New fell shoes

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I’ve been getting away with using my lovely (if a little battered now) New Balance Minimus Trail 10 shoes for all running duties ever since I retired my aging (and deadly on wet rock) Adidas Swoops. They actually do a really good job, and cope well with most off road conditions. They do however begin to struggle in mud and on grass – typically the kind of ground most fell races and mountain marathons have in abundance.

With Mr Sparkle’s Dark Un looming, and another entry for the Saunders Lakeland Mountain Marathon in for later in the year, as well as Grizedale Duathlon and Edale Skyline, I decided to bite the bullet and get some new fell shoes.

Ideally, I wanted something with the same shape as the New Balances, the same low weight, the same minimal feel, just with a bit more grip… proper fell studs. Sadly New Balance don’t make anything that fits the bill, so I’ve had to cast the net a bit wider.

It’s about 10 years since my first mountain marathon, and in that time I have only used three types of fell shoe:
-Walshes… the classic, but superseded in quality by
-Adidas Swoops… more comfortable, better grip on grass, poor on rock
-Inov-8 Mudclaw 270… the holy grail, until a pair tore my ankle to shreds on Day 1 of the OMM 2009
-Another pair of Swoops… they really are poor on wet rock

Inov-8 have developed a far wider range of shoes since my mark-I Mudclaws, catering to every niche of off (and on) road running. Their heel cups have apparently been redesigned slightly, and there are a few shoes in the range that look perfect for the kind of work I’ll be putting them through. There was one sticking point however… price. Ouch, they aren’t cheap. Most are around the £100. It seems strange that I baulk at paying that, when I will spend as much on a tube of carbon handlebars, or a windproof jacket, but in comparison to my New Balances which were half the price £100 is a bit steep. Add that to the fact that they will undoubtedly wear out relatively quickly, I was wary of spending so much. Luckily Wiggle had a sale on one of the pairs of shoes I had been eye-ing up. The Baregrip 200. This is an ultra minimalist shoe, with virtually no midsole. Seeing as I’ve been getting on so well with the New Balances, I thought I’d give them a go.

Out of the box, impressions were good. They appear well made, and were supremely comfortable walking around the house. They are a smidge narrower than my NBs, holding my foot securely, without pinching. I’ve been out for a couple of runs in them now, including night time fell racing. In the end, the frozen ground meant I could have easily got away with the NB trail shoes, but the Inov-8s did what was needed. They gripped where needed, and felt light and fast. I could feel *every* little imperfection underfoot. It is hard to describe the sensation. It isn’t comfortable, but neither is it unpleasant. It just is.

One thing I have noticed with both the NB and Inov-8s is that with minimal shoes, I seem to be far less prone to going over on my ankle when I’m running. This has in the past been a fairly regular occurrence, especially off-road. I’ve luckily not had any injuries resulting from it, but I’m sure it was a matter of time. I simply feel more stable, and nimble in these shoes.

I’ll have to wait and see how the Inov-8s hold up in the longer term, but I’ll write another review later in the year.

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Running into the night

Blinking felt weird. Dry and a bit painful. I realised it was probably because I hadn’t closed my eyes for quite a while, as I was scanning the frozen trail for the line of least resistance.

I don’t do many fell races, but I liked the sound of Mr Sparkle’s Dark Un, not least because it was on a Friday night, and seemed like a good way to kick off the weekend. It is a traditional fell race format, of broadly up, then broadly down, over around 5 miles. The twist is that, as the name suggest, run in the dark, with a headtorch added to the usual compulsory kit list.

Friday night was bloody cold. Sub-zero, and bone dry. The trails were rock hard, and almost sticky, in the same way your fingers stick to an ice cube from the freezer. Other than the icy sections, of course, which were as slippery as, well, ice.

I started near the front of the 75 strong field, and it was good to see a few familiar MTB faces there, including Phil Simcock, Amy and Ali. Jenn was also there, doing her first ever fell race. The pace was quick from the off, but not that quick. In fact, I seemed to be making up places, and while I was working hard, I felt comfortable. This was sustainable. We actually descended to start, and I let my legs go, and body plummet down the smooth, sandy trails. I moved up some more, but had someone right behind me, casting a shadow in front of my line. Luckily, we turned a corner and headed up hill, as I pulled away from him and passed one other person, as we chose different lines past the sheet ice that covered much of the trail. I was aware that there were at least two people in front of me, but I rarely got a glimpse of their lights as they pulled away. I had a man behind me as we settled into a regular pace.

At some point, along the ruts of the moors, I was re-passed, but stayed on his heels, actually welcome for a rest from choosing my lines, and able to follow someone else, learning from their experiences of slippery patches, or looser sections. A marshal shouted out 3rd and 4th. I’ve never been this high up in a fell race (or any other race, actually… other than the odd endurance race, before things have settled down, and I’ve shuffled back through the pack). Don’t mess things up now. I allowed myself a rare look behind. I could see the next placed runner, but there was a reasonable gap between us. Stay focussed on my own running. 3rd placed man increased his pace. I matched it. He slowed down, I moved onto his heels, and towards his side. He sped up. I hung on.

Intensity. I can never push myself this hard on a bike. I think I’d fall off. Every cell in my body is devoted to the act of propelling me forward as quickly as I can. One foot in front of the other. Simple. I’ve been doing it for nearly 33 years. A simple act transformed into the sole reason for breathing, for existing for 36 minutes.

And so it stayed, until the last rocky descent. We both had “moments” on the way down, requiring some rapid correction to prevent a nasty fall. The gap opened after I had one such trip. I couldn’t quite close things back down. Oh for a flatter run in after the descent. We crossed the line, a few seconds apart.

My throat was raw with the cold, and my eyes still sore as I blinked rapidly to try and rehydrate them. Deep breaths. Sharing stories on the finish line. Pint of shandy, chip butty, home (after Jenn collected her prize for 2nd place woman – not bad for her a 1st fell race!). Great start to the weekend.

I was 2nd senior male, 4th overall. I’ll be happy if I can carry that form through the year!

Thanks to Simon (Mr Sparkle) and the rest of Darwen Dashers for organising.