Wednesday, 6 August 2014

Ultra madness and some family history

Today I did a lunchtime run with Ben who has decided to take on an ultramarathon next year. Yep, an ultramarathon. Ben has been a constant source of motivation and inspiration for my running, particularly as he was training for his first full marathon when I first took up running. I'm super impressed at his dedication to the sport, and it's recently been paying off for him with a great new parkrun PB. 

An ultramarathon is technically anything longer than 26.2 miles but he's gone the whole hog and will be working up to run a major distance (I don't want to give away his secrets but he has made noises about writing a blog, so I'll link it if he starts one...)

All this chat reminded me that a while back I found myself unexpectedly spectating the Thames Path 100 mile race. I happened to be in and around Windsor doing some walking in my new hiking boots to wear them in. After a few miles walking with me happily cheering on tired looking runners I let out a little phrase my partner probably wishes I hadn't said "one day, I'd love to do something like that".

An ultra? Me? Did I say that out loud?? But strange as it may sound... somehow it's in my family history. Meet my great great grandfather, Thomas Edgar Hammond.

T. E. Hammond doing "The Brighton and Back Walk", June 21st - 22nd, 1907. He took just 18 hours, 13 minutes and 37 seconds to cover 104 miles, beating the record by over two hours. This photo is of him passing through Redhill on the return journey after completing 90 miles. Photo and info courtesy of:

He actually wasn't a runner he was a race walker. For many years he held all kinds of world records for ultra distance race walking, including 100 plus mile events. He once walked 131 miles in 24 hours. He was even in the 1908 Olympics when they first introduced a long distance race walk, but as the distance was only 10 miles he'd hardly warmed up by the time it finished and was eliminated in the first round.

So I wondered... If I was running is there any chance I could be as fast as him?

Not. A. Chance.

His 100 mile time on the track is 18 hours 4 minutes and records have it that on the road he was even faster. The winner of last years TP100 was slower than that. To me it's incredible to think that a walker from 100 years ago could beat most of today's runners over that kind of distance with no fancy equipment, energy gels or spiky foam rollers in sight.

Of course I'd never enter an ultra with any intention other than to see if I could finish it. But it's tempting to wonder if maybe, just maybe, genetics has dealt me a hand for running ultra distances? There is, of course, only one way to find out. And one day, I will find out. Just not quite yet. And not over 100 miles to start with!

But... when I have a little more time to train for such a beast... one day I'd like to see.

In the meantime I'll look on enviously as Ben trains up to do his first ultra.

Monday, 12 May 2014

Run Bristol 10k race recap: I have no idea how that PB happened

See below for the race review, but first, here's how my race went.

I have to admit something; when it comes to racing, I have a bit of a reputation. My running friends at work and running club mates will tell you there is a recognisable a pattern to when I tend to run PBs. I have to admit there might be something to this pattern...

They know all the signs to look for. I'll show up at the start saying I'm not ready, that I feel sick, that I had a couple of drinks the night before or whatever other excuse I usually come up with. I'll start further back than normal or off to one side because I'm worried about dropping behind the crowd. I'll just decide to run by feel, try and enjoy the run and not worry about the time.

Then I go and smash out a PB.

How does this work? It's happened to me the whole time since I took up running a couple of years ago. Somehow, I did it again... This reputation 'aint going nowhere in a hurry.

The thing is you've got to believe me, I don't do it intentionally! When I tell people I'm not feeling well it's genuine. I really did overeat the day before this race, going out for lunch and dinner and then had a few drinks watching Eurovision on TV with a friend. I also didn't run all week as I hadn't been feeling well.

Then on a fairly cold, windy, showery day I somehow smashed out not only a 10k personal best but also a massive negative split (i.e I ran the second half of the race faster than the first half) for the very first time. My Strava running log even says that somewhere in there, possibly in the second half, I ran a 5k PB as well.

Crowds doing the aerobic pre-race warm up... nowhere near the start line

Quite honestly, I have no idea how that happened. My only theory is that perhaps because I'm not focusing so much I set out at a slightly easier pace, which makes the rest of the race a bit better. I certainly remember running the first half admiring the views of the Clifton suspension bridge, just running by how I felt making sure I was working fairly hard but my breathing was under control. The first half was over in a flash, then in the second half I sped up. It wasn't intentional, I just started noticing I was passing people so I'd focus on the next lady ahead of me and catch them up.

