Desert

It is looking a little bit arid around here at the moment. Not a lot going on. Here’s a bit of virtual spindrift for you.

Part of the reason things have been quiet is that I’ve been busy elsewhere… I am writing a semi-regular web column for Singletrack magazine.

My first was on the joys of a doorstep, post-work ride in the daylight.

My most recent has been about the lure of the mountains.

While you are on the site, check out some of the other great new columns. I’ll also have a few words in forthcoming magazines, including a classic ride and other bits and bobs.

I’m also working on a few creative projects connected with fell and trail running, but can’t say too much about those at the moment, other than I’m really excited about them, and I’m looking forward to seeing them come into fruition.

Race-wise, the calendar is fairly empty until next January – I’ve had my entry to The Spine Race accepted for 2016. I’ll be doing the mini version – “the challenger”. This is still 108 miles of fell running on the pennine way, continuous, in mid-winter, with a substantial kit requirement. Not to be sniffed at or underestimated, but pretty exciting. I can’t wait.

#fromthefrontdoor project

I’m on the bed, legs covered by the duvet, feet sticking out the end. The nooks and wrinkles, under my toenails, the cuticles are stained black with mud. I did (kind of) wash them in the shower, but I was cold and just wanted to stand in the jet of warm water, carefully keeping my still icy hands out of the stream. The temperature differential meant the water felt boiling, and I did’t want to risk chilblains. It was an interim stage in finding warmth, quickly followed by dry merino and a down gilet.

Now, warm, fed and sipping a mug of tea, I can allow post-exercise hormones to wash over me – less frenetic than the water tumbling out of the shower, more like sliding into a deep, warm bath. Contentment that I can only achieve through aerobic exertion.

We have had an active Christmas – a mini-break in the Lake District spanning the 25th itself involved mountain biking, hiking and running in near-desered hills. Upon returning to Leeds, I have had solo rides, rides with friends, rides with Jenn. Each has had a similar feel, if a different route and different company. Pace has been relaxed, and duration squeezed into daylight hours – usually after a luxurious lie in.

A couple of days ago, tucked up on the sofa with a beer and a laptop, I was catching up on film-based inspiration, playing Vimeo and YouTube hopscotch, clicking from a backcountry-skiing video to a Himalayan mountaineering one, to another trail running on pristine desert tracks. Sitting in a small front room, in a small terraced house, on a small backstreet, in a suburb of a city in northern England, I felt a yearning to be out “there” – anywhere. There was maybe even a pang of jealousy, as I sat watching these people completely immersed in their chosen pass time. I clicked on a series of videos on the Arc’teryx website. As well as making very posh, very expensive outdoor kit, they have some excellent quality media content tucked away on their small corner of “http land”. Justin Lamoureux is a backcountry snowboarder, living in Squamish. After travelling the world ticking off “must do” locations, he realised he was neglecting his own backyard, and decided to set aside a season to ride all the mountains visible from his house.

It’s a nice idea, and the resulting videos are well worth grabbing a brew and a biscuit for and settling down to watch. Squamish is a pretty amazing backyard though. From my house, I can see rows of other terraced houses that’s it. There are no mountains accessible without getting in the van and driving for a few hours. I can’t run or ride a trail without spending at least some time on tarmac first. I almost started to feel sorry for myself again. A seed was planted though…

Riding with friends a few days ago gave me the chance to see my local trails with fresh eyes, share my enthusiasm for “the good bits”. We managed to string together a 25 mile loop with minimal road riding, right from home. I can hit off road trails within minutes of closing the door. Not only that, they are fantastic trails – real quality stuff. Admittedly they aren’t in the best of nick this time of year, but it just means that I can appreciate them all the more come spring. There are still trails that I haven’t explored. On today’s run, I took at least two minor detours from my usual well worn path. Road riding with Jenn a couple of days ago, I was on an under geared SSCX bike, it forced me to look up and around more than I usually would. Bare trees and bushes allow for a longer line of sight than summer. I spotted paths to explore – a few were the best kind, little snickets tucked against the wall of a house or barn, begging to be investigated further.

So, this year I will be starting my own backyard project. I will be taking the time to appreciate what I have available to me on the doorstep. Fun powered by nothing else than my own steam. I will shut my red front door, and keep exploring locally. I will be recording my experiences here, on instagram with the #fromthefrontdoor hashtag and keeping a track on the actual routes via Strava. I will savour the moments of solitude that a few square kms of woods can provide, even when it is tucked on the outskirts of a busy city. I will appreciate the joy that can be achieved by sharing the best experiences with friends. I will deliberately get lost, I will have to untangle myself from brambles, I will ride through dogshit, I will plunge into muddy puddles, I’ll discover dead ends. I’ll also touch history, take the time to stop and look, I’ll watch red kites watching me, I’ll hopefully find some gems of undiscovered trails, be able to increase the variety of “getting from here to there” options and find new “theres” to get to.

Realistically, I’ve been doing this as long as I’ve been running and riding – it is nothing new, and hey, if I didn’t I wouldn’t get to ride or run a tenth as much as I do. I just want to take the time to document it, both mentally and in cyberspace, to take a step back and appreciate what I’ve got. I want to make sure I don’t get stuck into the routine of doing the same rides and runs, forever taking the same path.

I’ll also climb into the van with riding and running kit. I’ll visit new places, I’ll savour being in hills, mountains and wilderness. I’ll travel shorter distances, to friends’ houses, to Garage Bikes, to ride the trails that are out of their front door. I will, however always come home. Local runs, rides (both road and trail) will not be training for the next adventure. They will be the adventure itself.

