I wasn’t sure what, if anything, to expect from The North Face in terms of new trail friendly product given the news that they would no longer be the headline sponsor for UTMB. However, having now had a peek at the new The North Face Spring Summer range 2015, it appears that it’s full steam ahead, with, dare I say it, some sexy looking product!
What’s more, my UK size 8 feet, also happened to be the right size to fit into a pair of the pre-production Ultra MT trail shoes which The North Face kindly supplied me with. I’ve been testing those out for the last couple of weeks now. More on that below.
Unfortunately, both the Men’s Storm Stow Jacket and Better Than Naked Long Haul Short were only available in size M and, even with recent weight loss and the best of intentions, there was little hope of shoe-horning my XL frame into those garments. But hey, can’t win them all!
The TNF Ultra MT – A First Look
I really liked the The North Face Ultra Guide, running a 33 mile ultra in them after just a couple of test runs, and continued to use them until the soles started to wear through. (TNF Ultra Guide review)
As such, I was really looking forward to the prospect of getting to test out the new TNF Ultra MT.
I have to say that the brochure just doesn’t do them justice. Again, I find myself resorting to use of the word ‘sexy’. Unboxing the TNF Ultra MT for the first time, I was impressed with the striking orange and black colour-scheme and the overall aesthetics of the shoe, and then there’s ‘that’ sole – the ‘gnarly’ new Vibram® Megagrip outsole.
Unlike the Ultra Guide, there’s no way the Ultra MT is ever going to be described as ‘retro’. There was also something else that struck me about the shoe and, it would appear, I was not alone…
“The Ultra MT is the most technical trail shoe yet from The North Face. (And, yes, it was modelled off the Salomon Speedcross 3.) With a knobby array of sticky rubber Vibram outsole lugs and a water resistant upper, this shoe is built to run on gnarly terrain in the worst weather. 18mm/10mm heel-toe offset.”
Aesthetically and functionally, the latest offering from The North Face certainly invites comparisons with some of the offerings from Salomon, but then, considering the reputation and range that Salomon offer, this must surely be a good thing.
I’m going to leave a full review until I have had long enough to really test out the Ultra MT but first impressions are positive. I will say that I found the toebox on my right foot (my fractionally larger foot) slightly tight, and they are most definitely less roomy than the Ultra Guide. However, once running, this wasn’t something that I noticed. It will be interesting to see if that impacts at all on longer runs.
The fit is most likely a result of the new bodymapping layer system on the upper, intended to enhance support and, from initial tests, the shoes certainly are responsive.
My inaugural run in the Ultra MT was in the Quarrelwoods on the outskirts of Elgin, an often muddy, potentially technical trail at the best of times. On the day in question I was caught in a snow storm as well so it really was a baptism of fire as far as the Ultra MTs were concerned but they performed well as I charged around one of my favourite forest destinations.
Watch this space for a full review of the Ultra MT in due course.
More daylight during summer means running longer, which is why you should be prepared if the weather changes. This ultralight jacket is fully waterproof and windproof, but also packs incredibly small, so you can keep it on hand for any emergency. When the trail takes you further, there is no better protection to carry with you.
Men’s Better Than Naked Long Haul Short
Stay comfortable on longer runs with a wider comfort-fit waistband, stitch-free design on critical seams, and maximum storage capacity for big days.
No matter what terrain you’re on, the Ultra MT will keep you running along the toughest trails. Thanks to the new Vibram® Megagrip outsole, unrivalled traction will keep you close to the ground. You’ll also have the benefit of enhanced upper support as well as breathable Ultra Airmesh over the quarter. The innovation continues underfoot, where precise stability and protection ensures a better performance with every step.
Upper: A bodymapping layer system on the upper enhances support on the medial side, protecting the toe area
Bottom: 8mm drop between heel and forefoot ensures control on uneven surfaces and supports midfoot striking when needed / Overlasted midsole increases stability of the upper/bottom connection / ESS in the forefoot secures an impact distribution on the forefoot / Vibram Megagrip full length trail specific outsole.
Men’s Sizes: Approx weight pair: 580g (based on men’s 9)
Womens’s Sizes: Approx weight pair: 480g (based on women’s 7)
Ultra Tales reader Jonathan Mackintosh interviews Jez Bragg.
There can be few ultramarathoners who have not heard of The North Face athlete Jez Bragg. Jez’s long list of achievements include winning the 2010 Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc, wins and course records at events such as the Fellsman, Highland Fling, and West Highland Way Race, to name but a few, and a 3rd place at the 2009 Western States race amidst a strong international field of runners. Most recently, Jez completed the 3054km Te Araroa trail, having run and kayaked the length of New Zealand, from the tip of the North Island, to the tip of the South Island, in a time of 53 days, 9 hours and 1 minute.
Do you consider your completion of the Te Araroa trail to be your biggest achievement to date, or is there another running achievement that you rank above this accomplishment?
Jez: I think it has to be, but all these long runs present their challenges in different ways, and are hard to compare. Yes, the distance is epic, but the pace is a lot slower. In New Zealand the problem wasn’t so much the distance, but the unpredictable terrain and constant unknowns from one section to the next. Te Araroa drew upon every conceivable skill I possess, both as a runner and an adventurer.