I think there's a lot to be said for running races when you don't put any pressure on yourself. Perhaps it was the lack of pressure in this race which meant I was relaxed about the race, didn't mind what happened, didn't really watch my pace as much and just tried to enjoy the run.
I was so excited I took a photo 

Whatever the reason for it, I'm really pleased to have broken the 45-minute barrier in my 10k time as that was one of my goals for this year. My chip timing result was 44:24, although my watch measured the course to be a bit long (6.31 miles). But I have a shiny new medal and race t-shirt to add to my ever-growing collection as a result.

I also caught up with twitter-friend, runner, scientist and all-round awesome woman Hayley (@gingerbreadlady), who ran a very similar time to me coming in with a new PB as well in just under 45-minutes. It was great to finally meet her in person as we follow each other's running on Strava. Her interval and speed sessions always spur me into action to get out there, as we have similar goals and race times.

(I only slightly freak out when I see she's smashing out awesome training sessions while I'm sitting with a massive bowl of pasta and a glass of wine. Haha.)

I even remembered to get a quick pic after the race as I found her waiting in the baggage queue - I got us some hot drinks to keep warm!

Hayley & me after the race
Race review:

I chose this race because I was invited to enter it as part of the RunBritain Grand Prix (after I came in the top 250 women in the Reading Half Marathon earlier in the year). I still had to pay to enter though, it just let me enter a little later than normal which is good when you're disorganised!

In terms of the race itself, I think I had the best of the day because I started out toward the front (so crossed the start line within about 20 seconds of the gun) and I finished fairly early on too.

I was going to give this race a massive thumbs up as from my perspective it was quite well organised. But it seems if you were slightly slower than me you might have taken longer waiting for your bag than running the race... all for no medal... not great!

I was lucky as I came straight through early on so got all the paraphernalia, then stood in a small queue for 5 minutes having a stretch and got my bag before the line got too long... So I have four main comments about things which I've heard or experienced which surprised me about the organisation of this race.

1) It seems from Facebook that thousands of slower runners didn't get medals, t-shirts, goody bags or even water (!!) after the race. This is really unacceptable even if the number of no-shows was less than normal as the organisers have claimed.

2) The baggage queues were over an hour I'm told. When I was queueing for my bag I could see the problem: it was totally daft that they had separated the different bag drop tents by proposed finishing time (based on coloured wave starts), meaning that at any one time there was a massive queue for a single baggage tent. This is different to other big races where they do it by gender, or by race number where they randomise the race numbers across the different waves. It's certainly something they need to do better with 10,000+ runners. It's a really basic race co-ordination issue to get wrong.

3) There were no signs or maps around directing us to where the start line was on the day. It seems a small thing but I don't know Bristol very well and wandering around the 'race village' I actually walked around in circles a few times wondering which way I was meant to go to get to the start. It was in the pre-race material but that got checked-in with my bag! I found the 'warm-up' near the baggage tents but that wasn't anywhere near the start. Not a big deal, eventually I found it, but it was a bit silly.

4) The results went up online pretty quickly after the race, but I can only see my individual time, or the top 10 male times. I discovered I can also do a blank search to come up with all the results in order. But I'd like to know where I placed among the other women in the race and by age category, but none of this information is available (at the moment). Chatting to Hayley before the race she said she was hoping to come in the top 100 women. We came in at a similar time, but now we don't know if we met that ambition or not. Why not display the full results like every other race? I'm confused.

Saturday, 26 April 2014

TomTom Runner GPS Watch Review

The quick verdict... Overall I give it 


  • I like the look and feel of it
  • The QuickGPS is brilliant when it works
  • It can upload runs using a phone or tablet straight to most training log sites you might already be using
  • You have to make sure you update QuickGPS
  • The MySports Connect website isn’t great
  • The 'watch' part can fall out of the strap easily
  • If you sync with phone/tablet you can't get access to the data files easily

The full review:

Back in late February when I was training for Reading Half Marathon I was sent a TomTom Runner GPS watch. It seems like an absolute age ago, but I’ve been dutifully testing it out since then to make up my mind on what I think of it. Overall, I was pretty impressed.

