Suunto Spartan Ultra vs Suunto Ambit 3 Vertical Review

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The Suunto Spartan Ultra – one of the most eagerly anticipated GPS watches of all time. Much has been promised and lots is expected. The question is – will this gadget live up to all the hype and is it worth the lofty price tag?

Last month Suunto asked me to trial their flagship product and I was more than happy to oblige. As I’ve only been using the watch for the last 4 weeks, this won’t be an exhaustive review. However, it should provide you with enough information about the Spartan Ultra should you be interested in an upgrade or looking to invest in your first GPS device.

When the watch arrived in the post I was most impressed with the lovely personal touch on the packaging – Suunto had obviously done their homework. I currently own a Suunto Ambit 3 Vertical blue (purchased in May 2016). Previous to this I had a Ambit 2R in black. The difference between these two models is vast so I was interested to see how much better the Ultra is compared to the Ambit 3. I use my watch primarily for running – road, trail, fell and mountain. I use the data in Movescount but I also upload all my activities to Strava as I like to engage with a wider audience and compare my efforts against those of others. Aside from basic use, the main feature I use is navigation, so much of this blog will focus on the accuracy and reliability of the GPS tracker and the ease of uploading and following routes (GPX files).

Ultimately I want to know if the Spartan Ultra is worth the extra money (RRP £599 compared to RRP £325) and how much better it is (if at all) than the popular Ambit 3.

Pictured above: (L) The Suunto Spartan Ultra and (R) The Suunto Ambit 3 Vertical Blue

Suunto’s comparison of both watches can be found here

1. FIRST IMPRESSIONS

I love my bright blue Ambit 3 Vertical but the all black Spartan Ultra is seriously nice. It’s lighter than I expected and the silicone wrist strap, like the Ambit 3, is soft, strong and very durable (this was already an improvement from the Ambit 2). The obvious difference between the two devices is the higher resolution, colour touch screen of the Spartan – a HUGE advancement in technology. The watch face is bigger than the Ambit and it’s much clearer to read and navigate through the menu. I was worried that the touch screen technology might not work that well in the outdoors, especially wet weather. However, I was surprised at how well it still operated with moisture on the screen (although when completely immersed in water you simply have to rely on the buttons to navigate the menu). The screen is also made from sapphire crystal which means it won’t scratch like the Ambit and I don’t have to worry about buying a screen protector. The bezel is made from titanium rather than steel, a more durable and superior material. Another big improvement on previous generations is the magnetic charger.

2. KEY FEATURES

Connectivity: Both watches use a bluetooth connection and I use the Suunto moves app to download my routes. I know some people would prefer a Wifi connection (like the Fenix 3) but I’ve experienced no problems with bluetooth and my runs are always downloaded and synced to Strava within minutes of finishing exercise.

GPS: The key thing for me is the quality of the GPS. The Spartan is quicker at receiving a signal (instant). Both watches have accurate GPS during exercise and I use the fastest recording rate on both which obviously impacts on the battery life. However, given that I never usually train/race above 3 hours, this is never an issue. The battery life of the Spartan is just slightly better than the Ambit – 15 hours rather than 14 in time mode.

Interface: Suunto have completely re-designed the user interface from the Ambit. The good news is it didn’t take me long to navigate the menu and it’s really clear and easy to use. There is also the ability to customise the watch face. A small improvement but one I really like.

Logbook: The Spartan Ultra gives a more complete summary of your training status on the watch. The colour screen enables much richer displays in general and more data on screen. All essential training concepts including pace, splits, rest and recovery are more clearly presented than on the Ambit.

Step and calorie count: This is a new feature on the Spartan and I have to say it’s VERY addictive. It gives you a preset target of completing 10,000 steps every day, although unfortunately this target cannot be changed manually. I’m not afraid to admit that I find myself regularly checking it throughout the day – eager to find out how many steps I’ve done. Prior to using the Spartan I was genuinely considering purchasing an activity tracker, so for me this is a key feature. There is also a calorie count, but the only thing this does is encourage me to eat more!

IMG_1026 2.JPGPictured above: The step count in action. The daily target of 10,000 steps is the blue line, which you can see has been achieved in this photo.

HR monitor: Both watches use the same chest strap, with monitor, to record heart rate. There isn’t an integrated optical heart rate monitor built into the watch, as I’m sure many people were expecting. To be honest it’s not something I’m too disappointed with. The HR strap was improved after the Ambit 2 – it’s comfortable to wear and gives an accurate recording during exercise.

Additional features: Suunto have promised many upgrades to the Spartan Ultra. ‘Coming soon’ seems to be the message, so expect some new features and software updates in the near future. See the specification for more details. I should also mention that I’ve not experienced the software problems that many other Spartan owners seem to have had. Perhaps it’s because I only use mine for mountain, trail and basic running – many of the negative reviews I’ve read are from athletes using it for other sports like swimming.

3. NAVIGATION

Navigation is another key feature for me so a ‘proper fell run’ was needed for a true test. I chose the new Castle Carr inaugural race route. Prior to this test I’d never done the race, I’d no idea of the route and without a map or guidance from a watch I would inevitably get lost. Thankfully the navigation feature, on both the Ambit 3 and Spartan Ultra, allows you to download or create a route and then follow it on the screen whilst running…

14206059_279436152440579_743139688365304502_oPictured above: (Old vs new) Gav Nav vs the Spartan Ultra on the Castle Carr race route

I needed this feature to be simple. I don’t do instructions, I’ve better things to do with my time than read through a booklet when I can just fiddle around, press a few buttons and hopefully get a gizmo to work. I wanted to see how easy it was to upload a route to my watch and just follow it. So I found the Castle Carr race route on (Race organiser) Bill Johnson’s previous Strava activities. I downloaded the GPS file to my computer, uploaded it to Suunto Moves and then synced my watch (i.e. plugged it in to my computer). 1st job done in about 1 minute! No instructions, no messing, easy to work out – route now saved and ready to use. This process is the same on both devices.

14138646_279437039107157_8625262177785166540_o.jpgPictured above: Using the navigation feature on the Spartan Ultra. The blue line is the route I’m following and the white ‘bread crumb’ line is the actual line I’ve taken.

suunto-ambit3-vertical-blue-hr_664_2_8_1393Pictured above: Using the navigation feature on the Ambit 3 Vertical. I’ve used this during races and in training and it’s a good visual aid. However, the screen is smaller and harder to use when navigating at pace.

I opened the route on my watch screen and use the navigation feature so I could find my way. A few menu choices and button presses later and, as if by Harry Potter magic, I had the route up on my display. The display is also bigger than my Ambit 3, and because it’s also touch screen and in colour, then it’s clearer to see. It shows a white trail, where you’ve been and where you are, compared to the blue line which is where you should be going.

Although both watches have the navigation feature, the ease of use and clarity of the large colour screen (when navigating at pace) is far better on the Spartan Ultra than the Ambit 3.

Video above: Once a route has been saved, uploaded to Suuntomoves and synced to the watch, it’s really easy to open and use the navigation function.