Ultra Tales reader Dan Park asks “During the 3054km what was the highest and lowest moment (excluding the finish)”
Jez: The high point was undoubtedly paddling into Ship Cove in the Queen Charlotte Sound; the start of the trail on the South Island – having successfully completed a crossing of the Cook Strait immediately after finishing the North Island run. There was a huge dose of luck involved in having a weather window at the right time. But then part of me also thinks you create your own luck.
The low point was being stopped in my tracks for three days near Lake Emily on the South Island due to food poisoning. I lay in bed in the camper van for three days watching the clock tick by and wondering if I would ever regain the necessary strength to continue. The real frustration was that in hindsight I would easily have broken my 50 day target for the expedition had I not been forced to stop and then rebuild daily distance gradually.
Running up to 60 miles a day, was it a welcome relief when it came to the kayaking elements?
Jez: Definitely; there never really seemed to be enough kayaking for my liking. The kayak crossings were rather sporadic with the majority on the North Island; really just a means of crossing the natural water breaks in the trail, but they were official parts of the route. Spending a day and half paddling 120km down the Whanganui River was epic, as was the 9 hour crossing of the Cook Strait. Having said that, running all day comes a lot more naturally to me than paddling all day, so comparing the two I found the running much easier.
Did you ever doubt yourself and, if so, how did you overcome it?
Jez: No, I didn’t ever question my ability to complete the run. I did however feel anxious and nervous about it, both before and during, really because of all the unknowns involved. I think that’s natural and healthy; the body’s way of staving off any complacency. It would be easy to get the two feelings mixed up. I wanted to complete the Te Araroa journey so, so much, and to have that mental drive was essential to the expedition’s success. Where the mind leads the body follows.
Would you ever consider running the Te Araroa trail again in a bid to beat your time?
Jez: No way. The exploration aspect is where the mental drive comes from with something like this, and that has gone now I have successfully completed the journey. If I ever decided to run another long trail then it would have to be a completely different one to ensure that combination of excitement, interest and unknown were there to provide the mental drive required.
Did you learn anything about yourself on your journey?
Jez: Oh where to start. It would be impossible to put into words everything I learned about myself through the whole experience. On the physical side, I learned how resilient and responsive the human body can be when it is asked to do something so extreme. The mental side is harder to explain. As a whole the trail strengthened me as a person and my ability to push through the ‘lows’ that come and go so frequently on a journey like this.
The ability to walk/hike fast is an invaluable skill for an ultra runner. Do you have any training tips specific to this skill and can you give any idea of the breakdown between running and fast hiking on your Te Araroa expedition?
Jez: Practice, practice, practice. Lots and lots. Fast walking is a skill in itself; the trick is to be efficient in tackling whatever’s in front of you. The mistake people often make when transitioning from say marathon running to ultra running is trying to run every step of the way. Walk breaks become important, particularly if the hills are steep and frequent. When you head out the door the best approach is to focus on ‘time on your feet’ rather than pace, speed or distance.
I would say the split between running and walking on Te Araroa was around 60/40.
What kind of calorie intake did you have for the duration of the challenge?
Jez: Three substantial meals a day, plus snacks every couple of hours. I was eating a lot of very fatty foods in response to cravings from my body. I guess that’s natural and to be expected, given what was being asked of it. My strategy was to eat normal, wholesome, food rather than special energy products such as sports drinks and gels. It wasn’t particularly scientific, but it seemed to work anyway. It was a thoroughly ‘British’ approach; good, wholesome, food!
After 53 days of running such long distances, did you find it difficult to adjust to normal life?
Jez: The problem wasn’t so much adjusting to daily life, but physically repairing my body. I think the run itself took a certain amount out of me, but then the illness took it to a whole new level. You know the feeling you get when trying to return to work after a bad D&V bug? Empty, tired, energy less etc. It was like that but ten times worse, and then I had the added complication of trying to run all day again. The physical repair process took over six months – to get my speed back to a comparable level to before the expedition. I’m still working on it, but it’s definitely there or thereabouts now.
When it comes to racing, your preferred race strategy appears to be one of ‘settling in’ before then progressing through the ranks and you appear quite happy to start off further back in the pack. What are the perceived benefits of such a strategy?
Jez: From my experience the best way to find the ‘magic’ ultra running gears is to be patient, and start steadily. Even pacing, or ideally running negative splits, is the ideal approach to achieve this. By ‘magic’ gears I mean when you settle into a strong pace that feels effortless and like you can go on forever. It does happen; it is possible. That’s how the really special ultra running performances are achieved. The bottom line is that it’s very individual and it’s a case of finding out what works best for you.
This approach appeared to work well for you at UTMB this year. Have there been any times when it has backfired spectacularly?
Jez: I didn’t really have much choice about my approach to UTMB this year because I was still on the mend after the expedition. I was reasonably fit, but really not at full fitness. But I knew my mental strength from the expedition would be an asset over the full course of the race, and it was a case of being patient and maintaining a consistent pace.
I can’t think of a single instance of it back-firing as such, because it’s not like I set off at a really slow pace, giving myself too much to do. I don’t ever finish a race with anything left in the tank.