Disclaimer: I was provided with this watch for free as part of Team Write This Run for the Reading Half Marathon. No, I didn't get paid to write this review. My review is my honest opinion of the product. Also, it's possible for me to get a feature wrong or for a bug to be fixed since I wrote this. If so, just let me know.

I’ve only ever had one GPS watch before, a Garmin Forerunner 405 (now discontinued) which I’ve had for a couple of years and it’s suited me perfectly well. Inevitably this new kid on the block was always going to get compared and weighed up against my existing watch. Perhaps that’s not fair when Garmin have been making running GPS watches for ages, but as this retails in the same price range that I bought mine (£150 or so, or £139.95 on Amazon as of today), I think it’s a fair comparison.

It’s a bit of a looker...

First things first, it looks great. I like the large easy to read screen and the single-button operation, also the fact that it is less prominent on my wrist than other big GPS watches. The version I received is a black/grey/green one but it also comes rather inevitably in a pink version. On my wrist it feels really comfortable. In fact, after wearing it a few times I realised it is more comfortable than my Garmin which is always either slightly too tight or slightly too loose.

The only slightly weird thing about its construction is that the ‘watch’ part (the business end of it) isn’t actually physically attached to the strap at all. When it’s on your wrist it fits in the strap and the action of having it on keeps it from falling out. But as soon as you take it off your wrist, the watch part of it has a high chance of falling out of the strap. I’ve dropped it more times than I can count fumbling with it to get it out of the strap and onto the charging cradle/usb cord.

They said I could get out running with less time waiting for satellites…

One of the major selling points of this watch is that by self-updating the most recent satellite positions, it’s supposed to be quicker to lock on to GPS. Less time waiting around with your wrist in the air like an idiot sounds like a good thing.

I was interested in how this works, and it turns out that it just downloads the satellite positions for the next 3 days each time you connect it to the MySports Connect application. You can even check if it’s up-to-date on the watch by just pressing the left-side button and seeing if it has a tick next to ‘QuickGPS’ or an exclamation mark (meaning it needs to be updated).

To test this bit out, I made sure it was all up to date then strapped it on my wrist next to my Garmin to compare them like for like. (Quite unscientifically, I only really tried this once as, to be perfectly honest it looks a bit weird wearing two chunky watches…)

So how did it compare? My Garmin took roughly 30 seconds to find satellites. The TomTom took about 5 seconds.

Yes, seriously, only 5 seconds! Other reviews say the normal time is about 15 seconds, but that is still pretty phenomenal in this kind of device.

I admit the next time I used the watch I hadn’t used it for a week or two, and set out without updating the satellites. On that occasion it took about a minute to find the satellites. A minute is quite a long time, but at least it doesn’t take too much longer than my Garmin when it isn’t up to date. In reality if you were using it regularly as your only running watch and using it a few times each week, it should work pretty well.

One thing I found a little strange is that it doesn’t seem to have the ability to just set off without finding satellites unless you put it in 'stopwatch’ mode or 'treadmill’ mode and ignore the GPS altogether. If you haven’t updated the satellites, that could be a bit of a pain.

It would probably be wise to let the runner just set off anyway with the timer going, so that at the very least they can use it as a stopwatch until the satellites are found. (Because sometimes in a race you forget to find satellites in advance and would just like it to work as a stopwatch until it ‘latches on’, even if the average pace goes wonky for the first mile.)

That said, when QuickGPS works as it’s supposed to it’s brilliant. So this is a minor detail really.

One-button operation...
The watch is nicely designed so it is pretty intuitive to use. TomTom claim the ‘one-button’ operation is the first in the industry and should make it easier to operate while moving, including when wearing gloves. Yep, I can vouch for that!

Actually the ‘single button’ is a bit of a misnomer since it’s one big square button which you press the four sides of to navigate menus and access different functions. So… four buttons really.

Navigating through the menus is pretty easy, although you might need to check the user manual to get started.

