Salomon S-Lab Exo Twinskin Shorts- Review

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I suppose the only place I can start this review is with the price. At RRP £130 these are pretty much the most expensive running shorts that money can buy. During the week, as I run to and from work or out on the hills before work I typically wear shorts that cost 2% of these- my £3 Sports Direct Slazenger beauties. I found it hard to imagine why I would spend 98% more money on the S-Lab shorts and wanted to find out what could possibly justify that price tag.

That said, shorts have been the bugbear of my running since starting ultras. I am not blessed with a fast runners physique and have a build more suited to Rugby than running- especially in my legs. I have very large calves, which make calf guards a no-no, as well as very large thighs which tend to expand a significant amount as the miles go on. Consequently, chafing is the biggest potential derailment to my running long distances over any other potential ailment.

Having winced my way to the finish of my first two ultras in significant pain from chafing between my thighs I started to research alternative options. Working on a budget I opted for the Race Ready compression shorts.

At just £31 these are at the cheaper end of the spectrum for compression shorts and have pockets sewn into the rear to fit gels, headlamp and other small items. These got me through my next four ultras but started to suffer wear and tear and had to be binned earlier this year. Whilst it’s not a fashion show, I was self-conscious always in them as they are, well, tight in all areas. Extremely comfortable but they don’t leave much to the imagination, unless it’s a cold day. Which is maybe even worse…

Having reviewed a few Salomon products in the last year I was very happy to give the Twinskin shorts a whirl and see if they could possibly live up to the price tag.

As soon as I put them on, they felt different to other shorts I have worn. The compression material, known as Exo Muscle Support, is essentially a honeycomb shaped mesh that almost suckers itself to your skin much like a mollusc to a rock. Once in place, it stretches and expands and moves with your movements, but it does not slip. This means once on and adjusted correctly you cannot chafe as the hexagons grip and stay in place. The longest I have run in these so far is seven hours and from start to finish I had no issues with the shorts movement or chafing whatsoever.

Whilst chafing is my key issue, the design of these shorts is to get blood flowing and reduce quad damage over long distances. I cant comment on blood flow as I have no idea how I would measure that, but all I can say is my legs felt supported and comfortable on long downhill stretches and I suffered less in terms of fatigue, too.

In addition, over the compression material is an overlay of a normal short which not only protects modesty, but also make them look really cool. No one got into ultras to look cool, but you can’t help but feel good wearing these. I believe Jez summed it up perfectly when I wore them for the uphill challenge when he (clearly jealously) stated I had “all the gear and no idea”.

Above the mesh and shorts upper is an elasticated waistband which holds true all day long and has a series of pockets which wrap the whole waist. Having pushed them to the limits of capacity they can hold up to 16 Gu gels. In addition they are accessed by pulling on a small tab to open the pocket quickly, but means when not pulled the pocket holds really tight and ensures nothing can slip or drop out.

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Sadly, not the author. Ryan Sandes wearing the S-Lab shorts. Pic: TrailrunnerMag.

I am typically a scrimper when it comes to running- one of the main reasons I started running more in the first place is I couldn’t afford the time or money to keep up a gym membership after Monty was born back in 2010. At the same time, whilst running can be done on a budget, there are certain items that are essential to get right for me as an individual. I am not saying that everyone needs to spend £130 on a pair of shorts to have a good experience in an ultra, but for me if it prevents chafing and ensures comfort and deals with a preventable problem so the brain can deal with all the other problems an ultra will inevitably throw up, I am willing to do that.

I only use these shorts on the weekly long run at weekends and use the cheap pairs during the week. So I cannot personally yet confirm the durability of these shorts, but from other reviews I have read and having seen no damage at all to mine so far, it seems they are highly durable- something everyone would demand with a price tag like this.

Running for me is not about speed or rankings, it is primarily about enjoyment and enjoyment stems from comfort and confidence. These will unquestionably be my shorts for the North Downs Way 100 in three weeks-time and whilst they won’t be the reason I will finish this time around, they and the other carefully selected items of kit I will be wearing, will all contribute to giving me the best shot possible. But mostly it will be my physical and mental preparation.

As you would expect from Salomon, these are an excellent bit of kit and I can’t recommend them enough, if you are willing to spend that little bit extra.

 

 

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Western States 2014

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I have never had a landing like it. After an 11 hour flight to LA from London and a five hour layover, my one hour hop to Reno from LAX was coming into land perilously fast. The wings were wobbling and it felt like the pilot was considering going back up for a second approach. Nope, we hit the runway and bounced along, wheels screaming, engines screaming, women screaming, OK, me screaming and eventually, somehow, came to a juddering halt.

I was back at Western States.

In the days leading up to the race I had been featured in the local paper, the Auburn Journal, as someone who was slightly mad and willing to fly halfway around the world twice now to not even run the race of my dreams. You can see that article here.

But there is something very special about this race and I wanted to come back and do what I could to help a good friend out and take it all in not exactly from the sidelines, but on the edge of the sharp end of the action at the front of the race.

Pretty jet lagged, Jez (sponsored by The North Face) picked me up in our rental beast of a truck and before I knew it we were in Squaw Valley and I was ready to pass out.

The next morning after a pretty good nights sleep, all things considered, we walked over to the registration area so Jez could get weighed in and signed up and I could get ready for the 6k uphill challenge. I did this a couple of years ago and it is a great way to connect with the race and experience that first climb from Squaw Valley to Escarpment, with sweeping views to Lake Tahoe and mountain peaks all around.

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With Pacer bib (in case it was needed) prior to the 6k. Photo: Jez Bragg

In 2012 I was wheezing going up and walked maybe 50%. This time around I ran most of the climb and came 16th out of 200 or so crew members doing it. When I registered and got my number and came back, Jez asked if I was chatting to Max. I had to look back. Max King had just done my registration for the run. That would be like signing up for a five a side back home and David Beckham handing out half time oranges.