4. SUGGESTED IMPROVEMENTS

  1. Personally I really like the information that the Ambit 3 vertical provides about ascent gained. As a mountain runner I like to know how much climbing I’ve done during the week. Unfortunately the Spartan Ultra doesn’t display this information on the watch.
  2. The ability to customise screens for the chosen activity.
  3. The step count resets every day and it’s not possible to view your weekly total. (n.b. this feature has now been included since this blog was published – Dec. 2016)

5. THE VERDICT

Based on my comparison it’s clear to see that the Spartan Ultra is a better watch than the Ambit 3 – but so it should be for the price. How much better depends on what you need it for, how you use it and how often you use it. The Ambit 3 Vertical is a fantastic watch. If you already own one and it ticks all the boxes for you, then I wouldn’t say you have to rush to get an upgrade just yet. Also if you are new to exercise and are just looking to purchase a watch that tracks your GPS during exercise, then there are much cheaper alternatives serving that sole purpose.

The Spartan Ultra is a watch for the serious athlete. It’s also a gadget that would appeal to tech geeks and those who spend hours poring over training data. It looks good and feels good – far more robust than its predecessors. I love my Ambit 3 but admittedly I’d find it very hard to go back to using it now I’ve experienced the Spartan Ultra. In my opinion it’s a watch that could potentially be the difference between winning or losing a race, when precious seconds count. For me, navigation in races is vital. I would genuinely purchase the Spartan just because of the improvements of the navigation feature and the large, colour touch screen. I think it’s worth spending a bit more money to have some extra confidence in a race. That said I don’t think it should ever be solely relied upon for navigation – I use it as a back up for confidence or when I’m really really lost on the hills. Which to be honest is almost every fell race that I do!

So there you have it – my simple review of the Suunto Spartan Ultra. If you can afford one and it meets your requirements, then this could well be the watch you’ve been waiting for. Plus it looks damn good on your wrist!

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Super Trooper

Super Trooper

6:37PM

It’s a time when most people are sitting down to enjoy their evening meal or relaxing in front of the television to watch the soaps. I can’t help but feel jealous – it’s been a long and stressful day at work. In comparison, I’m running up Trooper Lane and I’m part way through my third repetition. I’m planning on doing 10 so I’ll be here for quite some time.

Byline Robbie Jay Barratt ©

‘IT’S MY CHOICE TO BE HERE – I DON’T HAVE TO DO THIS’

To make matters worse my legs are already feeling tired from racing at the weekend and there’s a huge temptation to give up and call this my last one. Nobody else cares if I do 10 anyway, in fact no one will ever know. It’s my choice to be here – I don’t have to do this. If I set off back home I could be sat with my feet up in front of a warm fire and enjoying my dinner at a reasonable hour for a change. It would be really easy to give up now.

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Instead I have to remind myself why I’m here. I’m about to run up Trooper Lane for the 150th time this year. It’s a milestone achievement that only I will witness and appreciate. There won’t be a crowd of supporters at the top to greet me with rapturous applause and I certainly won’t win any prizes. This is a solitary and lonely task. It’s a hidden part of my world that no one else ever sees. Ironically it’s the most important part of my training and the foundation of every racing success. It doesn’t bother me that I’m alone. I haven’t got time to celebrate anyway – I’ve another 7 reps to complete.

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I’m often asked how or indeed why I run up and down Trooper Lane so many times. Admittedly it’s hardly the most enjoyable way to spend an evening, especially after a tough day at work. The thought of repping the same hill 10 times is a daunting prospect. The monotony of the task is reason enough to talk yourself out of it in the first place. As well as the obvious physical demand, it requires an enormous amount of mental strength to complete 10 reps. In fact the first thing I need to do is to trick myself into thinking I’m not really doing 10 when deep down I really know that I am.

‘I IMAGINE THAT I’M IN A RACE, EITHER BEING CHASED BY OR CHASING SOMEONE DOWN’

Byline Robbie Jay Barratt ©

It’s not all about pace either, I try and focus on form and technique. I’m more concerned with how well I run up the hill rather than how fast I can rep each one. I stay positive at all times and I tell myself over and over again that I can do this. Visualisation plays a key role in keeping me focused and motivated.I dream about running for England and Great Britain and what I need to do to earn those international vests. I imagine that I’m in a race, either being chased by or chasing someone down. If I stop or go slow for even a moment then I’ll lose so I work as hard as possible until I reach the summit. Needless to say I’ve never lost a mental battle with myself yet.

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The preparation for ascending over 4000ft takes almost as much effort as actually running it. Firstly you have to find the time to do it and usually a session like this requires a window of almost two and a half hours. Trooper Lane is 3 miles from my house so the run across is treated as my warm up and of course the return journey is my cool down. Every rep up and down usually takes between 8-10 minutes depending on the speed and intensity of each effort. It’s almost half a mile from the bottom to the top with a climb measuring over 400ft and an average gradient of 15%. I have to break down the session into manageable chunks to preserve my sanity.

‘TO DEVELOP AS AN ATHLETE YOU NEED TO ADOPT A POSITIVE GROWTH MINDSET.’

Byline Robbie Jay Barratt ©

At first I focus on 3 reps, that’s the absolute minimum I can accept as a worthwhile hill session. After this it doesn’t take me long to complete 5 and from a mental perspective this is a significant milestone. Once I reach 7 then I just tell myself it would be a shame not to hit double figures and when I eventually get to 10 I even consider doing a few more. To develop as an athlete you need to adopt a positive growth mindset. You should always try and set high expectations and work towards achieving great things. So of course the best thing about doing 10 reps is that when I do plan to run a smaller session then 5 always seems really easy!

Byline Robbie Jay Barratt ©

100 minutes of pure hill repping is a long time in which to stay focused. I make sure that on the downhill recovery I give my mind and body the break that it requires. I’m mostly visualising my next race, the physical shape I’ll need to be in and what I need to work on to improve my performance. Much of my time is also spent thinking about what I’ll be eating when I get home and most importantly what I’ll call my run when I upload it to Strava. In my opinion it would be a criminal offence to call a 10 rep Trooper Lane session something like ‘Evening Run’. I try and think of a catchy title that befits the effort I’ve made. Super Trooper or Ben 10 would be far more appropriate. However given that I couldn’t resist the urge to do an extra rep I finally decide upon ‘Legs Eleven, Trooper Heaven’.

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‘IF YOU TRAIN HARD THEN RACING IS EASY.’

Ultimately what gives me the most satisfaction about a brutal hill session like this is knowing that I’m now training as hard, if not even harder, than my rivals. It gives me absolute confidence in my own ability. So when I line up at the start of the race I no longer suffer from nerves and I don’t have any regrets about not training hard enough. I know that I’ve done everything I can to prepare and I’m always ready to face any man or mountain that stands in my way. It’s important to remember that if you train hard, then racing is easy.

Top tips

The very mention of ‘hills’ is enough to make most people run a mile (excuse the pun). Don’t be afraid – hills can be your friend. The more you do the easier they get. Hills are a staple diet for any wannabe fell or mountain runner but even those who prefer the road or track can enjoy their benefit. If you incorporate a weekly hill session into your training then you will see a huge difference in your performance. I’ve never been a natural climber but I’ve turned climbing into my secret weapon by regularly doing hill sessions and slowly increasing the difficulty and speed at which I do them. It’s also good to vary the incline and terrain so that your body learns how to adapt to the changes in ascent. Remember that no hill is ever the same.

