protruding bones and mangled flesh struggling to gain any traction on the rocky ground… Ahh the joy of a long run and a wandering imagination!

BACK IT UP!

The problem was far less gruesome: My feet weren’t landing where I was aiming them. They were falling short – several inches short.

To test this, I began picking out rocks ahead, trying to land with my toes just touching them. Every single time my foot would land short of the mark. And the longer the stride, the further short they’d land. My proprioception was screwed!

Proprioception. It’s a fancy word for an ability we all take for granted: knowing where your body parts are without looking at them. Juggling is great proprioception training for your hands. Trail running is great proprioception training for your feet.

Trail running proprioception
Full-flight trail proprioception – Building the map in Numinbah Valley (tongue out helps?)

How had my proprioception gotten so out of whack? Had my hamstrings shortened with age and too much sitting? Was it because I’ve been consciously trying to increase my cadence and therefore shortened my natural stride? Or was it simply a lack of practice?

Just by becoming aware of the problem, it started to rectify itself. Within a kilometre I was able to land my foot pretty close to where I was aiming it. My landing targets were still a bit out when taking a longer stride, or springing over something, but already I could feel the smoothness returning. I could feel the rocks under my feet where I was expecting to feel them! My confidence returned and my speed increased.

Now I make a point of practising foot placement whenever I hit the trails. Aside from less face-plants, I’ve noticed a couple of other benefits. Sometimes my stride will shorten during a run; practising foot placement helps lengthen it back out.  But the biggest win is that concentrating on foot placement (particularly up climbs) distracts me from the pain and effort, and I go faster without realising it! 

So the next time you head out onto a trail, Watch Your Step! You mightn’t be running where you think you are!

Watch your step

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Trails and tribulations with the Ultimate Direction SJ Ultra Vest 1.0

As I assemble my trail running gear and reach for a hydration pack, the SJ Ultra Vest presents a conundrum. On one hand, this is simply the most comfortable, lightest and least noticeable pack I’ve owned. But on the other hand, it sputters where it should shine: delivering hydration.

The Perfect Bag?

I bought the SJ Ultra Vest to replace my collection of Camelbaks which all take 2 or 3L bladders and were purchased primarily for mountain-biking. When it came to trail running they were “OK”, but the big Camelbaks were too big (and heavy), and the small Camelbak could carry a cell phone and that’s all. I wanted a bag designed for running – one that could carry 1-2L of water, but also accommodate my minimum trail gear (PLB, phone, first aid kit, survival blanket, pocket knife and jacket), plus have room for a bit more gear if I wanted to run longer and/or colder. The SJ Ultra Vest looked to be the perfect bag.

Front and back of SJ Ultra Vest

Light and Pocket-y

This bag is light and very packable. When my order arrived, I opened the box to see what appeared to be two bottles and a pair of socks – it packs down that small! The SJ Ultra Vest is a feat of design excellence. It has breathable hex-mesh back/shoulder panels, cuben fiber sides, and a stretchy power-mesh back compartment.  

The second thing I noticed is pockets. Millions and millions of pockets. Probably too many pockets to be honest! There’s four pockets for gels, two for bottles, two chest pockets, two side pockets, a waterproof key pocket, another small pocket, a back pocket. The first few times out on the trail,  it’d sometimes take me a few pockets to find what I was looking for. And when I got home from a run, it would take ages to go through all the pockets and unload everything. But hey, better too many pockets than too few, and after a while I got into a routine and knew exactly where things were, and which pockets to unload.

Jiggle, Jiggle, Splosh!

So, Day 1, I loaded it up, and out I went. I love the feel of this backpack! It sits nice and high on your shoulders, leaving your back ventilated and keeping you cool. It carries loads effortlessly and I barely notice it’s there. But, as soon as I started running, those full water bottles, sitting right over my breasts, started to wobble and bounce. It’s an unusual sensation (for a slim-ish guy) to have any weight in that location, and I wondered if  this is what it feels like to run with an ample bossum? Things felt a little… out of control! I really wanted to be able to cinch them down somehow.

A few months later and I’m still not convinced that it’s the right place to carry bottles. The jiggling settles down as the bottles get emptier, but then you’re faced with the other issue this bottle placement raises: the splashing noise. It’s noticeably louder having the bottles sloshing around just in front and under your ears. While you do get used to it, it can detract from the peace and stillness of an early morning trail run.

So…Very…Thirsty!

The SJ Ultra Vest comes with two 600ml “kicker valve” bottles. I’m not a fan of the kicker valve. The first time I went to take a drink, it took me a few minutes to work out that you need to pull the rubber valve out, and then bite the valve a little (but not too much) to get the water flowing. I’m constantly frustrated by the small volume of water that comes out (sometimes you just want a great big mouthful of water!) but I do like the big loop handles on top of the bottles, and I love how easily I can reach the bottles. I experimented with slicing the valve wider, but while that gave great flow, it also led to a leaky valve that showered me with water as I ran! So I’ve swapped off the lids for some Camelbak Podium bottle lids, which have been pretty good.