For an ultramarathon geek like me, this place is an oasis. I spoke briefly to Nick Clark, said hello to Joe Uhan and then we were off.

On my way up I got chatting to a lady who turned out to be the wife of ultramarathon legend Karl Meltzer. It turned out I would see her a lot the following day too, as Karl was hot on the heels of Jez for most of the early part of the race.

Most runners got the cable car from the escarpment back to the resort, but I was in no rush and certainly didn’t want to climb all that way and not enjoy running the descent. That was one of the highlights of my trip, running down the sweeping mountain road completely alone and just taking in that I was actually back here.

Once back and showered, the race briefing took place where Jez was called up as one of the top guys to watch and for everyone to “see what these guys look like from the front”. It was then a case of hanging around and waiting for sleep to come before the alarm went off at 3:30am and the race started at 5am.

I gave Jez some alone time to get his things and head together and headed out to meet Barry Miller, a good friend who had got picked first time in the lottery. Barry isn’t messing around this summer and when he got picked, quickly signed up for Leadville, Vermont and Wasatch to complete the Grand Slam this summer. 81 days of racing and living in the US is pretty epic. Barry and I got some photos under the historic starting arch before having a quick coffee and he headed back for one night of ‘sleep’. (Barry finished in 26 hours- an amazing time considering he didn’t manage to get the training in he wanted and then joined Jez and I in Vegas after the run!)

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Me and Stavros Bragg before the start. The nicest we would be to each other all day.

Jez and I had a quick dinner, tried to watch American TV, gave up and went to our rooms. I like to think I helped him sleep that night by trying to get him to watch ‘Blades of Glory’ which, I’m sure you will all agree is a cinematic triumph, but it fell on deaf ears. I giggled myself to sleep alone.

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The Start- Jez is far right. Photo: Glen Tachiyama.

Amazingly, we both slept pretty well and we were up. He had 100 miles to run. I had 209 miles to drive. If you could bottle the fired up, pent up energy in Squaw Valley that morning you could quickly put Red Bull out of business. Both crews and runners alike were itching for the race to start and after a few photos, I took Jez’s jacket, wished him the best and headed up the track a bit to get some photos as he and the other leaders headed up the hill.

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I’d love to take credit for this photo but it’s not mine. Jez takes an early lead…

From experience in 2012, I knew I had four hours minimum to get to the first crew meeting point which is Robinson Flat, 30 miles into the race. More likely five, but I wanted to be safe as there was a seriously elite pack at the front of this race. I headed back to the apartment, took all our cases down to the car, checked out and was on my way to find petrol (gas) and coffee (tea).

Whilst the runners had ‘just’ 30 miles to cover here, for crews it was closer to 140 miles as you have to drive all the way to the finish virtually in Auburn on I-80 and then double back on Forresthill road all the way to Robinson Flat. Whilst a long drive, it is unquestionably the most beautiful drive I have ever done and I even remembered the gas station from 2012. Once through Foresthill, the road narrows and it winds through simply stunning mountain passes but you could really see the damage in parts from the American Fire in August of last year.

The drop offs from the side of the road were incredible and I was glad I was at the front of the 300 odd crew vehicles and would mostly be alone rather than trying to drive a 7 seater beast around blind bends on the wrong side of the road as cars came towards me.

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Waiting for Jez at Robinson Flat.

At Robinson Flat I got set up and chatted with a few other crews. Most crews wouldn’t get here for hours so I knew they were all waiting for the top runners and many of them were great runners in their own right. America is such a friendly place that as soon as people see you are alone they are quickly come over to say hello. Whilst I was crewing alone for the whole day, never once did I feel alone.

First up Rob Krar and Max King came absolutely steaming through and were gone in a flash. Quickly followed by Ryan Sandes, Nick Clark, Ian Sharman and a couple of others. Around 20 minutes later Jez came through and I knew this was exactly where he wanted to be based on his split cards, of which we both had a copy. Jez is very much a ‘race- mode’ kind of guy and I knew he would want to get in and out as quickly and efficiently as possible. I had gels lined up, coke, replacement water bottles, ice, real food and a cap all ready and accessible at a grab.

I waved and shouted as I saw him coming and he shouted one word that froze my bones. “Socks”. Oh, fuck. Where the fuck are the fucking socks? Fuck. I dived into my backpack, not having anticipated he would want these so soon. Thankfully someone was watching over me and they were right at the top. Like a really awful Formula 1 team, but pretty slick for an ultra, Jez was changed and gone within 30 seconds. The first stop had gone well. Back on the road.

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Gel handover after ‘Socksgate’ (which wasn’t as bad as ‘Ricepuddingsgate’ of 2012.)

Next stop was Michigan Bluff at mile 55, but before Jez got there he had 25 miles of the ‘Canyons’. These are three steep and baking hot descents and climbs and are what end most peoples races. I on the other hand just had to poodle back down the mountain road to Forresthill with the air-con on, get a sandwich, sit in the sun, read my book and pick up some more ice. Crewing is seriously tough at times like this.

Michigan Bluff is a really strange little place. It is an old mining town, but town is like calling Staines ‘New London’. It is really only about 20 houses, but they make up for it with rusted car lawn furniture. I still can’t quite work out if it is charming or sinister but I lean towards the latter. How people live there in the winter I have no idea- it’s hard enough to drive down to on a baking summers day. Some of the windiest streets I have ever driven on, but the views make everything so spectacular that everyone goes 10mph max anyway.