I’m not the first person to use the hashtag #fromthefrontdoor, and I’ve no intention of being the last. I’d like to extend the invitation to all my blog followers – show me your local trails. That patch of woods that you run past on the pavement? Go and explore. The left hand lane, when you always take the right? Take the left. The esoteric crag at the back of the guide book? Go climb it.

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What are you waiting for? Crack on.

Tom Vs The Weather

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It is beginning to feel like the weather has a personal vendetta against me.

Race weekend = biblical conditions

Mountain Mayhem 2012 – oh, the mud
SITS 2012 – oh, the mud. But enduring it lap, after lap
3 Peaks Cyclocross 2012 – wind, rain, bare-knuckle fighting with Mother Nature
Anglesey Trail Ultra 2013 – cancelled due to snow
Edale Skyline 2013 – cancelled due to snow

I was meant to be running the 20 or so miles of fell encircling Edale, in the Peak District on Sunday. I was really, really looking forward to running. My last “serious” foot race before things take a two-wheeled turn for the rest of the summer. Fit. Fast. Keen.

Except it snowed a little bit. Quite a lot actually. The Edale valley was pretty much shut off from the world. A few hardy locals headed out on Sunday, and it took them two hours to reach Win Hill. At that rate, no one would have made the cut off time at Mam Nick.

Body and mind ready to race, ready to exert effort. Sitting on the sofa on Saturday morning, enjoying a second carb-heavy breakfast, the cancellation text message came through. I was left with an emptiness and loss of purpose for the weekend. I was ready to suffer, and to enjoy the extreme conditions. I wanted to be out there and experience nature, but I wanted it because there was a purpose. I was racing. Now that was taken away. I could of course still go out, but now that there was no need to, my urgency and drive disappeared.

We headed out for a local bike ride, earlier frustration slowly melting, unlike the trails which were buried deep under a luxurious carpet of snow. Ducking between trees, drifting wheels, vague steering, effort, warmth. Never more than 3 miles from home. Viewing familiar trails in less familiar conditions. One of the lovely things about riding locally with Jenn has been that she has now explored many of these trails herself, with the eyes of an inquisitive newcomer. She’s been up the trail just up from the one I normally turn off at, and been back down my usual climb. I now get her view of “my” woods.

Sunday. The day of cancelled race. We run anyway, changing in the warmth and convenience of the bedroom, rather than contorting in the car. Closing the front door and stepping out on to the snow. Run north west, snow now stained with black-leaf-litter footprints. Out into open countryside, wind-torn fields, bare of snow. Drifts, towering high. Picking footpaths linking place names more usually visited in the car or by road bike. Eccup, Bramhope, Chevin, Menston. Climb on to Ilkley Moor. Biting wind, wild. And descend, with loose legs, on loose snow, we tumble and slide, giggling. Within minutes bleak moor becomes Victorian residential, becomes Ilkley town centre. Coffee, warm train. Home. It wasn’t “hard” in the same way a race would have been, but it was out there. It wasn’t the comfort of the sofa. It wasn’t feeling sorry for ourselves.

The weather may have a vendetta against me, but I actually still quite like the weather*

*although would be really happy if it warmed up significantly and the sun came out, please.

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.

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.

Wear and tear

Nice new shoes turn into best shoes, turn into old shoes, turn into really should replace shoes, turn into should have been binned long ago shoes.

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These New Balance Minimus are brilliant, and still have life left I’m them, but are beginning to show signs of wear.

I need some new race SPD shoes. My trusty Mavics have been relegated to commuting duties, and are not holding up very well in retirement. The Lake shoes I got to replace them have never felt completely comfortable. Heavy, stiff in the wrong places, not very stiff in the right places, and I’m tired of the Boa lace system seizing up. And the tread is falling off.

At least my body feels like it is holding up reasonably well at the moment.

January

Not only has January snuck up on me, but it is now nearly the end of the month.

I’ve not raced since an ill fated Rapha Supercross in October (sticky mud and wide tyres in the CX bike were not good bedfellows). This was all part of The Plan. A rest. Time off from racing. Riding for fun. Not riding so much. This has been a mixed blessing. I’ve enjoyed some rides with mates that I might have missed out on otherwise. I’ve been doing more running (see post below). But, occasionally I have struggled mentally. I’ve missed long rides, yet not felt motivated to do them, yet beaten myself up for not riding more. Telling myself it is part of The Plan doesn’t always help.

Post Christmas and I have gradually been getting back into things. A few more miles, more regularly. A mystery New Years bug and a cold haven’t helped, but I’m slowly but surely getting fit again. I’ll need to, I’ve got some fun plans for this year.

February
-Hit the North… 2 hours intense riding. Crashed out last year. Lots of Good People going. Will be fun.

March
-City Cross… Not yet decided whether I’ll race, but should be a laugh
-Edale Skyline fell race

April
-No races planned yet, but an Easter break on Skye will involve lots of riding

May
-12hr solo champs – only two weeks before the biggie
-Highland Trail – 400+ miles of Scottish wilderness. Brilliant. Bit scary.

June
-Brisol Bikefest – so much fun in a team last year, back to do it solo this year
-Mountain Mayhem – only a week after Bristol. Maybe another team ride?

July
TBC

August
TBC… Summat big

September
-Scotland Coast to Coast. Did it two years ago. Fancy another crack
-3 Peaks CX