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The main problem for me isn’t actually finding the motivation for a hill session, it’s finding a hill big enough to meet my requirements. Most of the big fell and mountain races I compete in have a serious amount of ascent and although I live in a beautiful part of Yorkshire, my local hills don’t even begin to compare to the size of those in the Lake District. It’s because of this that I’m forced to run smart and make the best use of what hills I have on my doorstep. Study what your local environment has to offer, get friendly with your own version of Trooper Lane and make it into your very own mountain. Failing that you could always come and join me on mine.

I have created a number of Trooper Lane segments on Strava and by doing them you can compare your performance over a number of weeks.

The 1 | 3 Peaks | High 5 | Magnificent 7 | Ben 10

Byline Robbie Jay Barratt ©

All photographs taken by Robbie Jay Barratt

Kit: X-Talon 190 | Base Elite LS | Base Elite SSZ | Race Ultra Twin Short | Race Elite Windshell FZ

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If Carlsberg made athletes…

By’eck Yorkshire is famous for many things – everyone knows it’s t’best county in t’land by a mile. Anything that tastes or looks reet good has Yorkshire in its title – Yorkshire puddings, Yorkshire tea, Yorkshire stone and the Tour De Yorkshire to name but a few. Most importantly it’s also home of many of the country’s finest ever fell runners including the Brownlee brothers, Ian Holmes, Rob Jebb, Victoria Wilkinson and Nicky Spinks. No wonder it’s known as ‘God’s own county’.

Yorkshire

A few weeks ago I’d been selected to run for Yorkshire in the UK Inter-Counties fell running championship – the highest standard of competition in fell running. For me it’s always a great honour, nothing makes me prouder than wearing the vest with the white rose. Plus considering the insane standard of athletes in our county at the moment it’s almost akin to earning an international call up.

Below is the strict selection policy for the Yorkshire fell running team (as proclaimed by Dave Woodhead):

  1. Tha musta bin born or live in Yorkshire
  2. Tha must be able to speak fluent Yorkshire
  3. Tha must be able to run reet fast up’t big hills
  4. Tha must like pie and peas
  5. Yorkshire tea must be tha blood type

Thankfully I tick ALL the boxes.

ROB JEBB HAS BEEN THERE, SEEN IT, DONE IT AND WON IT (SEVERAL TIMES OVER)’ 

Joining me in the Yorkshire team was a stellar line up of fell running superstars. Tom Adams was the first name on the team sheet. Tom’s a great bloke and a good friend of mine. He’s a regular GB international and on his day is virtually unbeatable, especially on the faster, more runnable courses. The next name on the list barely requires an introduction. Rob Jebb has been there, seen it, done it and won it (several times over). He’s worshipped like a god in Yorkshire and the sheer mention of his name is enough to scare most opposition into submission. Last but not least are two young Yorkshiremen who are the future of fell running. Ilkley Harriers’ Jack Wood and Dark Peak’s Tom Saville. Jack has been winning everything in his path recently and, like Tom, is very much the real deal. Remember their names as they are likely to feature at the top of race results for many more years to come. This was undoubtably one of the strongest Yorkshire teams I’ve ever been a part of and unsurprisingly we were the pre-race favourites for team gold.

DSC_0057Pictured above: A pre-race photo with Rob Jebb (L) and Tom Adams (R) (Woodentops)

The inter-counties championship is an event which attracts a huge range of athletes from all over the country. This race is unique in the sense that the very best runners from every discipline can all compete together and the winner is always someone who is the most complete athlete. In the past many of the courses selected for the inter-counties have been more favourable to the faster trail or cross-country runners. However, this year would be different with Moel Eilio as the chosen battleground. The fact that Rob Jebb had decided to compete suggests that this is a classic fell race and not just a few hilly laps of a park. It was a race that I was also relishing. Previously my best ever finish in the inter-counties had been 7th (2015), followed by 13th and 15th. Today I was hopeful of at least a top 10 or perhaps even a top 5. I was already familiar with the route as I ran it 8 years ago when it formed part of the British Championships, finishing in 22nd place that day. I’d also taken some time to recce the final mile and steep descent of Moel Cynghorian on Wednesday with my good friend Math Roberts (CVFR) who lives in Llanberis. Preparation is, after all, the key to success. I think it’s because of this very reason that I felt very relaxed and confident at the start.

DSC_0066Pictured above: The start of the race (Woodentops)

‘I WAS RACING VERY SENSIBLY AND USING ALL OF MY EXPERIENCE AS A SEASONED FELL RUNNER

I began the race at a very steady pace and watched many of the favourites hit the front at pace. I didn’t panic. Like a bike race I could sense the others in the pack watching me closely to make a move. Instead, I held my ground and settled into a very comfortable speed and rhythm. As the gradient began to climb I started to work my way through the field, firstly into the top 10 and then up to 7th place. I was racing very sensibly and using all of my experience as a seasoned fell runner, I knew that some of the others would pay the price for a fast start on such a tough course.

DSC_0040Pictured above: The climb to the summit of Moel Eilio with Chris Farrell (Greater Manchester) just in front (Woodentops)

I felt good and as we approached the summit of Moel Eilio I’d managed to catch Tom (Adams) and I found myself in 4th position. This was a pivotal moment in the race. From here I worked together with multiple English and British champion Simon Bailey (Staffordshire). We encouraged each other to try and catch the leaders – Chris Smith (Middlesex) and Max Nicholls (Kent). It was one of those moments I’ll never forget, urging each other on, sharing water and working tactically despite being part of a different team. I remember saying ‘We can do this, these lads aren’t fell runners…we can beat them on the final descent’. To which he replied ‘I think we need to catch them on the climbs first!’. He was right. I was being very optimistic but it was the first time in the race when I remember thinking that we might actually be able to win. Chris and Max were clearly the fastest athletes, but fell running is about so much more than just pace. I knew in the back of my mind that I could descend quicker than anyone and I had a strong feeling that route choice would play a key role in deciding the fortunes of all.

We continued to chase but it was difficult to tell if we were closing the gap. The main thing was they were still in sight. I tried to catch my breath on the descent of Foel Goch as I knew we had a big climb ahead to the summit of Moel Cynghorian. It was here that made my killer move and managed to break away from Simon. We’d worked so hard together until now but I knew if I wanted to win this race then I’d need to attack at some point. I was feeling strong and I could sense a 3rd place finish on the cards providing I judged my efforts correctly – there was still a long way to go. It seemed to take forever to finally reach the top, there were a number of false summits teasing me along the way. I took a few deep breaths and composed myself before I turned to face the final descent.

‘THIS WAS GOING TO BE A REAL SPRINT TO THE FINISH – EVERY SECOND WOULD COUNT!’

I began to follow the leaders but realised they were taking a poor choice of line to the bottom. I could see that they were going too far to the right and they were heading towards what looked like an orange flag or a marshall wearing hi-vis perhaps. I knew it wasn’t the right line but it did make me question whether or not the organisers had added an extra checkpoint. Do I follow? Or do I trust my gut feeling and go my own way? I glanced over my shoulder to see which line Simon was taking. He was heading left. It confirmed what I was thinking and I quickly switched direction. I knew Chris and Max would soon realise their mistake and I knew Simon would be flying down the descent like a man possessed. This was going to be a real sprint to the finish – every second would count! I took the most direct line but it certainly wasn’t the easiest route. The ground was boggy and heavily saturated, there was a stream to negotiate and then a fierce little kick up to a track which led towards the finish. I knew I had to get there first to give myself any kind of chance of winning this race. This last mile was going to hurt real bad. As I reached the top I took one last glance behind. I didn’t have much of a gap but I knew it might just be enough. Simon was now in 2nd with Chris and Max right behind. I gave it everything I had left and tried not to look back. I was running scared and there was still a long way to go. I expected all three of them to pass me at any moment, it was like being in a bad dream and feeling like your not running fast enough. I was on my absolute limit but I knew what was at stake and I wasn’t going to roll over and concede defeat just yet. Keep working, keep sprinting I thought…you can do this. Not long to go now…jeez maybe I CAN do this!!!