Once at Michigan Bluff runners have completed over half of the race (55 miles) and the toughest part of the course. Even the elites are suffering here and shortly after Miguel Heras dropped from the race. No one looked good and it was starting to get really hot. Very different to how I remember it in 2012, but also not a patch on last year’s heat-wave.

Jez came in again around 20 minutes after the lead runner and was looking really good. We didn’t say much as I knew I would see him in seven miles time again at Forresthill and all he needed was fresh water bottles, ice in the cap and a bag of salt caps. He certainly impressed other crews here and looked on a mission to start reeling in the ones starting to struggle.

I quickly packed up, got to the car (via a short shuttle bus) and was gunning it towards Foresthill. This is the tightest time for crews- particularly for the lead runners who bang this section out in less than an hour and I didn’t want to miss him before he headed down the Cal Streets to the river where I would next see him at mile 80.

I have to say, one of the highlights of my race was driving alongside the path that leads from Bath Road to Forresthill, where those who have seen ‘Unbreakable’ will remember it is where Kilian is filmed running in with Salomon team manager and pacer, Greg Vollet, Hal Koener with Eric Skaggs (who gives the most un-godly ‘whoop’ ever) and Anton with Jenn Shelton. I was driving along chatting to Ryan Sandes and his pacer out of my window who asked me to drive ahead and tell his fiancée, Vanessa, he was arriving. As Jez chased Ryan down I spent a bit of time with his crew later in the race and they were an awesome group, all totally dedicated to getting Ryan to Auburn in the fastest time possible.

As I got to Forresthill, parking was at a premium so I had to squeal into a side road, dump the car and leg it with the cool box and back pack of supplies to get set up by the time Jez arrived. When I got back to the car I realised all the windows were open, I had left in such a hurry. No sooner had I found a spot to set up, I spotted Jez’s distinctive yellow North Face shirt coming through the crowd and I shouted at him where to stop. By this point he was focussed on caffeine and so coke and red bull were the order of the day, along with more gels. A pretty easy stop. I told him where the others were, estimated times, who looked bad, who had dropped and generally kept him abreast of what was happening in front. Pretty much anything could happen now and honestly he was looking stronger than anyone else I had seen.

I was the only person crewing an elite alone, but whenever I stopped and needed help quickly re-filling bottles someone would jump in and lend a hand. It really was a great spirit out there and I was really grateful for any help I could get. As I said earlier, whilst I was crewing alone, I wasn’t once alone all day.

As Jez headed from mile 62 down to the river at mile 78 I grabbed a coffee in Foresthill, finally met and said hello to Joseph Chick who was waiting to pace Yasine Diboun and then headed to the car to get to Green Gate.

When I first thought of Western States I knew it was a wilderness race but I hadn’t appreciated just how wild some parts of California are. The roads are narrower in parts that some of the Devon country lanes I learnt to drive on and often have perilous drops off with no guard rail. The drive to Green Gate is one of these. In 2012 I drove only the main road highway section and then took a shuttle bus down to Green Gate, but the bus option was scrapped this year so I had to drive all the way down a road called Sliger Mine Road. I would suggest looking this up on Google maps if you want to see how remote California can get. Again, I was fortunate to be one of the first crews to have driven there because it was so narrow and the locals were flying around the bends. The road twists and turns for miles until finally there was the dead end where we could park.

After parking, it is a one and a half mile hike down to the aid station on a steep dirt road, but the views are absolutely spectacular. Whilst most of the houses around there are a little run down, there is one built into the hill that looks like Bill Gates should own it- both years I have been I didn’t have my camera with me at this point but it is just an incredible piece of architecture.

As I was setting up for Jez’s arrival I found out that Max King and Rob Krar had just gone through and both were looking a little frazzled, with Max being dizzy and having to sit down for a minute or two. After 80 miles in this heat and at that pace I still don’t know how they were even standing at all. To run 100 miles is absolutely incredible, but to race 100 miles is just a whole other world.

Jez and I had agreed that once I got set up that I would continue two further steep miles down to the famous American river, where runners this year were crossing using a rope for support as opposed to rafts which have been used in recent years when the dam is open further upstream. This was an iconic moment for me and one I have seen hundreds of times on YouTube as runners cross for the final 20 miles. Jez joked before the race that with even 80 miles on his legs, that he would beat me up the hill the two miles to Green Gate. He was smiling when he said it, but I was secretly crapping myself that he actually might. The ultimate humiliation.

On the way down I saw Ryan Sandes, Ian Sharman, Alex Varner, Brett Rivers and Dylan Bowman come through and I let them know where others were in relation to them, for which I was thanked. Again, going back to a football analogy it was the equivalent of having a chat mid-game with the Chelsea squad and really quite surreal to see these guys battling it out right next to me.

No sooner had I got down to the river I saw Jez’s yellow t-shirt halfway across the river, pulling himself across and battling the strong current whilst about 20 volunteers stood in the river with him balancing the rope. It is incredible how people do these things for runners- it was a baking hot day but the river is really cold and these guys would stand there day and night until the last runner came through.

Jez came out, we had a quick chat and made our way through the aid station and up towards the hill. I had come down with a bottle of coke and one of water for him, but let him know they were a little warm. I think he asked if I had put any ice in them and I believe I replied along the lines of “yeah, I did, and if you’d been a bit quicker they’d still be cold, pal”. So I drank them.

Hey, this was a race within the race- we had money on this- and I needed to psych him out a little. I think I further compounded his annoyance with me when I kept taking the inside line as we twisted and turned up to Green Gate. Eventually, he realised I was clearly the better runner (when given an 80 mile head start) and he sent me ahead with his bottles to get ice water and cold coke ready for when he came through. I joke, but I was blowing at this point and only just got the bottles ready by the time he arrived. Yes, maybe I had been sat on my arse for most of the day but it is stressful, anxious nervous sitting and so I was pretty tired as well and wouldn’t have forgiven myself if I hadn’t got things right.