For example, when I first went for a run with it, I jogged half a mile across town first to meet my running club. But it wasn’t clear to me how to ‘pause’ my run while waiting for them to arrive. It turned out, I just had to press the left-side button. But at the time I didn’t know that and ended up just splitting it into two activities. Once I read the manual it was simple really, you just have to get used to it like any new piece of tech.

Pacing, racing and interval functions…

Like most decent running watches this one has the ability to set goals before you run (time, distance or calories). It also allows you to set up and follow interval sessions, to train in pace zones or heart rate zones (if you connect a heart rate monitor to it, mine didn’t have one and it isn't compatible with the ANT+ garmin one I have). You can even race against your own previous runs or set a race goal. While I don’t tend to use many of these functions regularly it’s always nice to know they’re there.

Somewhat to my surprise as well as pace, time and calories, the watch also records cadence (steps per minute). I didn’t realise this for a while as it didn’t show on Strava or RunKeeper, but I notice on the MySports Connect website it gives an average cadence for the run.

It connects to your phone, iPad or other device using bluetooth…

Of all the features of this watch, I was most excited about this one. When you finish a run the likelihood is you’re in a hurry to eat, shower, change or whatever. The last thing you really want to spend time on is sitting down at a computer and connecting your watch, then uploading the file to wherever it needs to be.

With my Garmin normally my runs go automatically to GarminConnect when I log them. But then I also log them on RunKeeper, because I have friends who use that and it’s nice to keep it social. As it happens, I also use Strava because I started ‘testing’ it for a while, then built up some online running friends on there as well, so I’ve kind of kept using all of them.

One of my pet hates is having to log into RunKeeper and Strava and go through the ‘upload files’ malarkey, even having to duplicate the process of writing the descriptions for them. Wouldn’t it be nice if it all just happened automatically?

In the first instance the TomTom uses it’s own app called MySports Connect, then the main website they connect to is MapMyRun. I don’t currently use MapMyRun, but thankfully you can set TomTom MySports Connect to do a number of clever things, synchronising automatically with a number of other web logging services, including RunKeeper and Strava (hooray!) and apparently even GarminConnect!

(When I received the watch, Strava wasn’t an option, but happily, at the time of writing this review it had appeared in their list of options.)

It was really easy to connect and pair with all my devices, downloading the apps was easy as usual. To date I’ve tested it with an iMac, Mac Book Pro, iPhone 4S and iPad mini with retina display, all successfully with no hassle.

The other nice thing you can do is set it up to auto-generate your choice of .kml, .gpx, .fit, .tcx or .csv files to be stored on your computer, ready to access whenever you like. However, that only works if you actually sync the watch directly to the computer, not if you use the bluetooth syncing on a phone or tablet.

This was quite a negative point for me really. If you don’t use something like RunKeeper or Strava, neither of the default TomTom MySports Connect and MapMyRun allow you to export data files. If you haven’t set it up to automatically send the files elsewhere, you will NOT be able to get access to the data file to use after the fact. It's probably more the fault of MapMyRun than the TomTom, but it still matters. I tripped up on this one when I first had it.

(If you trip up too and you're absolutely desperate to get the .gpx file from MapMyRun, there are some third party websites that will rip the data out for you, like this tutorial shows.)

Happily now that I have it set up to sync with RunKeeper and Strava, I can always download the .gpx files from there if I want to. The fact that all I have to do is sync it via bluetooth with my iPhone or iPad and it automatically updates my RunKeeper and Strava logs is amazing and will be a huge timesaver for me. So overall, once I had it set up how I wanted it, the system worked pretty well.

Should you buy one?

If it had been around when I bought my Garmin, I quite possibly would have bought one. If you run a few times a week, are working on improving your race times and are interested in doing sessions like intervals then I think it’s a great GPS watch to buy. If you are a bit of a gadget/tech geek like me and value being able to sync it via a phone or tablet, then it’s a very good option indeed.

So when I head out the door for a run, which watch do I grab? Up until the London Marathon it was my Garmin because I wanted something familiar and reliable. But since then I've played a bit more with the TomTom to get it running just how I want it. This week, my Garmin has been sitting unloved on my dressing table. Could TomTom have beaten it? For now, perhaps.