13239392_217748495276012_1969911668960856083_nPictured above: The final sprint along the track – victory in sight! (Sports Pictures Cymru)

I ran as hard and as fast as I my legs and lungs could both manage and it wasn’t until the very last 100m that I knew I’d won. I couldn’t believe it! As I crossed the line I could’ve cried I was so happy, I never dreamed I’d ever win a race this big. To win the inter-counties championship whilst wearing a Yorkshire vest is quite literally a dream come true for me. It was just one of those days where absolutely everything went right and I ran the perfect race – clever, tactical and very experienced. I’d won because I was the best fell runner on the day, not because I was the fastest athlete. I found myself apologising to Chris and Max who finished in 3rd and 4th respectively. Had they not have taken a poor line on the final descent I would’ve been sat here writing about how pleased I was with winning a bronze medal. But this is one of the many reasons why fell running is such a fantastic and unique sport. To win a race at this level absolutely everything has to go right on the day. Yes you need to be fast and obviously you need to be able to climb and descend like a pro. But most importantly you need to be able to choose the right tactics, navigate confidently and, of course, have plenty of luck on your side. I’d done everything right and reaped the rewards. This had been a fell running masterclass.

DSC_0033Pictured above: The first 4 men (L to R) Chris Smith, myself, Simon Bailey and Max Nicholls (Woodentops)

I was also super pleased for Simon. We’ve battled against each other many times before on the fells but today I felt like it was a shared victory, we’d really pushed each other to 1st and 2nd on the day. I was disappointed for Chris and Max – they deserved more for their efforts but assured me they were happy with the result. They’re both really great guys and outstanding athletes. I’ve no doubt they’ll both teach me a lesson in mountain running at the next trials race!

13245418_654796408002359_1893029775781462515_nPictured above: UK Inter-County Fell Running Champions 2016! (Woodentops)

In the women’s race I was pleased to see my friend Heidi Dent (Cumbria) take the gold and demonstrate to everyone (once again!) just what outstanding form she’s in. This girl really is destined for great things. Run of the day however must go to Lou Roberts (Cumbria) for her amazing 2nd place. As a V40 she’s in the form of her life and deserves tremendous praise for all of her results so far this year. Annie Conway rounded up the top 3 to make it a clean sweep for Cumbria and showing that they really are the dominant force in women’s fell running.

DSC_0182Pictured above: UK Inter-County Fell Running Team Champions 2016! From L to R: Rob Jebb, Tom Adams, myself, Jack Wood and Tom Saville (Woodentops)

DSC_0591.JPGPictured above: UK Inter-County Fell Running Team Silver Medallists 2016! From L to R: Georgia Malir, Holly Page, Katie Walshaw, Sharon Taylor and Claire Green (Woodentops)

Unsurprisingly after such fantastic individual results we managed to defend our Inter-Counties team title which was truly the icing on a very large cake! The Yorkshire women finished in 2nd place behind a very dominant Cumbria. A fantastic day for our great county and one that will surely keep the Woodhead’s smiling until the next one!

THE finest day of my athletic career so far.

StravaMen’s Results |  Women’s Results | Team Results | Photos

DSC_0517Pictured above: Rob Jebb showing me how to drink like a Yorkshireman (Woodentops)

I may have enjoyed the rare treat of beating Rob in a fell race but when it comes to drinking he’s very much in a class of his own.

If Carlsberg made athletes…they’d be from Yorkshire and they’d be called Rob Jebb. What a legend.

 

P.S. If you’re a lover of Yorkshire like myself then it’s also worth checking out my two favourite Youtube videos…

Yorkshireman vs Predator | Yorkshire Airlines

 

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Dare to Dream

Dare To Dream

There’s no doubt about it, the pressure was on.

I think I first began to feel the weight of expectation on Thursday when a flurry of Facebook notifications began to appear on my laptop. My sponsors, Inov-8, had posted a competition to win a pair of X-Talons for the person who could correctly guess the winners of the first English Fell Running Championship race at Black Combe on Saturday.

Screen Shot 2016-03-14 at 14.25.02Pictured above: The advert for the Facebook competition.

I couldn’t resist looking at the list of entries…‘Tom Addison and Victoria Wilkinson’ seemed the most popular combination and certainly the most sensible choices. Both proven championship race winners and worthy pre-race favourites. I was also flattered to see my name mentioned as a potential winner but I tried to ignore it.

Still, the notifications kept coming, many from friends and family and I wondered if people were voting with their hearts rather than their heads. It was a romantic notion that someone who’s never won a championship race before might actually start as the pre-race favourite and even more so if they could actually do the business. It would certainly make for a good story.

‘THE TIME FOR CHEAP TALK WAS OVER. I SIMPLY HAD TO DELIVER THE GOODS – NO EXCUSES’

Then came the game changer. For a time I stopped looking at the Facebook post but curiosity got the better of me and I was in for a surprise. Dave Woodhead AKA ‘Mr Yorkshire’ had thrown in his prediction…Ben Mounsey and Victoria Wilkinson. GULP! I froze. I immediately stopped what I was doing and began to try and soak up the hot coffee that I’d just spilt on my best work trousers. All I could think of was ‘Oh S**T! I might actually have to win this race now’.

Dave’s always been someone for whom I’ve had great respect and admiration. As one half of the Yorkshire fell running management he is the man to impress if I want to earn a vest at the inter-counties this year. So as far as I was concerned when he tipped me as the race winner, then the time for cheap talk was over. I simply had to deliver the goods – no excuses.

‘I WANTED TO WIN ON ATHLETIC ABILITY AND MERIT. PROVE THAT I WAS THE STRONGEST ON THE DAY’

It’s easy for people to predict a championship race winner based on current form but in reality it’s not as simple as that. There are far too many other external factors other than form to consider – the weather, conditions, terrain, competitors, navigation and just how you feel on the day. You also need a huge amount of luck on your side. In short everything has to go your way, it’s certainly not a case of just turning up and winning – but I guess that’s what makes these races so unpredictable and exciting.

So when race day finally arrived I’m not afraid to admit that I was nervous. Don’t get me wrong – I was confident in my ability. I’ve certainly put in the necessary miles and climbing that’s required, but I was VERY worried about the thick fog that was covering the entire route. I can navigate, but not at pace, and certainly not as well some of the other top orienteers who were lined up alongside me at the start. Unlike the conditions it was perfectly clear that navigation and route choice would play a major part in deciding the fortunes of all 499 runners competing.

image_fullPictured above: The start of the Black Combe Fell Race 2016 (Photo credit to Pete Tayler BCR)

10401186_10153447762543671_7244002237652467099_nPictured above: The start of Black Combe Race 2016 from behind (Photo credit to Rupert Bonington)

Tactics – should I hold back and play it safe? Stick with someone good at orienteering? Probably the best and most sensible idea. But me being me wanted to win on athletic ability and merit. I wanted to go toe-to-toe with the fell running heavyweights and show that I was the strongest on the day. So I went out hard and I attacked the first climb. I was there to prove a point and I wanted to make my intentions clear from the start. I chose my line to the summit and stuck to it. I felt good. In fact, I ran pretty much the whole of the ascent and emerged as the leader at the top.