From Green Gate it was only 13 miles to run to get to Highway 49 at mile 93, but it is really runnable. I estimated two hours max so I had to really rush. I packed up, hoisted the back pack over my shoulders and slung the cool box over my chest. It was then a mile and a half up the hill to the car where I passed Victor Balesteros who had just finished pacing and we commented that “this is the hill that keeps on giving, right?”

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Ryan Sandes looking less than his handsome best at Highway 49. Somehow he clung on.

Back at the car I was dripping in sweat so poured a load of water over myself and got in and put the air con to full blast. I too was on Red Bull at this point and whilst driving steady (promise, Mum) I was pushing to get to Highway 49. Here too you cannot access by car alone, so I had to stop in the town of Cool (oh, the irony) and hop on a shuttle bus. I was the only passenger and the lady driving knew I was in a hurry so she left with just me and we had a good chat for the ten minutes or so to the aid station.

P1030173Dylan ‘D-Bo’ Bowman in third place at Highway 49.

This is a really iconic one for me. In ‘Unbreakable’ this is where Geoff Roes has just taken the lead and steams through to everyone’s surprise with Anton quickly on his heels. Today, it was a bit less raced with runners coming through every three to five minutes but still bloody close together for 93 miles into a race. The top guys had nothing between them at all and on another day I genuinely believe anyone in the top 20 could have won- and do regularly win most races that aren’t so stacked with the world’s best on one day.

When Jez left Green Gate he was in 10th place and I said how rough everyone looked in front of him and it was his to sweep up now. If you don’t know, being 10th is key at Western States as the Top 10 men and women get an automatic invite back the following year. Shortly after Jez left Green Gate, Jesse Haynes (who was top 10 in 2013) came through but was looking tired. I didn’t have too many concerns about him catching Jez but was more intrigued as to see how many Jez would overtake between there and Highway 49.

As it turned out I was wrong, somehow not one runner faltered on that section and everyone rallied. Testament to the fitness and mental strength of that field it was very inspiring to see. After the same runners I had seen at Green Gate went through I was expecting Jez next, but just like in ‘Unbreakable’ I was shocked to see Jesse bound down the hill and into the aid station. His partner, Keira, gave him a verbal kicking and fresh bottle of water and literally threw him back on to the trail. Then , Jez was coming in. I did the same but had pre-filled one with coke and one with water, he took the coke and I said he had a minute down on Jesse and to chase him down. It was seriously exhilarating stuff and the focus on both Jesse and Jez’s face was like something I have never seen before.

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I don’t know who looks more knackered here. Stressful handover before Jez heads to chase Jesse. Photo: Stephen Ingalls.

My final task was to get to Auburn, park at the finish and run up to Robie Point which is where the Western States trail enters Auburn. I was then set to run the last mile with Jez, which was truly an honour. Anyone reading this knows how much Western States is a huge part of my life and to have the opportunity to enter the track with an elite runner and friend as ‘Tropical’ John Medinger’s booming tones echo over the PA system, mentioning my name as Jez’s crew, was a dream come true.

I heard that Jesse had rallied hard and now had a gap of six minutes over Jez, who was now in 11th place. I saw Jesse come through as I was heading up to Robie Point and congratulated him and got a high-five in return. At the end of the day, it is just running and these guys are gracious and kind, even if racing at the sharp end. I then saw Jez emerge from the last climb into the beam of my headtorch.

“Get that out of my eyes, Ginge”. Charming. We jogged the last bit with Jez looking at his watch constantly and even then I almost couldn’t keep up. He was super focussed and we didn’t chat much and I only realised after because he wanted to beat his 2009 time of 16:55 (which he did by ten minutes).

We entered the track and I said “It’s all yours, mate- take it home”. He then ran the track whilst I cut across to be there to congratulate him at the finish.

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Jez kindly held the clock up whilst Craig Thornley looked for some fresh rivets. Photo: Bryon Powell/ iRunFar.com

What a day. What a race. What an experience to have the privilege to be a part of. Absolutely magicical.

Jez’s first comment to Bryon Powell at the end was “I don’t know what is worse, coming fourth or 11th”. It was an incredible run. To put it in context, Jez finished 10 minutes quicker than when he was third in 2009 (a time that would have made him 2nd that year), but he just so happened to be up against 10 other running legends in 2014 and there was no margin for error whatsoever. I think overall he came away happy with his run, but slightly disappointed with 11th, which I can understand.

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Max King begged me for a photo the next morning. How could I say no?

That was it, Western States 2014. Twice I have crewed and learnt so much. In 2015, hopefully it will be as a runner. I just need to qualify again for the lottery in a few weeks and if I qualify, who knows, it might just be me?

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Hop-a-long and me the following morning.

Seriously- if there is any race you dream to do but either aren’t yet ready or didn’t get lucky with an entry, just go anyway. Find a way to get involved- volunteer, crew or pace. You don’t get a buckle, but you get so much more.

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36 hours later- me, Barry and Jez all looking exhausted outside The Bellagio, Las Vegas.

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Pre Western States Crewing 2014

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In the past few days I have found myself reminiscing to when I first crewed at Western States in 2012 for Jez Bragg. At the time, I had never even run an ultra but had my first one scheduled for two months later.

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I had first read about Western States 10 months beforehand, well after the 2011 edition of the race had been held, when I came across Dean Karnazes’ second book ‘Run’ purely by chance.

During those ten months I had become obsessed by the race. I devoured race reports, I got to know of the lead runners, I watched YouTube videos of the event and I ordered ‘Unbreakable’ by JB Benna, which stoked my obsession further.