What’s your all-time favourite item of kit?
Jez: I have a Hammerhead rucksack by The North Face which is around 12 years old now, but is still going strong despite taking a regular pounding. I am sure it still has plenty of years left in it; I certainly have no plans to part with it!
What piece of kit is working well for you currently?
Jez: I’m a big fan of the Feather Lite Storm Blocker waterproof jacket and trousers by The North Face. They are incredibly lightweight but still offer a superb level of protection with fully taped seams, hood, visor etc. In New Zealand I was keen to stay fast and light but still needed to carry waterproofs in my day pack in case the weather turned, so the minimal weight was a huge advantage.
One of the perks of being a The North Face athlete must be your involvement in the development of new kit. Is there anything exciting that you have been involved in testing recently that you can share with us?
Jez: The North Face FL Race Vest is the running pack I wore in New Zealand and is due in the shops in a couple of months time. The pack was developed in conjunction with the athlete team over a period of a year or so and really is a great solution to the classic comfort issue of running with a pack. I’ve been using a prototype for the last year or two which has now covered around 4,000miles and is still going strong. The design is very much about you ‘wearing’ the pack, as opposed to it being strapped to you, making it incredibly comfortable.
Where is the most amazing place that you have run?
Jez: New Zealand was spectacular and so unbelievably wild. But my favourite place of all remains the Scottish Highlands. I grab every opportunity I can to get up to Scotland and I love nothing more than getting out and bagging some Munros on a clear day. I am trying to work my way round all the Munros but still have over half left to go. It’s likely to be a long term project.
The North Face website (http://uk.thenorthface.com/blog/eu/en/jez-bragg) lists your best ever run as the 2006 West Highland Way Race. “I have run much faster and stronger since, but for pure enjoyment it tops them all.” Is this still the case and why did you find this particular race so enjoyable?
Jez: My record breaking run of 2006 was completely unplanned so that’s the reason it felt so special at the time. My preparation was fairly poor, and I just set off with the goal of completing the route/ race, rather than make a record attempt. My only time goal was to reach Tyndrum by 9.30am (8.5hours), which I did almost to the minute, and then I just pushed on from there. With no pressure going into the race, and the excitement of running the full route for the first time, I was excited and motivated, and the run just felt natural and unforced. A very nice feeling!
Do you have any plans to return to the West Highland Way race in the near future to try and reclaim the course record?
Jez: Yes, definitely, one year. Unfortunately the race clashes with Western States, and I still have unfinished business at Western States, so that remains my priority. I believe sub-15hours is possible on the course, particularly with little improvements to the trail here and there, so I would like to have another crack at some point.
Have you ever considered permanently relocating so that you are closer to a preferred running destination?
Jez: We’ve definitely considered it, but for various reasons decided it wouldn’t be the best move for us. The excitement enjoyed from making trips to our favourite places would go if we lived there permanently, and wherever you live, it’s always nice to explore new and different areas. We’re based on the south coast in Dorset where there are plenty of great hills and some beautiful undulating countryside to explore right on our doorstep. There is also a really competitive local road running scene which is great for working on speed and leg turnover, attributes that are easy to lose sight of as an ultra runner.
There’s a 24 hour event, the Glenmore 24, that is run on a 4 mile loop in the forests of Glenmore, just outside of Aviemore. Would you consider running a trail race that uses a loop or is your preference for A to B style events?
Jez: I do much prefer single loop or point-to-point races where there’s a journey with a ‘purpose’ to enjoy, but I will definitely run a 24 hour race some day which I suspect will be on a short loop. When I do so I would prefer a fast and flat course because the appeal for me is seeing how far I can physically run in 24 hours with the terrain completely neutral i.e. flat. I’m still trying to get my head round the concept of a 24 hour race, but I’m getting there.
Your last minute decision to run the rescheduled 2010 UTMB race, including cadging a lift from iRunFar’s Bryon Powell having missed the athlete’s bus, is well documented. You went on to win the race on a course that was shortened due to atrocious weather conditions. At the end of the day, you won the race that was run. Does the negative attitude of some people towards your win ever get to you?
Jez: Not at all. It’s true there wasn’t a full field out and the course was shortened, but you can only beat the runners who are on the start line on any given day, and that’s what I did. I personally don’t count it as a ‘full’ UTMB victory because of the compromised course, but it was still a nice win to take.
In footage of you just after winning UTMB you look emotional and deeply contemplative. Can you recall what was going through your mind?
Jez: It had been a very difficult year after I suffered a nasty stress fracture of my calcaneus (heal bone) in early spring, and it was my first come back race after the injury. I feared the injury would have a significant impact on my career, and mentally was hard to get over through worrying about re-occurrence. The overriding feeling was relief and surprise because it’s a scenario I really didn’t expect to happen.
You placed well (11th) at the 2013 UTMB. Were you happy with the result given the problems experienced with UTMBs in the past couple of years?
Jez: It was never going to be easy returning to competitive racing after what I put myself through in New Zealand. The mental and physical recovery process was extremely tough, and whilst I trained hard for UTMB over the summer, I didn’t feel like I achieved a full level of fitness because of the ongoing long-term recovery process from the expedition. My previous couple of UTMB attempts have been unfortunate, and I know I can run the full course well, so I was pleased to get a solid, if unspectacular, run in on the full course. There’s more still to come at UTMB, for sure…
If there was one race that you could go back and run again, which one would it be and why? What would you do differently?