Sunday, 20 April 2014

An Easter hike along the Ridgeway: Fox Hill to Wantage

"Why are you out hiking less than a week after running a marathon?" I hear you ask. Because the weather has been lovely this week and I wanted to enjoy it. Also, because I needed to test out some of my hiking gear in preparation for hiking the West Highland Way with my sister in June (which I'm SO excited about).

I've been wanting to do more hiking in preparation for the 7-day 95-mile WHW hike, but have had to put it to one side due to lack of time and fear of blisters in the lead up to the marathon. So 6 days after running the marathon, on Saturday morning we were up and out the door wearing hiking gear. It still amazes me that we live in an area where we can set off on a hike literally from our front door. That's pretty awesome - I couldn't do that in Melbourne. Of course the hiking trails are the same trails that I run the rest of the time.

We grabbed a takeaway coffee and caught a local Saturday-only bus called the 'Ridgeway Explorer' from Wantage out to Fox Hill somewhere near Swindon. It took us almost an hour on the bus winding our way through quaint villages with thatched cottages and we got a lovely view of the Uffington White Horse that we'd hike past later that day. We almost got the right stop to get off at, too! Winning.

Waylands Smithy (near Uffington White Horse)

 I was laden with my new Osprey Kyte 36 pack which I was giving its first test-run, and had decided to ditch hiking trousers in favour of running leggings because they are so comfy. The first sight en-route was Waylands Smithy, a neolithic tomb site.

Green! So much green!
A few kilometres later was the White Horse of Uffington, which I don't have a photo of because its hard to get one from the top!

The view down to villages below
The Ridgeway (from behind White Horse Hill)
We had a lovely day out, although it got a bit cold and windy when we were on the exposed sections of the Ridgeway. But... not cold enough for me to stop and put on one of my various extra layers I'd packed as ballast in my pack. Energetic enough to walk 15 miles but too lazy to put on an extra layer...

Looking down to Letcomb Bassett
We stopped for some lunch after about 9.5 miles near the 'Devils Punchbowl' which features on one of my favourite running routes. We brought some lovely goats cheese, prosciutto and sourdough bread along with us which went down nicely.

Looking back toward the 'Devils Punchbowl'
From this point onwards I know loads of lovely routes home because I run them a lot. My hiking boots were rubbing a bit and my post-marathon legs were surprisingly tired so we decided to cut the walk shorter than I'd originally planned, descending just near the Segsbury hill fort (an iron-age hill fort) and back to Wantage via Letcombe Bassett, the Letcombe nature reserve and Letcombe Regis.

Spending a day testing out your gear is always a good idea before a big trip. For me, it will save me a lot of pain and trouble on the West Highland Way because sadly I think I'll have to say goodbye to my Salomon hiking boots. Honestly they have been nothing but trouble since I bought them from Blacks a couple of years ago. Despite them costing me £110 and then another £40 in insoles to help solve comfort problems, I've never had a comfortable days hiking in them. I was hoping they'd just about be good enough to do the West Highland Way, but honestly I want to enjoy the hike and not worry about my boots constantly rubbing different parts of my feet, so it looks like I'll need to invest in a new pair. Any advice on good boots for women with narrow feet would be more than welcome!

Just stopped to adjust my boots... again.
The good news is, my Osprey pack was magnificent! Quick review:

It was super comfy and had been fitted to me professionally in Cotswold Outdoors, where I bought it a couple of months ago. It sat really comfortably on my hips and after 15 miles it was just as comfortable as when I first put it on. I love the fact it has zip pockets on the waist strap which I put some snacks and a camera in. It seems quite spacious although I was just filling it with extra bits of clothing and food as a test-run. I didn't get to test it's waterproof cover, and I don't yet have a water bladder to put in it, but think I'll get one before the West Highland Way. Overall I'm giving it 10/10 so far.

If you want to plan your own hike on the Ridgeway or other national trails in the UK I highly recommend the National Trail website - it was really handy in planning our day. We'll probably plan to do a few more Ridgeway sections soon.

(I'm a bit gutted that I'll be missing the "Ridgeway Relay" with the White Horse Harriers this year as it happens to be on the Sunday at the end of my West Highland Way trip. One year I'll make it along as part of the team!)