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I knew I had to be there in 2012, not as a runner, but in some capacity. I got to know Greg Soderlund, the former Race Director, via email and was offered a slot to volunteer at the finish. Whilst this would have been an incredible experience, I wanted to be out on the course, seeing, hearing and smelling the sites I had become so focussed on.

On a whim, I emailed Jez Bragg who I knew was an elite British runner who had come fourth the year before in a sub 16 hour time. He was slightly slower two years before that, but was one place higher, finishing in third- still the highest British placing to this day.

Being sponsored by The North Face, I presumed Jez would have a crew or at least friends lined up to crew him, but I thought it was worth a shot to say I was going anyway and could I possibly help in any way?

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I was astonished to get a reply a few days later from him where he took me up on the offer to crew. It seems he was going alone in 2012 and would be grateful of any help he could get. This email has struck up a strong friendship and I am truly excited to be returning to crew for him in a few days’ time.

2012 was not Jez’s year, but to put it in context, his time would have won pretty much any Western States from 1974 to 2004, even on an off day. Whilst it wasn’t the run he had hoped for (particularly with the record cool conditions) I loved every second of the experience and 2013 was tough following the race online back in England. If I can afford to, I will be there every year until the day my name gets pulled in the lottery to run it myself.

As I reminisce currently, I am remembering parts of 2012 that I had forgotten. The aching sunburn after I ran to the top of Escarpment the day before the race, the incredible smell of the pine trees baking in the California sun, the views of valleys and mountains as far as the eye can see, the dust being kicked up by Timothy Olson as he entered the 55 mile aid station of Michigan Bluff in record time, the friendly Californians who couldn’t do enough to help a lost Brit trying to get to Highway 49, the camera flashes in Placer Stadium as Ellie Greenwood smashed the women’s course record and the view from our chalet in Squaw Valley, dwarfed by huge mountain peaks all around.

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Now, returning in 2014 I have run six ultras myself and can appreciate so much more what Jez will need and when he will need it. Western States really does feel like going home for me, as daft as it may sound. I genuinely feel I am destined to run this race and even if I never do, just being there and even the thought of being there in a few days, makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up.

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An Interview With: Mark Perkins Following His 14:03 Win And Course Record At The South Downs Way 100 (SDW100) 2014

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Mark at the finish- photo credit: Pete Aylward

On Saturday 14th June, Mark Perkins absolutely destroyed the course record at the hot and hilly South Downs Way 100, running 14 hours and 3 minutes. Last years course record of 15:43 by Robbie Britton was hailed as a groundbreaking run for UK ultras, so to take an hour and forty minutes off this is astounding.

Mark won the South Downs Way 50 during appalling conditions in 2013 and has since gone from strength to strength although remains quiet and humble without shouting about his ability.

I believe that many international elites would have struggled to equal that time and I wanted to find out a little more.

Congratulations on winning the SDW100 at the weekend and breaking the course record to boot. 14:03 is an incredible time. How did you feel going into the race?

Thanks, Tim. I had been looking forward to running the whole length of the South Downs Way for some time so I was really quite excited in the week before. I don’t generally get too nervous before races but for some reason I felt even more at ease than usual about this one. I’m not sure why really but I just felt very ‘zen’ about the whole thing and luckily that feeling carried over into the race itself!

Clearly a lot went right on the day- did anything go wrong?

Not really, it was one of those rare days when everything just seems to come together perfectly. The only minor issue I had was that for some reason after about the first 15km my insoles decided to start working their way out of the back of my shoes – which has never happened to me before – and I so I had to stop to take my shoes off and put them back in. Within about 2km it happened again so I just pulled them out altogether and ran without them from there on in. I don’t think it affected me much during the race but I definitely have some pretty beaten up feet now!

Did you use a crew or just the aid stations?

Well, the Centurion aid stations are great but I do think you can’t beat having a crew if you want to get in and out quickly and with exactly the food and drink you want. I was fortunate enough to have had my wife Sarah, my parents and my two little girls helping me out at various points in the day. My parents and Sarah were sorting me out with food and drink and my girls did an epic job of keeping me updated on all the little grey baby bunnies that they had seen along the way.

I did also still stop at some of the intermediate aid stations to grab a bit of extra water and the odd cup of coke however – hydration has been a problem for me before and I really wanted to stay on top of it this time. Sarah also then ran the last 30 miles with me as my pacer which was really great, always such a mental boost to have someone to run with after 9+ hours of running by yourself.

Did you have a time goal in your head or just run to feel?

Well before the race I actually spent quite a bit of time putting together a spreadsheet of distances between aid stations, expected arrival times etc – I’m a bit of a geek like that I’m afraid, and I needed something to give to my crew as a rough time plan for them. I felt confident that on the right day I could run a sub 16hr 100 mile race so I put down a stretch ‘A’ goal of 15:30, but I didn’t intend to try and stick to any splits or anything.
My race plan was to start running at about 5min/km, try and hold that pace to about the halfway mark and then slow down as little as possible after that. Obviously I slowed down quite a bit less that I had expected which was a surprise to me as much as anyone!

Correct me if I am wrong but was this your 100 mile debut?

Actually my first 100 mile race was the Centurion NDW100 last August. It definitely did not go to plan and I ended up doing a lot of vomiting from about 30 miles in right up until the end. But I learnt a huge amount from that experience and there is no way I’d have ever run the race I did on Saturday without having gone through that on the NDW last year.

It was a pretty warm day. How did you cope going at that speed in such warmth?

It was warm but we were fortunate enough to have a fair bit of cloud cover throughout the day too so it never felt unmanageable really. At the NDW I got a bit dehydrated very early on which I feel contributed to me getting sick so I concentrated on drinking a lot this time round which definitely helped. Dumping the odd bottle of water over my head was pretty good too although I think as a result there may be lots of photos of me looking a bit like a drowned rat!