Jez: Western States 2011 when I came 4th. I was leading the race at mile 60 and running alongside Killian who went on to win, and the elusive race win really was on a plate, but unusually I didn’t have a strong finish that year. The heat catches you up very quickly at States, and my pace for the last 20 miles was atrocious. It was a golden opportunity to win the race, I just hope another similar opportunity presents itself this year.
Ultra Tales reader Dan Park asks “What would you consider the most essential elements to your training and what does an average week of running look like?”
Jez: Consistency is key – getting the mileage and sessions in week on week. Easy days will be two runs of say 7 and 10 miles. I will try and fit two specific sessions in; one interval session (marathon based) and a tempo run of 10 miles or so. I will try to fit in a medium run of day 20 miles mid week, and a longer one at the weekends of say 30 or 35 miles. I try to hit around 110miles a week when I’m building towards a race.
You’ve experienced intestinal issues in the past when racing. What kind of diet do you now follow and has this remedied the problem?
Jez: I suffer from a lifelong stomach illness that I have to manage. Ironically it was the reason I first started running, through my determination to not let it impact my life, and to give my body the best possibly chance of staying healthy. Over the past year or so I’ve switched to a gluten free diet which seems to help in keeping it settled and in check. The bonus is that it’s a positive step to make from a performance nutrition of view anyway. Many top athletes follow a gluten free diet and there are many known benefits.
Silence Vs. Music Vs. Podcasts – what’s your preference when out running? What songs and podcasts, if any, do you listen to while training?
Jez: Silence usually, particularly if I’m running somewhere new and interesting. I also like to listen to and enjoy my surroundings which is all part of the experience when running off road. But perhaps if I’m out on my usual training routes from home and there isn’t quite so much interest in the route then I will listen to my iPod on shuffle, or maybe a podcast.
Do you have a particular ‘go to’ motivational tune for training?
Jez: Not really. I don’t tend to have a problem with motivation, and if I’m running hard then I won’t bother with music because there’s too much going on!
You’ve claimed in the past that your navigation skills are pretty good. Have they ever let you down and, if so, what’s the worst situation you’ve ever found yourself in in terms of being lost?
Jez: Amazingly I only had one navigation nightmare in New Zealand when I ended up getting ‘bush whacked’ in a dense forest – effectively getting disorientated – and I ended up heading back down the trail the wrong way! The density of the forests over there makes it easy to do, particularly when you spend days on end moving through the same forest and it all looks the same. The meandering trail would often be blocked by fallen trees, and such diversions make it easy to lose the markers, then you spot one, but perhaps going the wrong way, but it all looks the same…
But across more normal terrain I’m generally pretty good. Everyone makes mistakes, for me it usually just comes through a lack of concentration. What really helps is that I love maps, and I love plotting new routes to explore new areas. In my mind the best thing about what I do is the opportunity to cover big distances to explore new places, on foot, within minimal intrusion, and the amazing sense of experience it brings.
Have you ever lost your running mojo and, if so, how did you regain it?
Jez: Not yet. I love it. I’ve had my fair share injuries over the past couple of years, and I think it’s easy to get dis-heartened during those periods, particularly when the injuries become protracted and it’s hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel. But injuries and setbacks usually fuel the hunger more, and I come back even more determined and motivated than ever.
Do you have one special running moment that stands out in your mind?
Jez: My dad was unfortunately only around for the first part of my running career, and I really wish he had been able to witness more of my successes. However he was there for the finish of my first win in 2004 at the Marathon of Britain (175miles/ 6 days), and I treasure that memory dearly.
Of all the runs you have completed, which one means the most to you?
Jez: That’s tough. For sheer level of difficulty it has to be Te Araroa, with the Cook Strait included. The idea of including the Cook Strait crossing in the Te Araroa route was so far fetched that I found it hard to bring myself to explain the idea to people beforehand.
Do you have a ‘go to’ place when times are tough, a point of reference in your life that makes you think ‘I can do this’
Jez: I have plenty since Te Araroa! There were sections immediately after my illness which I still don’t know how I summoned the energy to complete. The sense of ‘emptiness’ was unreal, and the only thing that really carried me through was the fact I done most of the hard work already, and the platform was too good to throw away. I had to finish.
Ultra Tales reader John Goodson asks “What keeps you going when you hit your lowest point and brings you back to carry on?”
Jez: It’s very simple; mental hunger. If you want something enough – whether it’s a race victory, a summit or the end point of a long distance trail – the mind will drag the body through.
Do you ever get emotional when running?
Jez: I do, yes. Running is a time to reflect and contemplate, and those acts invariably bring emotions with them. Also, I always think that long distance running strips you down to reveal your core emotions, so that’s another reason they come out.
What drives you?
Jez: I’m driven to be the best I possibly can be at whatever I do, and I feel fortunate to have found something I’m good at, and in applying that philosophy I can be successful at races and long distance challenges.
What do you think about the current state of ultramarathon running in the UK.
