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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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.

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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.

‘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