To beat second place by over an hour (who would have also smashed the old course record) must be an amazing feeling?

Well it’s obviously nice to have a bit of a gap between you and the next person, but Richard had a pretty amazing run too and I always feel an hour is not all that much over the course of a hundred miles. The one thing that was nice was that when I got to Southease aid station with about 25km to go I knew that I’d really have to drop the ball badly for him to catch me, so I could just relax and enjoy running the last bit over the Downs with Sarah rather than having to feel like I was being chased down the whole way.

What is up next for you?

Firstly a nice bit of rest and recovery! Then Sarah and I are going to Chamonix in July to spend five days running/hiking the UTMB route to get in a bit of mountain running which I’m really looking forward to. And then race-wise the next one is in August when I’ve got the Berlin 100. That will be a very different experience I think – to be honest I’m a bit scared of running that far on the flat with no hills to break things up!

14:03 is a time many international elites would have struggled to equal- do you have any international races lined up?

No I don’t. Whilst I’m extremely pleased with my time I think I need to prove to myself that it wasn’t just a one-off before I start getting any ideas about trying to compete on a bigger stage. Things obviously went right for me on Saturday but I still feel very inexperienced when it comes to racing and I’ve still got a lot of learning to do before I can feel confident of turning out repeat performances at the level I’d like to.

What is your dream race?

Well I’d love to do some of the really epic, long mountain ultras like Tour de Géants or Le Grand Raid Réunion, but I see those as part of a five year plan really, once I’ve built up a good bit of endurance and mental toughness and hopefully learned some mountain skills. I grew up doing water sports and being a bit of a beach bum so the mountains are still very much unknown territory for me.

Was there any one item of kit which helped you run so well?

This was the first time that I’ve raced with bottles (in an Inov-8 Race Ultra vest) as opposed to a bladder and I certainly won’t be going back. I prefer bladders for training runs but it was so much easier to refill the bottles quickly and I always knew exactly how much I had left which made it a lot easier to stay on top of my hydration levels during the race. Prior to the race I also invested in a super-lightweight taped-seam waterproof jacket (the Berghaus VapourLight Smock) which really helped cut down pack size and weight too.

What did you use for nutrition on the day?

After the NDW100 last year I was actually really worried that I was going to spend every 100 miler I did being sick for the whole way. I’ve spent a while since then playing around with my diet and decided for this race not to take any gels unless I absolutely had to later on in the day. So I made up some sticky rice/honey/coconut balls and some sweet potato/egg bites and ate those plus some fruit and oat/nut bars for the whole race, and had pretty much zero stomach distress which was a huge eye-opener for me. From halfway I also started drinking a little coke at the aid stations but it was pretty much all ‘real’ food, and I didn’t touch a single gel. My energy levels were super-constant and I will definitely be repeating that strategy at the Berlin 100.

What sort of state were you in for Fathers Day?!

Tired but happy! My legs were obviously pretty sore but the main thing was my feet, getting very wet at the start of the race and losing my insoles meant they were pretty shredded by the end. So I spent most of Father’s Day trying to stop the kids stepping on my toes!

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Buff- Three of my favourites- Review

As most people know, I was pretty shocked and honoured to be offered sponsorship by Buff a couple of months ago.

Until I got into ultrarunning, I wasn’t really aware of Buff as a company but as soon as I got into the sport I started really researching what people used and wore, having had a torrid time in my first ultra, completely ill-equipped in 2012.

I remember vividly when I ordered my first Buff and it was following watching Timothy Olson, someone I admire on a number of levels, wearing a Buff at the hot and dusty Transvulcania in 2013. I was due to race the North Downs Way 50 as my Western States qualifier the week after and it was set to be warm, so thought a Buff may be of use primarily to keep the sweat out of my eyes.

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It turned out to be so much more than that. Not only did it keep the sweat out of my eyes, it kept me cool. When I first started running in it I did find it kind of oppressive and warm, but the key thing kicks in after about an hour of using it I started to sweat heavily. Absorbing all the sweat, when I stopped for walk breaks or slowed down I realised how cool it kept my head, using that sweat to my advantage. The same applied to when I poured water over my head and it trapped it and kept me cool. It genuinely was one of the reasons why that day I cut an hour and a half off my 2012 time.

So now that I am fortunate to represent the brand, I have a whole box of kit to try and use for training and races. Since being signed up, I have used every piece of this equipment and I have three firm favourites.

The UV Buff Headband

Headband

Slightly smaller than the classic Buff, the headband is probably top of my list. It is a simple piece, but works incredibly effectively. The headband is soft, has no sealed edges which can cause chafing or rubbing and is a one size fits all. The team colours this year are the Ciron type and you can see and buy these here (as well as other colours). Aside from feel, the headband are high UV protective and made with 100% Coolmax material, designed to protect on hot days and also wick moisture away and use it to your advantage. Whilst it isn’t its primary purpose, I find it is also great to help secure headphones in your ears.

Aside from the headband use, it is also designed to work as a wristband to use to wipe sweat away or can be used (for women in particular) as a hairband.

The reversible Buff Cap

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Looking like a cycling cap, this is again a high UV Buff. The difference to most Buff’s is that it is a full cap and so covers the top of your head. Especially important on hot days, this is designed to keep your head cool and would be ideal for any warm race or training climate. The cap is designed with Fastwick Fabric and incorporating a beehive construction it offers excellent breathability and allows water to penetrate easily when poured over. It also traps sweat to keep the top of the head cool.