1st Climb.jpg

IMG_3903Pictured above: The first steep climb to the summit of Sea Ness (Photo credit to Alex Hinchcliffe)

The climb from Sea Ness to Black Combe is very ‘runnable’ by fell racing standards. I sensed my moment to attack and picked up the pace. This was my kind of gradient – living in the South Pennines I’m no stranger to the runnable climbs. I wanted to see who might respond so I could get an early measure of the competition. I didn’t have to wait long – up stepped Sam Tosh. After a few minutes he cruised past and took the lead. I was happy to sit in and follow his charge but it wasn’t long before I was breathing hard. Had this been a boxing match I’d have been well and truly on the ropes and soaking up a few punishing body blows. Except it wasn’t. This was ‘The Battle of Black Combe’ and not ‘The Rumble in the Jungle’ and unlike Ali, I didn’t have any ropes to lean against to help me deal with the pain. Needless to say I was looking forward to reaching the top of the climb.

As we approached the summit I took a moment to glance over my shoulder and was shocked to see we’d both opened up a sizeable lead over the rest of the field – there was no one else in sight. We quickly passed the crowd of supporters at Black Combe and descended back into the mist and headed towards the next checkpoint. We had a quick chat about the line we were taking as I felt we were dropping too far to the right. I was worried about losing too much height and ultimately getting lost (good job I’d done a recce!). We corrected our line but when we emerged back on the main path we’d lost the lead.

Black Combe to White Combe                                       

Pictured above: The line I took from Black Combe to White Combe in red – GPS data (mistakes highlighted by arrows).

Although we rejoined the race in 4th and 5th I wasn’t too disappointed. My prayers to the God of Nav had been answered and Lady Luck was smiling down upon me. Rhys Findlay-Robinson and Kris Jones (both Dark Peak) had now assumed control of the race. My tactics immediately changed. I wasn’t taking any chances on this tricky section and as Kris actually had his map and compass in hand I was confident that their navigation skills were good enough to trust. Sam made a different choice and he ran with Steve Hebblethwaite of Keswick, who was in 3rd place. I sat in between Rhys and Kris and just assumed that we’d dropped the pair of them. However, after analysing the splits (post-race) it turns out that they had somehow taken the lead and were the first runners to dib at White Combe! So when we arrived it was a big surprise to learn that we were only the second group through to checkpoint 3. The map above suggests that they most likely passed us where we lost the main path a couple of times (black arrows).

‘WE KNEW THEN, AT THAT EXACT MOMENT, THAT THIS RACE WAS OURS TO LOSE

Now if anyone reading this is familiar with the tactics of road cycling then you’ll understand how a breakaway works. I was now in one, and we all knew exactly what was at stake. Rhys took the perfect line to the next checkpoint (Fodder Rack) and although we didn’t know it at the time, this proved to be the pivotal moment in the race. Somehow Sam and Steve had taken a bad line and gave us back the lead. We took full advantage of their mistake and sprinted towards the final ‘killer’ climb. We knew then, at that exact moment, that this race was ours to lose. Despite running for different clubs and competing against each other, we rallied as a team, urging ourselves on to push hard for a top 3 finish. This was our chance and we weren’t about to blow it.

In my own mind I knew that this was where I needed to make my move. I was unaware of what was going on behind me in the race, yet well aware that if I didn’t work hard enough on the final climb then I might get caught by the likes of Rob Jebb. I was also worried about Rhys – he is after all one of the best climbers in the country so I couldn’t risk letting him pass me on the ascent. So I just went for it. I grafted like my life depended on it and as I looked back I could see the gap widening with every effort. I reminded myself that this is the reason why I’ve climbed over 100,000ft so far this year. This was the moment I’d been training for and I was determined to win this race on my athletic ability.

‘I WAS RELYING ON MY PLAN ‘B’ – PLAN BUCHAN’

I thought I could hear a noise in the distance but it was nothing more than a faint whisper in the wind. Perhaps I was imagining things? To be fair my mind was working overtime and I was struggling to keep my cool. I knew that the only thing that would stop me from winning now was getting lost – which believe me was still a very likely scenario! I wasn’t imagining things…I heard it again but this time much louder. Someone, somewhere in the distance was ringing a bell so I continued to head towards it.

I’ve never been so excited and relieved to see Mike Fanning in my life. As a teacher, the noise of someone ringing a school bell usually fills me with dread but today it was music to my ears. I’d made it! Just the descent to worry about now…

I was relying on my Plan ‘B’ – ‘Plan Buchan’. My good friend Helen (Buchan) was waiting nervously for me at the summit and pointed me in the right direction, the rest was up to me. I was running the ‘safe’ option which was certainly not the fastest way down to the finish (see picture below). I didn’t really care about how quickly I got down, I only cared about being the first to the bottom. There was no way at this stage of the race was I about to risk getting lost!

Descent                                         

Pictured above: The final descent from Black Combe. The quicker ‘racing’ line (black arrow) and my ‘safe’ line (red arrows)

The feeling of relief when I hit the main path was palpable. I just hoped that I’d put enough time into Rhys on the climb because I knew for sure that he’d be taking the racing line. I wasn’t wrong. Less than a minute later he appeared from nowhere, out of the mist. That was my cue to run as hard and fast as I could. I was not losing this now. I didn’t look back. It was the most nerve-wracking descent that I’ve ever experienced in my life. I fell a couple of times near the finish and at one point I nearly took the path back up to the summit of Sea Ness. I can only think the pressure and realisation of winning my first English Championship race had turned my brain to complete mush.

‘I’VE BEEN WAITING 12 YEARS TO WIN A RACE IN THIS COMPETITION’

As I entered the final field I can’t describe the feeling of winning at the end – it was unreal. It was everything I dreamt it would be. Those that witnessed my reaction to the victory knew exactly what it meant to me.

981198_1149904525053631_1419435140041429200_oPictured above: Tired, cold and wet…but VERY VERY happy at the finish (Photo credit to Pete Tayler BCR)

I’ve been waiting 12 years to win a race in this competition and there have been times when I thought I’d never see the day. I was reminded in this moment of all the hours I’ve trained, all the times when I’ve punished myself during tough hill sessions and all the sacrifices I’ve had to make to get myself in peak physical condition. It also made me appreciate just how good the top fell runners are. Here I am writing about my elation of winning ONE championship race when the likes of Rob Hope, Rob Jebb, Ian Holmes and Simon Bailey have won countless races between them. It’s the very reason they are the legends of the sport.

image_full-1.jpgPictured above: Record breaker Victoria Wilkinson storming towards the finish (Photo credit to Pete Tayler BCR)

I shared a moment at the end with Victoria Wilkinson, who only seconds earlier had won the women’s race. She knew what this result meant to me and I was just as happy for her too. In fact, she actually deserves even higher praise as not only did she win but she smashed the record in extremely poor conditions – what an athlete! She’d run the entire route on her own and perfectly navigated her way through the mist without the help of anyone which is an unbelievable achievement in itself. Special mention also needs to go to my good friend Kirsty Hall who finished 20th in the women’s race and 4th Vet 40. 12 months ago, following a serious injury, she couldn’t even walk without crutches so it’s fantastic to see her back competing with the best in the country.