Jez: We’re doing well. There are a lot of top British ultra distance runners competing and being successful at the highest level around the world, so it’s an exciting time to be part of the sport. The sport definitely has profile now and is attracting more and more runners, which is great for future development. It would be great to see the international (representative) ultra running scene develop further so there is greater incentive for the top runners to compete in the championship events.
Given the speed events are now selling out, are you concerned that ultramarathon running in the UK may become too popular?
Jez: The sport is developing at an incredibly fast pace but I don’t necessarily think it’s a bad thing. Trail races will always be constrained by the numbers the trails can sensibly withstand, and race organizers don’t seem to be pushing numbers too hard. They set a cap and stick to it. I guess the number of races will continue to grow to meet demand. There are some strong values amongst races, competitors and the community as a whole, and all we want is for those to be firmly retained. Despite the growth in the sport, there is no change in the type of person who tends to take on the challenge of ultra running; people who thrive in adversity, live life to the full and are full of positivity. I have made so many great friends through the sport and it definitely has a special feel to it.
Can you ever see yourself as a Race Director?
Jez: I’d love to setup a race one day and I have every intention of doing so. I’d love to give something meaningful back to the sport. My wife and I have talked about it already but we’ve decided we’ve got enough on our plate for now whilst we’re still competing. But watch this space!
Was there an interview, article or moment that made you sit back and think, ‘wow, I’ve made it’?
Jez: It’s definitely not about ‘making it’ and being completely honest that thought hasn’t ever crossed my mind. I appreciate and accept that being successful brings attention and I’m totally comfortable with that, but I still see myself as a pretty average guy who just works hard in training to be successful in races. I see myself as lucky to have found a sport which I’m good at, and rewards those who put the effort in.
Who inspires you?
Jez: Those who train the hardest to achieve ultimate success. The Brownlee brothers, Mo Farah, Paula Radcliffe etc. The majority of the population have no idea the dedication involved in achieving what they have.
Best running advice you ever received?
Jez: Run with your heart.
And the worst?
Jez: Go out hard and try to hold on. In my opinion it’s a really bad idea in ultras. Of course it’s very different in shorter races.
Are there any races still on your bucket list?
Jez: Spartathlon, UTMF, Marathon des Sables, Hardrock. And plenty more.
What’s the most challenging terrain that you have encountered while running?
Jez: Some of the rough sections of Te Araroa were just ridiculous. Tussocks three feet high, cactus plants with spikes as sharp as a knife, and generally very precipitous train conditions out in the remote areas.
Ultra Tales reader Chris Edmonds asks “How come I never see him running around the Purbecks?”
Jez: Not out early enough? :o) I’m over there very regularly.
Do you have, and are you able to share, any plans for 2014 and beyond?
Jez: My 2014 race calendar is based around the Ultra Trail World Tour: Hong Kong 100, Transgrancanaria, The Fellsman, Western States 100, UTMB. I’ll also run the local road races in Dorset as part of the league.
Paul Ali, Ultra Tales editor asks “It appears you took part in the GUCR in 2005. Any plans to take part in some of the classic British Ultra’s or the new wave of 100 milers in the UK in the near future?”
Jez: I would love to run more UK races, but I also want to be competing against some of the best runners in the world on the international circuit, so the latter remains my focus. I do still throw in the odd UK race – The Fellsman is still on of my favourites and always works well in preparation for Western States. I would love to have a proper crack at the Lakeland 100 but the timing is never great.
Any more multi-day long distance runs/Fastest Known Times planned?
Jez: I do, but plans are under wraps for the moment. I would love to run another ‘long trail’ like Te Araroa, but it will have to wait a good few years because I am now prioritizing getting back into racing. I would also love to have a crack at some of the UK long distance challenges. It’s hard to know what to focus on really, but racing internationally has to be a focus while I still have the ‘speed’.
Big race or solo run – Which do you prefer?
Jez: Solo run.
There has been a spate of autobiographies and films by, and including, ultra runners recently. Can we expect a book and/or film from yourself at any point in the near future?
Jez: I promised I would write a book about Te Araroa, and then I started getting very busy with work, and before you know a full year has passed. I will put pen to paper at some point, but it may be more of a career overview rather than specific to the expedition. We’ll have to see. There is a film in the pipeline about Te Araroa – due to be released middle of 2014. Watch this space.
Do you have any advice for those just starting out in ultra marathon running and also any advice for those looking to improve?
Focus on time on your feet rather than distance, speed or splits.
Think carefully about your nutrition because if you don’t get it right, you won’t be running much further.
Enjoy the journey – plan an interesting route.
What does the support of The North face mean to you?
Jez: The North Face has whole heartedly supported my ultra running career for around five years now, creating the opportunities to compete at the best races around the world, for which I am extremely grateful. To be working with such a leading, forward thinking, brand is a great honour, and provides even more motivation to get out there and compete strongly. I have also met a loads of great friends through both the company and the athlete team, so has been a real life changer in many respects.
The North Face Isotherm ½ Zip Shirt arrived with me just in time for the drop in temperatures that heralded the end of a brilliant summer and, since that point, it has been in constant rotation, having been worn not just for running but for anything and everything from hiking and biking to general everyday use.