Having a peak is also very useful to keep the sun out of your eyes and yet the peak can easily be pulled up for better vision when sun isn’t an issue…or if you want to pretend to be Anton Krupicka for a few hours…

Anton Buff

It is a very versatile cap and really comes down to the principles that Buff hold dear. The cap is also reversible so you can use as white or black depending on what you prefer or weather conditions. Again you can explore the range and order here.

The Visor Buff

Visor Buff

Acting as a combination between a standard Buff and the Buff Cap, I chose to use this for my third running of the North Downs Way 50 a few weeks ago. This is probably the most versatile Buff available and has all the types of uses of a conventional Buff but brings in the benefit of the peak for when the sun is low or you want it off your face. I tend to just wrap this around my head and pull down or flip up the peak depending on the sun.

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However, you could pull the main frame of fabric of the buff down to protect your neck from the sun and use it is a standard cap with a long back, whilst leaving the top of your head free to breath. It is one of those Buff’s that takes some playing around with to make it work for you, but if I had the money to buy just one Buff, this would be the one.

These are my three favourites but do explore the range. Buff are very reasonably priced and are very hard wearing. My first one still looks brand new and I even used it on my run to work this morning. Whilst I am sponsored by Buff, I would only ever write a review for something that I genuinely like and use. I am often sent items that I decide not to review and send back if I don’t like the product, so my thoughts are my own and I will always be a Buff customer regardless of sponsorship.

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An Interview With: Andy Jones-Wilkins (AJW)

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AJW crests Escarpment in 2010. Photo courtesy AJW/Facebook

There are many big names synonymous with the Western States Endurance Run:

Gordy Ainsleigh (the founder and father of modern trail ultrarunning)

Scott Jurek (7 time champion)

Tim Tweitmeyer (25 time sub 24 hour finisher and multiple race winner)

Ann Trason (14 time champion)

Greg Soderlund (12 year Race Director)

…and a whole host of modern ultra heroes.

But there is one name that really screams Western States at you and that name is Andy Jones-Wilkins.

Like the saying goes, you know you have made it when people know you by your initials alone, and there is no exception with AJW.

On the 28th June 2014, AJW will be running his tenth and (self-proclaimed) final Western States. He has finished inside the top 10 an incredible 7 times in his 9 runs so far.

As a huge Western States fan myself, AJW has been someone I have looked up to since I entered the world of Ultras. He is a hugely popular character and I was fortunate to meet him briefly in 2012 when crewing at Western States and I look forward to seeing him again in three weeks time.

Whilst I am passionate about this race, as are many others, AJW takes it to a different level and quite simply lives and breathes the 100 miles between Squaw Valley and Auburn. He has publically stated this will be his last Western States and I have no doubt it will be a highly emotional experience for him. I thought now was as good a time as ever to ask him a few questions in the lead up to the greatest ultramarathon in the world.

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AJW Interviews Timothy Olson after his record breaking 2012 WS victory. Photo courtesy AJW/Facebook

What first caught your eye and made you want to run Western States?

I was a road runner back in the ’90s and, like everyone else, was an avid Runners World reader.  They did a small piece on the 1997 race in one of their fall issues and I became fascinated with the event.  I was particularly intrigued by that year’s race because Mike Morton won and set the course record.  Something about that guy has always impressed me.

How did you qualify for that first run?

Believe it or not I ran my qualifier at the now defunct Crown King 50 Miler in Arizona and then was chosen in the lottery on my first try.  Western States 2001 was my 2nd 100 miler as I ran my first at Angeles Crest in 2000.

When you toed the line in Squaw Valley did you just think of this as a run or was it already a life changing experience?

In 2001 when I started the race I honestly thought of it as just another event.  However, by the time I limped into the stadium and finished that first WS I knew that it was something I wanted to come back to.  However, I also knew that before I did that I would actually need to learn how to successfully race 100 milers.  That is why I spent 2002 and 2003 running other 100 mile races and was not convinced I could return to WS and do well until my 2nd place finish at AC in 2003.  On the strength of that 2nd place at AC I was able to gain entry to WS via Special Consideration (there were no automatic qualifiers via Montrail Ultra Cup back then) so I thought I’d give it a shot.  My 8th place finish in 2004 was a bit of a surprise to me and to many others.

When you came second to Scott Jurek in 2005 were you competitive or was that just the way it played out?

I never in my wildest dreams thought I could finish 2nd at WS and was basically just bopping along running my own race.  My only goal, then and now, was top-10.  So, when I rolled into Michigan Bluff (Mile 55) in 9th place I was thinking it would be a stressful afternoon.  However, 20 miles later at the Rucky Chucky River Crossing I was in 2nd and at that point I started to compete.  After all, there was nothing but dust between the 6-time champion and me, I had to go for it!  Of course, 2nd was the best I had that day and I’ll take it!

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Looking miserable as always. Photo courtesy AJW/Facebook

What makes you keep coming back?

The mystique, the allure of the event, the elegant simplicity of the course, and the history. In addition, Western States weekend has become a homecoming week for my family and me over the years.  We have moved 5 times since my first run in 2001 but one thing has remained the same, we spend the last weekend in June between Squaw Valley and Auburn and there is no other place we would rather be.

I have my reasons, but why this race? What does it for you?

This race brings out the best in me.  Training to compete against the best runners in the world, even though I am not one of them, is invigorating and inspiring.  Being out on the course makes me feel like I am traversing hallowed ground.

Craig Thornley (Race Director) told you this is your last WS. Knowing what it means to you, how does that feel with 24 days to go? 

I am completely at peace with it.  I have had 10 opportunities to run the most prestigious ultramarathon in the world.  Many folks spend a decade trying to run it once.  I have had my piece of the Western States pie, and it has been a delicious one, now, I look forward to giving back to the race and the sport over the next 10 years as a volunteer.

For me WS is my dream but also I must remain realistic to the fact it may never happen. If you had to choose three US “next best things” (without lotteries) what would they be? 