Leaky valve

I soon found that 1.2L of water is not quite enough. As I was slowly imploding on a hot 3 hour trail run, I realised that I need to be able to carry more water. To date I’ve resolved this by carrying an additional 750ml soft bottle in the back pocket. The bag promises to accommodate a 2L bladder, but I’ve yet to find one short enough to fit inside (it’s quite a short bag and certainly can’t take a standard length Camelbak bladder), and the Ultimate Direction bladder is difficult to source. Also, there is no separate internal pocket for the bladder, so it would have to sit in with your gear, making it difficult to refill.

Is that a House on Your Back?

I’m astounded how much stuff I can fit in this bag. Last month I decided to run the Tongariro Crossing in NZ. Although it was summer, this is an alpine crossing – the temperatures were sub-zero, and the weather forecast was not great. But I was there, and I had a window, so I was going to give it a crack. As I laid my gear out on the bed, I despaired that I’d be able to carry it all:

  • polypro top
  • long-johns
  • warm hat
  • warm gloves
  • wind-proof gloves
  • down jacket
  • waterproof jacket
  • waterproof overtrouw
  • map and compass
  • zip-ties (a throwback to my MTB days where a zip-tie could solve any problem!)
  • lots of bars and gels
  • and the rest of my standard running stuff (PLB etc)

Tongariro gear

Admittedly, I’ve got some very packable versions of these items, but that is still a LOT of gear to fit in a lightweight running pack. Yet the SJ Ultra swallowed the lot – easily – and (most importantly) comfortably! If anything, the bag felt even more comfortable with a full load of gear! Even if there wasn’t going to be rain, I knew there’d be plenty of sweat, so the things I wanted to stay dry (like the down jacket) I packed inside a plastic grocery bag. The rain jacket was attached to the outside via the bungee cords.

I still shake my head in amazement. It was a wonderful feeling to be on top of a mountain in adverse conditions, wearing warm gear, and knowing that, if I had to stop, I had plenty more layers of toasty, windproof gear I could put on. Ahhh, what a bag!

SJ Ultra Vest in action

(action photos courtesy of a car window reflection in the carpark!)

Conclusion

I’m not sure whether I’d recommend the Scott Jurek Ultra Vest or not. The load-carrying performance is phenomenal, and both comfort and quality are outstanding. Unfortunately, the water carrying capabilities don’t quite work for me. I found I like using water bottles, where I can easily see how much is left – but the breast-mount location and feeble kicker valves put me off.

I like this bag enough that I’m going to continue to experiment with it. I’ll try to track down a bladder (I see version 2 of this pack now has a separate bladder pocket), and I’ll also try to find some soft bottles for the front pockets to see if they sit better (and quieter). It’s frustratingly close to being the perfect bag, but its flaws cannot be overlooked!

Tongariro crossing

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100 runs in 100 days

I’m 35 days into my – possibly insane – mission of 100 runs in 100 days.

To qualify as a run it must be either 6km long, or 30 mins – whichever comes first. I’m not worried if it gets split over multiple runs in the same day, although I haven’t done this yet. The idea is to build a habit of running, and to force myself to keep exercising over the Xmas holiday period.

Rocky trails Hemi Matenga

So far it’s been mostly great. I’ve been forced into a few late night head-torch runs, a few soggy runs, and a few headcold runs. But aside from that, I’ve had the opportunity to explore some new trails all over the North Island of NZ. The highlight so far has been an out-and-back run over the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, but I’ve also explored several sections to the Te Araroa Trail (the length of NZ trail) near Kapiti, I’ve found new trails in the hills above Wellington, I’ve run down river to the Huka Falls in Taupo and I’ve circled around and over Mount Maunganui. With another 69 days to go, it’s exciting to think where else I might end up!

The new Strava training log is a very useful tool to monitor progress, with the picture below showing how many kms I’ve run each day (“Look Ma, no gaps!”):

Training log after 28 days

I’m happy to knock out a slow 6km run as a recovery session, but I’ve got to be careful not to fall into the trap of running everything at the same slow mono-pace. It’s a little tricky right now, because the legs rarely feel fresh enough to smash out a tempo session. Once I get back home from holiday, regular 5km parkruns and track sessions will help.

Meanwhile, I’ve somehow got to squeeze 6 hilly trail runs into the next 7 days. I’m not sure that I’ll manage, but it’ll be fun trying. Happy trails!

Emerald lake - Tongariro Alpine Crossing

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