Pictured above: The official race route (L), my GPS map from Strava and the GPS data of all Black Combe runners on Strava (R)

When I’d finally managed to calm myself down I switched my attention to the team results and waited patiently for a sea of red and white vests to arrive. I waited a few minutes…..then I waited some more. Daz Kay was the next man home but after 10 minutes I given up hope on the rest of them. I hadn’t realised just how utterly ‘Smithied’ some people were! In fact, many were so lost that Steve Smithies had somehow managed to navigate his way round and beat them to the finish. It was a comedy of errors and the map (above right) highlights some of the most remarkable and funniest lines that runners had taken. It’s probably a great opportunity for some people to read this fantastic blog written by one of my friends about tips for navigation in races. I’ll certainly be taking note for future reference.

I was pretty chuffed that I’d not been one of those navigational casualties for a change. The recce I’d done a few weeks earlier had definitely helped but ultimately I had Rhys and Kris to thank for getting me across the most challenging section of the course. It was obvious that I’d ridden my luck at times during the race but I also knew I’d earned this win on my climbing ability. Despite many of the big names getting lost in the mist I’d like to think that I’d still have been the victor on a clear day. If you don’t believe me then check out the race splits below and you’ll see where this race was won and lost.

Results / Splits / Strava

‘FINALLY – THE BIG QUESTION…DO I THINK I CAN WIN THE ENGLISH CHAMPIONSHIP?’

There’s still a long way to go – it’s only the start of the season. Despite getting terribly lost my money is on The Great White Hope (Rob Hope) or Simon Bailey. Tom Addison is my other favourite too as he finished 5th and that result puts him in a great position with 5 races still to go. All three men have the pedigree and the quality to go the distance. Expect Sam Tosh to win a race this season too. He’s in outstanding form and was very unlucky not to claim a top 3 finish at Black Combe and potentially even the win. Like Tom, he’s a fell running legend in the making.

Finally – The big question…do I think I can win the English Championship?

Honestly? I think it’s unlikely. Before this race I’d not even planned on completing the whole series. Black Combe was always on my radar but I’ve other major goals this season that will still take priority. The Snowdon International is my big aim for the year, as are the European and World Mountain Running Championships. However, after today I might just decide to change my plans to include another 3 counters. It would be a real shame after this result to just throw in the towel and not give it a go.

Whatever happens – expect fireworks. This is the most exciting and open fell running season for years. A chance for the young guns of fell running to try and shoot down the old masters. Could this be a changing of the guard? Only time will tell. Predicting a winner is going to be difficult. However, one thing is for certain, if I do decide to compete for the title then rest assured I’ll give it 110% and I won’t rest on my laurels. I’ll make the necessary sacrifices and I’ll live by my code…..

‘TRAIN HARD, RACE HARDER & DARE TO DREAM

This fell running performance was brought to you in association with hard work, an obsession and sheer determination. Special thanks to Strava, Trooper LaneInov-8Mountain Fuel and Back To Fitness Physiotherapy for all their help and support in making it happen.

How to become a Mountain Lion in 10 ‘easy’ steps

I was recently asked to write an inspiring and encouraging newsletter article for my beloved Stainland Lions Running Club. It seemed a bit of a shame to only share it with my teammates so I’ve decided to publish it here on my site.

Now before you read this I should state that I am not a qualified coach, a nutritionalist or indeed a running expert. I’m just a guy who likes to run. All views are entirely my own and I can only draw upon my own knowledge and experience as a practising athlete.

So here goes…

Mountain Lion

I’ve been fortunate enough to enjoy a very successful running career so far and everything I’ve achieved is the result of hard work and dedication. It’s important for everyone reading this to understand that I am not even the most talented athlete in my club. I just work harder than anyone else I know and hard work always beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard. If you don’t believe me then check out my Strava stats and you’ll see the true cost of what it takes to run at the highest level.

www.strava.com/athletes/901539

Now I know what most of you are all thinking…how can I ever run at elite level? Well the truth is that most of you won’t – despite the fact that you are probably more than capable enough. This article is not about trying to turn everyone into an international mountain runner. It’s about making you realise your potential, set yourself a personal target/s and try to help you to improve your performance. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a front runner or someone at the back of the pack – everyone is capable of achieving their goal/s. In addition to this I want to promote the sport of fell/mountain running for anyone unfamiliar to off-road running.

You’ll also have to forgive the title of this article as unfortunately nothing worth achieving in life is ‘easy’, especially within sport. That said there are some things you can do to improve that are easier than others.

So here are my top tips…

Marginal gains

This is perhaps the most important piece of advice I can offer to anyone. Understand that if you make a number of small changes in your life then collectively they will have a huge impact on your performance. The other 9 tips I’m about to share with you are all examples of how to make these marginal gains.

Hills.png

Hills. The very word is enough to frighten most runners. Don’t be afraid – hills can be your friend. The more you do the easier they get. Hills are a staple diet for any wannabe fell or mountain runner but even those who prefer the road or track can enjoy their benefits. If you incorporate a weekly hill session into your training then you will see a huge difference in your performance. I’ve never been a natural climber but I’ve turned climbing into my secret weapon by regularly doing hill sessions and slowly increasing the difficulty and speed at which I do them. It’s also good to vary the incline and terrain so that your body learns how to adapt to the changes in ascent. Remember that no hill is ever the same.

Start by choosing a hill to practise on. If you are a real beginner then you don’t have to run the full length of the climb. Set yourself a target and try to improve the distance each time you do it. You could also try a pyramid session using lamp posts as markers. I used to regularly run up and down Coldswell Hill in Stainland, starting at the bottom and running up to the first lamp post and back, then to the second and back and so on and so forth…Then when you eventually ‘top off’ and reach the final rep, work your way back down to the first until you’ve completed the pyramid.

For anyone who fancies a more difficult challenge you might also want to consider repping an incline like Trooper Lane. There are a number of segments on Strava to aim for and you can compare your performance over a number of weeks.

If you live in Calderdale then why not run over to Trooper and have a crack at these segments…

The 1 / 3 Peaks / High 5 / Magnificent 7 / Ben 10

Strava

Arguably my best tip. Strava has literally changed my life. Please be aware that it does come with a serious health warning as it can be very addictive. However if you do decide to succumb to the dark side and immerse yourself in ‘segments’, ‘badges’ and ‘Kudos’ you will undoubtably reap the rewards.

Ben Mounsey x inov-129

Equipment

I’m no expert on road shoes but I do know my mountain gear. Having the right shoes for training and competition is the easiest improvement that anyone can make.

In my opinion the best fell/trail/xc shoes for racing are the inov-8 x-talon 190

inov8_x-talon190

They’re the lightest fell racing shoes on the market and they provide both excellent grip and fit. I use precision fit because I have very long and narrow feet – if you don’t then make sure you order standard fit and go for the 200 model.

x-talon 200.jpg

For training I wear the inov-8 x-talon 212

212

They’re a very durable shoe and good over all terrains. Mine are also a precision fit shoe so go for the standard alternative if your feet aren’t like mine.