Angeles Crest, Vermont, and Grindstone.  I’ve also heard great things about Bighorn and the Bear but have never run them.  I hope to do so in the future!

You love this sport. What is the worst thing about its rapid growth?

I wish that all the new people coming into the sport would make more of an effort to connect with the culture and history of the sport.  Many of our storied events and some of our greatest runners are forgotten in the context of the immediacy that has accompanied ultrarunning’s growth.  I know you can’t make people study history but if some of these newbies paid attention to it they might actually remain in the sport longer.

What will you be doing in the last weekend of June next year?

Whatever Craig Thornley tells me to do!

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Photo courtesy AJW/Facebook

Who will win WS in 2014? 

I think it will come down to a race between Rob Krar and Ryan Sandes.  Both those guys seem to have found the sweet spot in training and racing and I’d be surprised if both of them ended up running dumb races.  After them, there are the usual 20 other names who could surprise everybody.  I will say I am predicting now that there will be two top-10 finishers who won’t even be in the top-30 at Robinson Flat (mile 30)

If you could have one running wish granted?

I’d like to finish in the top-10 in the 2014 Western States.

You are sponsored by Patagonia, amongst others, and are a great ambassador for the brand. What’s your favourite bit of their gear?

The Men’s Air Flow Tank Top is my go-to running shirt on a daily basis and the Houdini is, quite simply, the greatest piece ever made!

So much has changed since you started your first WS. What is your fondest memory of the no doubt thousands?

That’s easy, crossing the finish line in the 2005 WS knowing I had given it my best and had run the race I didn’t know I could ever run.  It is still the single greatest run of my life!

You mentioned this week you would like to give 10 years of voluntary service at WS to give back, which is great. Whilst you won’t be racing this again, do you have any international races you have your eye on such as UTMB or Spartathlon now WS will no longer be the annual focus?

At the top of my list of international races is UTMB.  I hope to go over there with my family to run in 2015 if I can.  It simply seems like an extraordinary event in an incredible place.

For those who don’t already know, AJW has a weekly column on the Ultrarunning mecca website irunfar.com and is currently in the middle of his monthly countdown to the Big Dance on 28th June.

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The North Face (TNF) Ultra Guide – Shoe Review

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My first pair of The North Face (TNF) shoes were the Double Tracks which Jez Bragg gave me in Squaw Valley in June 2012 to wear at the 6k Montrail uphill challenge, from the base of the resort and the start line of the Western States 100 to the top of the Mountain, called Escarpment.

This is held the day before the 100 itself and is typically a fun run for family or crew members of the actual racers (unless you are Michael Wardian, who elected to race this as well as the 100 a few hours later!).

I loved these shoes, but found them a little on the bulky side. I went on to use them for my first 50 mile race later that summer but then moved on to lighter and more minimalist shoes. It was then I tried TNF Single Tracks, which are the slimmed down, lightweight cousin of the Double Tracks. I instantly loved these and ran them into the ground until the lugs wore away and they looked like road shoes.

Even though I was, I know some people haven’t been fans of TNF shoes in the past and they haven’t always been at the top of most peoples wish lists, but I think that might change with the new Ultra Guide.

The technical info and stats can be found here.

But stats can only tell you so much.

At an 8mm drop, these are more than I am used to, but they don’t feel like a traditional running shoe and I think that is the trick here. I haven’t run in anything this comfortable since the Pearl Izumi Trail N1’S, but the Ultra Guide’s offer more support which gives a lot of confidence- and are designed to be almost minimalist but offering more than traditional minimalist shoes.

They are very lightweight, although not in the same league as something like the Salomon Sense, which is about as light as they come- but lightness is not the be all and end all to mid-pack runners or ultrarunners. Whilst heavier, they do not feel heavy in comparable to other shoes I own like the Newton BoCo AT or Hoka Stinson Evo.

I used these for a few short and fast six mile hilly runs to break them in and instantly loved them. I then made the decision to wear them last weekend when buddying (pacing) Sam Robson the last 23 miles of the GUCR. This is a flat run, but does have areas where the ground was very muddy and slippery so would be a perfect test for the shoes, as well as their transition to gravel and tarmac.

They have pretty much risen to the top of my shoe list after this run. The absolute best thing about them is the sticky rubber outsole which grips in the wet and mud amazingly, but also shakes excess mud quickly so to transition from trail to road or wet trail to dry trail is a joy. I am not sure how long this type of sticky rubber would last if I used them primarily for this purpose all the time, but they do feel much like a road shoe even with so much grip. The lugs simply squish down and you don’t notice them at all.

A4UMKX9The toe box, whilst looking narrow visually, is very wide and comfortable and I didn’t need to go up a half size like I often do with trail shoes, when I wear thicker socks than road.

Like the Single Tracks they are highly breathable and allow any water from puddles or streams to escape as easily as they enter.

I think what I like the most about this shoe, aside from the outsole, is the fact I don’t need to categorise or caveat it as to whether it is a summer or winter shoe. For England, where the ground can often be saturated, even in the summer, they are a purists dream as they offer all of the summer breathability I am after, but all of the grip for those slippery sections of trail. Likewise, hold very well on dry trail like most of the latter part of the GUCR last weekend.

Equally, I would use these in winter. Your feet are going to get sodden in winter whatever you wear, so having the drainability these have but with the grip needed for winter terrain, they are excellent.

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Whilst at RRP £110, they are not cheap, like all TNF products they are built to last and rather than spend £55 on some average winter shoes and £55 on average summer shoes, you can have just one excellent pair in the Ultra Guide’s.

I can highly recommend these shoes and these will certainly not be my last pair. You can see them in more detail and by them directly from The North Face here.

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