When it comes to the worst of the Autumn/Winter weather, most notably the snow and rain, the Isotherm will be paired up with a breathable waterproof layer to add that additional element of protection. At the time of writing I haven’t yet had the opportunity to test the Isotherm in extreme cold but, from the forecast, it would appear that I will not have to wait too long to be able to do this!
The Isotherm ½ Zip Shirt comes in Nautical Blue/Estate Blue or TNF Black/Asphalt Grey colour combinations.
The Isotherm offers a really comfortable fit, neither overly large nor overly tight. My standard XL size provided the perfect fit and it was as comfortable sitting at a desk as it was out on the trail. The only potential issue would be with regard to the sleeves which, with their built in mitt protection, are slightly longer than standard sleeves. However, the mitt element can easily be folded up into the sleeve.
As you would expect from The North Face, the quality of the garment is excellent, well constructed with neatly stitched seams and good attention to detail. Despite repeated washes over the short time that I have had the Isotherm, it shows no sign of degradation at all.
The Isotherm uses proprietary fabrics developed by North Face, including FlashDry™, which incorporates microporous particles to improve moisture management and temperature regulation during outdoor activity. FlashDry™, used across a wide number of products in The North Face range, accelerates the removal of moisture from the skin, enabling the user to stay drier and more comfortable for longer. FlashDry™ is permanently embedded in the yarn and won’t wash out.
The Isotherm ½ Zip is part of The North Face’s Flight Series running collection, athlete tested and competition proven, and, as such, you have high expectations for the garment.
The Isotherm consists of a wind resistant core which blocks the wind and helps to retain heat, with a wool blend on the sleeves and FlashDry™ paneling for ventilation on the sides of the garment, down the back, and under the arms.
The built in sleeve mitts can be folded up inside the sleeve or simply rolled up around the wrists when not in use. However, chances are you are going to want to make use of the hand protection afforded by these, especially in the chillier temperatures. They are no substitute for gloves in really cold temperatures but are certainly useful on those days when gloves would be overkill and result in overly hot hands.
The double zip used in the ½ zip neck is one area where the attention to detail is evident. I actually overlooked this feature at first, not appreciating just how useful the double zip could be. It facilitates optimum control over ventilation, enabling full coverage when zipped up, ample ventilation when zipped down, or a combination approach if the bottom zip is used. Zipping up from the bottom permits easy ventilation of the chest area without the need to leave the neck flapping around, a useful feature for those days when the winter sun heats you up.
The neck of the garment has a cover to prevent the zip from rubbing against your skin.
There’s a useful zipped chest pocket that’s perfect for holding a key or a lightweight MP3 player.
360 degree reflectivity is provided as a result of reflective logos and use of reflective trims, with the traditional The North Face logo on the front, and a Flight Series logo on the rear of the garment.
I was initially quite surprised at the combination of materials on the Isotherm. The shiny core seemed at odds with the wool blend sleeves and FlashDry™ paneling. However, having tested the Isotherm in a variety of scenarios, I can see how well the separate elements work to provide the perfect conditions for running.
The Isotherm ½ Zip Shirt certainly ticks all the boxes if you are looking for a top that offers wind resistance, temperature regulation, breathability and comfort. It’s the quality product that you would expect to come from The North Face and the combination of a wind resistant core and FlashDry™ paneling results in a garment that doesn’t leave you chilling in your own sweat. The double zip and built in mitts are useful additions to the garment, adding to the overall functionality. Definitely a garment worthy of consideration if you are looking for something to see you through the colder months.
The North Face FL Race Vest has been in development for a number of years now and has been seen on the backs of The North Face athletes such as Jez Bragg and Sebastien Chaigneau throughout the development process.
I have yet to see the vest in anything other than photos but Ian Corless provides an excellent overview of the vest over on his web site, describing it as sitting “between the inov-8 Race Ultra and Salomon S-Lab products”. Sounds like a great product that has found its own niche.
Ultra runner extraordinaire Jez Bragg will be appearing at the Kendal Mountain Festival on Friday 15th November where he will give a talk on his recent Te Araroa journey.
“In February of this year ultra runner Jez Bragg successfully completed a unique end to end traverse of the whole of New Zealand – in just 53 days. The North Face athlete completed a 3,000km+ route down the Te Araroa trail which runs from Cape Reigna at the top of the North Island, to Bluff at the bottom of the South Island. It was largely a foot-based trail running adventure, but also thrown in were a series of water crossings which Jez tackled by sea kayak, including the notorious Cook Strait, a feat which alludes many specialist kayakers.
Jez battled extreme fatigue, wild and rough terrain, numerous river crossings as well as a three day lay-up due to a stomach virus. In his talk Jez will provide a unique insight into his epic journey, illustrated by a series of incredible video clips and photos. It’s an inspiring story of endurance and determination, set against the backdrop of one of the world’s most beautiful countries.”