212 standard.jpg

My other golden recommendation has to be to BUY MERINO for base layers. It’s as simple as that. Merino will keep you super warm in the winter even when it’s wet – there is no better alternative.

If you want to splash the cash my personal favourite is the inov-8 hooded long sleeved race elite merino base layer.

Merino.png

It is quite simply the best top I’ve ever worn for running.

That said Aldi have been selling a really great selection of merino baselayers and I’ve tried those too. They’re not quite the same beautiful fit as inov-8 but at £15 you can’t go wrong!

Core strength

All the best runners have a super strong core. It’s what drives everything during exercise and is essential when you’re climbing the hills. If you improve your core strength then you will improve your technique and ultimately your results. I spend at least 30 minutes everyday on core exercises either in the gym or at home. If you’re pushed for time like me then opt for the latter. I try to do 200 sit ups, 100 press ups, timed planks and various exercises with resistance bands everyday after a run and before I jump in the shower. Start small and build up the amount – trust me after a few weeks you’ll be able to wash your running kit on your stomach 😉

Ben Mounsey x inov-48

fell race

If you never experienced a fell race before then you don’t know what you’re missing out on. Granted, it’s not everyone’s cup of tea but don’t knock it until you’ve tried it. Have a read of my inov-8 blog about how I ‘fell’ in love with running if you need a little inspiration…

Here are my top 5 recommendations for reasonably LOCAL fell races during March…

(see the Fellrunner site for more details and other races)

  1. Sunday 6/3/2016 Ian Roberts Memorial (6.4 miles/853ft climb) @ 11:00am
  2. Saturday 12/3/2016 Haworth Hobble (31.7miles/4396ft climb) @ 8:00am
  3. Sunday 20/3/2016 Heptonstall (15.4 miles/3169ft climb) @ 10.30am
  4. Saturday 26/3/2016 Rivington Pike (3.2 miles/699ft climb) @ 15:00pm
  5. Tuesday 29/3/2016 Bunny Run 1 (3 miles/328ft climb) @ 19:00pm

Body

It’s a fairly obvious point to make but if you look after yourself and respect your body you’ll be able to run faster, run for longer and become much stronger. Eat well, sleep well and try not to over indulge on the booze (cutting down on alcohol is massively important!). Also if you’re someone who struggles to get a good night’s sleep then go and do one of my Trooper Lane hill sessions and I guarantee you’ll be out for the count until the morning. In fact make sure you set 2 alarms or there’s a danger you might not wake up until the afternoon.

In terms of diet the best piece of advice I can give you is to eat like a king in the morning. My usual breakfast consists of a power smoothie, a pack of smoked salmon and a strong coffee. I use a Nutribullet to make my smoothie and include a banana, strawberries, blueberries, mango, natural yoghurt, porridge, chia seeds, milk and a scoop of protein. It’s the perfect way to start the day! Plus you won’t need to eat until dinnertime unless you’re like me! Snack on nuts, seeds and fruit and try to stay away from the chocolate drawer.

Over the last 12 months I’ve managed to lose a stone and it’s the main reason I’m able to compete at such a high level. Power to weight ratio is crucial in fell/mountain running and if you can lose weight and maintain or increase your power output then you will see a huge improvement in your results.

Also little tip for getting motivated to run after work is to have a double espresso and a small banana about 20 mins before a run. It’ll give you enough energy and drive to get out in whatever the weather!

Inspiration

I find inspiration by looking at what other people are doing in their training and their race results. In addition to this I use Strava as a motivational tool e.g. segments and challenges. I also read plenty of books about inspirational stories, usually about running and cycling.

My personal recommendations are…

  1. Ultramarathon Man: Confessions of an All-Night Runner by Dean Karnazes
  2. Running Hot by Lisa Tamati
  3. Feet in the Clouds by Richard Askwith
  4. Born to Run by Chris McDougall
  5. The Secret Race by Daniel Coyle & Tyler Hamilton (this one is just a great read!)

My fell running heroes are Ian Holmes, Rob Hope, Rob Jebb and Karl Gray. I’ve previously blogged about how friendly and approachable the elite athletes of fell running are. I consider myself very lucky to be able to call these four men my friends, especially Karl and Rob Hope. I’ve learnt a tremendous amount from them all over the years and my advice for you is to try and do the same. Next time you’re at a fell race don’t be afraid to chat to the guys who finish at the front. Not only are they exceptionally talented athletes but they are also extremely modest and humble people. Ask away, they’ll be more than happy to share their tips, especially if you buy them a pint in the pub afterwards!

 

Enjoy it

There’s no point in doing anything in life that you don’t enjoy. The same applies to running. I have to confess that despite being a good runner I don’t always feel fast or great when I’m training. In fact 40% of the time it’s a real struggle and I have to try and motivate myself, especially when the weather is poor outside. It’s all about having a positive mindset and I always enjoy running once I leave the house.

Run with friends, meet other like-minded people and always do it with a smile on your face. The more you run, the fitter you’ll get and the better you’ll feel. When you start seeing all your hard work paying off then you’ll enjoy every run you do and you’ll even start to love hill reps (OK I lied about this bit – there’s probably only me who actually enjoys running uphill, but it does get easier!)

DARE TO DREAM

Don’t ever let anyone tell you that you can’t do something. Don’t ever let yourself believe you can’t do something either. Anything is possible and if you want something badly enough then you can achieve it.

In the space of 18 months I’ve gone from a top club runner to one of the best mountain runners in the country. There were lots of people who didn’t believe I’d make it to international level but I never doubted it for a moment. Last year I made the GB mountain running team by 8 seconds.

8 SECONDS.

The sum of marginal gains.

It was worth every sacrifice I’ve had to make and every hour I’ve put into training. You can all be whoever you want to be and achieve your goals no matter what.

Life is short.

Don’t waste any opportunities or have any regrets.

Dare to dream.

Now stop reading this article, lace up your trainers and I’ll see you on Trooper Lane.

‘Better call Phil!’

HOW IMPORTANT IS A RACE RECCE? 

Fell running is becoming an increasingly popular sport. These days the racing calendar is so heavily saturated you could race a couple of times a week if you wanted to or even twice in the same day like my hardy friend Darren Fishwick of Chorley AC. However, it’s almost impossible to find the time to practise every single race that you intend to do. So just how important is a recce?

This year I’ve had to think very carefully about choosing which races I want focus on, everything else has to fit in and become preparation for these key events. My first major goal is to try and prepare for Black Combe, the opening race of the British Fell Championship. I’ve competed on this course once before in 2008, the last time it was a Championship fixture. Unfortunately for me I don’t have any fond memories of that miserable experience.

Results: Black Combe Fell Race 2008

Many of you reading this will be very unsurprised to hear that I didn’t have time to recce the course beforehand, so I turned up blind on race day and relied on the rest of the field to show me the way. The only ‘small’ problem that I had with this plan was the bad weather. Black Combe is located on the edge of the west coast so there is very little protection from the wind and rain. In addition to this the heavy fog clouded our vision and as soon as we climbed up to the first summit it was impossible to see much for the rest of the race. My plan of following the leaders soon came to a swift and very abrupt end when I lost sight of the person in front of me. I wandered aimlessly trying to find my way to the final checkpoint and trudged into the home straight several minutes down on my expected time. I finished way down in 47th position with many of the other big names in fell running, most notably Morgan Donnelly and Ben Abdelnoor. It was certainly one of those days to forget. Still it could’ve been worse- by all accounts Steve Smithies ran most of the fell race on the main road, much to my amusement!