Jez is sponsored by The North Face
The Kendal Mountain Festival runs from 14th-17th November 2013
The North Face ultra-running team is a veritable who’s who of endurance running, including Jez Bragg, Sébastien Chaigneau, Lizzy Hawker, Tsuyoshi Kaburaki, Dean Karnazes, Nikki Kimball, Hal Koerner, Kami Semick, Diane Van Deren, Michael Wardian, Mike Wolfe and, as of January 2013, man of the moment Timothy Olson, who again won the Western States 100 (15:17:27), his second consecutive Western States 100 win and even more impressive when you consider that he won in temperatures of around 102F/28.9C!
Given the aforementioned roster of athletes, the huge foothold that The North Face has in the outdoor clothing and accessories market, and their continued support of high profile events like UTMB, UTMF and the San Fran 50 (to name a few), you don’t actually see that many pairs of The North Face running shoes on the start line of events. However, given the latest TNF product, this may all be about to change.
Despite The North Face accounting for around 50% of the gear in my wardrobe, I have to admit that this was my first pair of TNF running shoes. I doubt, however, that it will be my last.
I’ve been fortunate to review some excellent shoes of late and The North Face Ultra Guide easily falls into this category. The Ultra Guide can best be described as a luxurious, well cushioned running shoe, with ample room in a toebox that has been constructed to accommodate potential feet swell, making them perfect of ultramarathons and other endurance events.
After just a couple of 10 mile runs to break the shoes in, I put them to the test in a 33 mile event on a wet and miserable day. Despite the inclement weather, I finished blister free and with my feet in good condition, all the more surprising given the lack of training in the build up to the event thanks to a new addition to the family!
Considering the weight of the shoe (544 g for a pair of mens size 9), they pack a considerable amount of cushioning. I had to laugh at the comment from the ultra168.com review of The North Face Ultra Guide:
“I immediately felt the huge amount of cushioning North Face have crammed into this shoe. If I was blindfolded I would have sworn I was in a pair of Hoka’s. The expected rocky feel under foot was totally lacking, all I had to remind me I was on trail was the slight roll I felt when I got a little out of shape on loose rocks at speed.” (ultra168.com)
The cushioning certainly makes for a comfortable run and provides more than adequate protection from the terrain underfoot. What’s more, you never actually feel like you are being artificially ‘sprung’. Instead, I can only describe it as a feeling of comfort.
“For comfort and support on the trail, lace up The North Face® Men’s Ultra Guide off-road running shoe. This hard-working, hard-wearing shoe is built to give athletes the sturdy protection they require on tough runs and races. Incorporates abrasion-resistant mesh uppers and Snake Plate™ technology to protect the forefoot. Tenacious™ Grip rubber outsoles deliver a sticky grip on slick or uneven terrain. Support comes from the advanced Cradle Guide™ system that cushions the forefoot on impact and promotes natural movement from stride to stride, plus Northotic footbed and metatarsal fit systems. Engineered in a lightweight, streamlined package that belies its sturdy construction, The North Face® Men’s Ultra Guide shoe keeps athletes moving on the trail.”
The Ultra Guide handle the crossover from road to trail well, providing a perfect shoe for multi terrain events, as was the case with my 33 mile ultra, and/or for those of us who need to pound the pavement before reaching the confines of the forest. The well spaced, multi-directional lugs provide excellent grip which would best be described as ‘aggressive’, allowing the shoe to deal with rocky, rooty terrain with ease, and yet they are not as protruding as to be obvious once back on tarmac.
Aesthetically, the shoe has been described as having a ‘retro’ feel by some reviewers. I would certainly agree that the red colour scheme that I was testing had a fairly traditional look to it but, if anything, this is the kind of look that I have come to expect from TNF product. The blue/yellow colour scheme does have a slighty more modern look to it.
Despite throwing everything at the shoe over the past few months, the robust uppers look as fresh as the day they left the box. The sole is finally showing signs of wear around the gel box area in the heel but, certainly at this point, this appears to be cosmetic more than anything.
The Ultra Guides are staying firmly in my running shoe rotation. Having tested them in all conditions, I have yet to find a situation where they do not perform.
I will be really surprised if this year’s offerings don’t do something to increase the number of ultra runners wearing TNF running shoes and, from the sneak peak of what’s to come in 2014, as revealed at the 2013 Outdoor Retailer trade show that took place recently in Salt Lake City, Utah, The North Face are continuing their efforts to further increase their presence in this growing market.
On show were:
‘The North Face Ultra Trail’, a lightweight, flexible trail runner with 8mm heel-toe offset, a full-length, low profile Vibram outsole, and a wider forefoot geometry to accommodate foot splay and swelling.
The North Face Ultra Smooth, a hybrid shoe built for running on roads and smooth trails, with 8mm heel-toe offset, and a combination Vibram/EVA outsole. Perfect for those of us who are not in a position to step straight on to the trail.
Expect to see a far greater presence from The North Face on a start line near you!
The North Face Ultra Guide, RRP £110.00
Cradle Guide: Midsole technology engineered to naturally absorb impact, stabilize the foot and promote a biomechanically correct stride to achieve the perfect balance of stability, cushioning and comfort.