‘BETTER CALL PHIL!

This year I’m desperate not to repeat the same mistake as I did in 2008. I would simply have to make more effort to recce the course.

So what to do in my hour of need?

Only one thing for it I thought…better call Phil!

Better Call Phil

Within the fell running community Phil Winskill barely requires an introduction. He’s the life and soul of every post-race party, the undisputed king of social media and head of online banter. His daily running diary on Strava is what inspired me to start writing my blog so it seems only fair to honour him in this post. We’ve been good friends for many years and it’s a highlight of every fell race or away weekend when we get to meet up. Whenever I require some navigation help, a laugh or a beer then Phil’s the man to ring. So naturally when I needed to spend some time getting familiar with the Black Combe race route he was the obvious choice to show me the way. It was nothing to do with the fact that I’d exhausted all the other fell running contacts in my phonebook or because everyone else I know was actually working midweek. Luckily for me we’re both teachers and we’d agreed to find a few hours on a Friday (Feb half term) in between marking and planning outstanding lessons for the following week 😉

Pictured above: Classic Winskill taking fell racing seriously in Grizedale Forest (left) and looking good in the Latrigg Fell Race (right) www.granddayoutphotography.co.uk

I woke up that Friday morning with a smile. The weather had been stunning the previous day and I was praying for similar conditions. Plus heading up to the Lakes instead of going to work always fills me with excitement. I’d agreed to meet Phil close to the race start at Silecroft and he’d also managed to persuade a couple more runners to join us – Borrowdale’s Martin Mikkelsen-Barron and Keswick’s latest signing James Appleton. I’ve been friends with Martin for years and we’ve battled against each other many times on the fells. He’s a great bloke and without doubt one of the best climbers in the country (It probably helps weighing less than 10 stone!). I’d never met James before and at first I did wonder what he was letting himself in for when he set off through the mud in a pair of Hoka road shoes. However any doubts about his experience and ability were quickly put to rest once I watched him skip effortlessly up the first climb. It also turns out he’s quite a famous photographer and unbelievably one of my students had recently written about him as part of their coursework – weird!

‘ANYONE WHO GOES OFF TOO HARD AT THE START OF THE RACE WILL INEVITABLY PAY A HEAVY PRICE FOR THEIR EARLIER EFFORT’

It was on this initial ascent that we paused to discuss route choice. Was it quicker to climb steeply to the top of Sea Ness or traverse around on a longer but more runnable path to the summit? Martin and I decided to test our climbing legs and head straight up as Phil and James opted for the latter. We jogged slowly, chatting on the way and emerged as the first pair to the top. Phil assured me that his route was still quicker as he’d stopped for a leak on the way up. It doesn’t matter anyway as I know which way I’ll be going on race day – no doubt following Martin’s footsteps on the steep ascent. One good reason so far for making the long journey up to Cumbria.

From here we climbed steadily to the summit of Black Combe. It’s difficult to appreciate the elevation gain as this section of the race is extremely fast. There is a real temptation to push hard at this point but I have a vague memory of the punishing climb in the last few miles from the Stream Junction to the South Summit. Anyone who goes off too hard at the start of the race will inevitably pay a heavy price for their earlier effort. Mental note to self – don’t be that guy! (fully aware that I’m probably gonna be that guy!).

It wasn’t long before we disappeared into a thick layer of mist and the weather quickly began to deteriorate. The glorious sunshine from the day before was all but a distant memory – I was regretting not checking the weather forecast in advance! The nice enjoyable part of the recce had drawn to a close and I was very grateful for the fact that I was wearing 2 pairs of gloves and 3 layers! – merino, softshell and waterproof. If anything I was probably too warm in my choice of attire but it was comforting to listen to the other lads whimpering about being too cold halfway round the route.

FogPictured above: The ‘stunning view’ from the top of Black Combe. If you look closely you can see the coast of Ireland 😉

At this point we were using Phil’s handheld GPS to guide us to the next checkpoint but he was already very confident about getting to White Combe. It’s a good job really as the rest of us didn’t have a clue in which direction we were suppose to be heading. This section of the race is almost featureless and there are many paths and trods that can lead you astray. It’s very easy to go wrong and it brought back painful and frustrating memories of 2008.

Eventually we dropped to the stream junction, probably not the easiest or quickest way, but we got there in the end. Just the evil climb up to the south summit to contend with. I dropped a cheeky gel on the approach to try and give me some extra energy to beast Phil on the climb. He caught me red handed but it was too late by then, he knew the score. We hit the ascent and quickly settled into a steady rhythm/slow shuffle. It’s important to pace your effort on this climb as it’s notoriously long and steep. This is where the race will undoubtably be won OR lost. I’ve been really concentrating on improving my climbing ability this year and I was keen to test my legs. My Trooper Lane hill sessions have obviously been doing the job as I managed to run every section of the ascent. I’m not convinced that this will be the case on race day but I felt really strong so it’s given me a big confidence boost. Annoyingly it appears Martin is also climbing well (not that this was ever in doubt) and we chatted most of the way up. James was equally as impressive – it must be all the training he does carrying expensive photography equipment to the top of mountains!

When we eventually reached the summit we didn’t hang about, the weather was atrocious. I was almost tempted to lend Phil my spare pair of gloves but I was enjoying the feeling of warm hands far too much. We descended at pace, all except James who was of course wearing road shoes. He did explain later that he’s nursing an injury and the extra ‘bounce’ in the sole helps to ease the pain.

A SURE SIGN THAT IT WAS DEFINITELY TIME FOR A PINT’

By the time we reach our cars it was raining hard and we were all completely soaked to the bone. I unlocked the car door and quickly jumped onto the back seat to get changed into some warm clothes. 10 minutes later and I found myself in a rather embarrassing predicament. I’d borrowed my mum’s car for the drive up and didn’t realise she had a child lock on both of the back doors. Thankfully Martin was kind enough to let me out (after laughing for a few minutes) so it’s a good job I wasn’t on my own or I might have still been there. A sure sign that it was definitely time for a pint!

Strava: https://www.strava.com/activities/497194149

SO WHAT DID I LEARN FROM TODAY

  1. In terms of the route it looked exactly like it did in 2008. Had it not been for Phil’s navigation and handheld GPS I’d probably still be running around on top of Black Combe like a headless chicken. I’m no more confident about the navigation except for the steep climb to Sea Ness.
  2. I managed to run all of the climbs so I know I’m in great shape.
  3. Always check the weather forecast before a recce.
  4. If you borrow your mum’s car, always take off the child lock.
  5. Martin weighs less than me.
  6. Martin is still a better climber than me.
  7. James is one amazing photographer www.jamesappleton.co.uk
  8. The Miners Arms in Silecroft doesn’t open till 3pm on a Friday
  9. The inov-8 X-talon 190 are miles better than Hoka road shoes for fell running ;-)(especially downhill!).
  10. A recce is best shared with friends and washed down with a well earned pint.
  11. But most importantly what I really learned is that everyone needs a bit of Winskill in their life.

Phil2