“The patent-pending Snake Plate™ consists of a forefoot plate that winds back and forth between the medial and lateral sides of the foot. Because it is not one solid element, it is not as uncompromisingly rigid from side to side and front to back. The result is a forefoot plate that allows the foot to do what it is physiologically designed to do: flex, bend, and contort to changing terrain. At the same time, the Snake Plate™ delivers rigidity where and when it is still needed. The thickness, composition and size of the Snake Plate™ vary from style to style as appropriate. For example, a thicker, more rigid Snake Plate™ addresses the technical, ever-changing demands of a mountain run. A thinner, more flexible Snake Plate™ reconciles flexibility with a decreased demand for protection while on smoother dirt paths.”
“Tenacious ™ Grip: a high-abrasion sticky rubber designed for maximum off-trail traction, that will also withstand the rigors of rough off-trail surfaces.”
“A neutral design construction that allows a natural stride turnover, Unleashed Performance™ category footwear is geared toward the more mechanically sound runner.”
“The North Face Cradle Guide™ technology offers full Phase Impact Control, a system that guides the foot through all 3 stances of the gait cycle, impact, mid foot and Toe-off. This system is engineered to provide the perfect combination of cushioning, stability and protection for any foot on any terrain, letting the hiker or runner move swiftly and lightly over backcountry trails.”
When it comes to running, and especially running in Scotland and/or running at any altitude, a good waterproof jacket is essential. I knew this, and yet, given my experience with waterproof jackets, they were my least favourite item of running kit until fairly recently.
Why? I sweat. A lot!
As a larger runner, with the exertions of running, I tend to sweat fairly profusely and, up until the point when I first tried The North Face Triumph, my experiences with waterproof jackets were not overly successful. I tended to find that the majority of them were not overly breathable. The result – I ended up with sweat running down my body and arms, essentially as wet as I would have been had I not bothered with the jacket. (This doesn’t however, take into account the other benefits from an extra layer in adverse weather conditions.)
As a result of this, I would delay putting on a waterproof for as long as possible. Not exactly ideal!
Immediately before buying The North Face Triumph I tried another jacket, labelled as both lightweight and highly breathable. It was certainly lightweight, but breathable – Lets just say that, on the first test, I stopped to remove the jacket before reaching mile 1. I felt like I was about to pass out. The jacket was returned as ‘not fit for purpose’ and, fortunately for me, Cotswold Outdoors had The North Face Triumph jacket on special offer at £99.00. Bargain, and especially considering that Jez Brag himself had just that week recommended the jacket on Facebook to a running colleague.
That was back in May 2011, just before The Cateran Trail Ultramarathon, a 55 mile route which includes some 7450ft of ascent. Little did I realise at the time, The North Face Triumph was about to face a serious test. After an initially sunny start, the weather soon worsened and, by the time I hit the start of the final climb at around the 49 mile mark, runners were advised to layer up. The weather was treacherous and the route up to the highest point of the race, at An Lairig (53.5 miles, approx. 650 metres), was more of a river than a path! Rain was ‘falling’ horizontally and a cold wind battered the runners.
Fortunately for me, this is where The North Face Triumph ‘triumphed’!
The jacket was every bit as breathable as claimed and, further, blocked the wind superbly which had the added benefit of stopping me from cooling down as much as the wind chill factor out on the hill might otherwise have dictated. What’s more, I arrived at the finish line on the other side of the hill feeling pretty fresh considering the exertions of the last 6 miles, including some pretty nasty ascents and descents. I was not my usual sweaty self. The North Face Triumph had remained in my pack throughout the race until required, as a piece of essential kit but, given the lightweight nature of the jacket, had made no discernible difference to the weight of my pack. Further, once on, I actually enjoyed the levels of protection offered by the garment and in no way felt constrained or sweaty.
The North Face Triumph again came into its own at the 95 mile West Highland Way Race in 2012, run in what was described by many as apocalyptic weather conditions. I ran most of the race with the Triumph on and, as can be seen from the photo below, finally crossed the line in it upon arrival at the finish in Fort William. As at the Cateran Trail Ultramarathon, I had no issues with sweat and found the jacket retained its waterproof qualities despite the continual onslaught of the rain.
Whereas once I avoided adding a waterproof layer until absolutely necessary, it is now not uncommon for me to head out for a run in The North Face Triumph when it is too nippy to run in a t-shirt alone, regardless of the presence of rain or not. It has been used in everything from rain, snow and high winds to cooler spring runs. Despite this continual use, the jacket remains in great condition and has withstood the rubbing of straps from a variety of backpacks and waistpacks. A quick Google shows that I am not along in highly rating The North Face Triumph – there are any number of highly positive reviews online.
The only slight negative I could list would be with regard to the elasticated cuffs which are, admittedly, not to everyone’s tastes. I don’t actually mind the simplicity of the elasticated cuff and find that there are less chances of water getting in than with cuffs that are adjusted with a strap. However, on the rare occasions that I want to run with my sleeves rolled up, I have found the cuffs to be annoying. I have, over time, developed a ‘tucking in’ strategy that prevents the rolled up excess from flopping about so this is only a slight negative.
The North Face Triumph uses an ingenious two panel construction it eliminates unnecessary bulk with minimal stitching, resulting in greatly reduced weight and superior packability. With a fully adjustable hood, and a performance fit the Triumph Anorak is an ideally option for when you need to go fast and light, whilst maintaining a full waterproof outer jacket.
Waterproof, breathable, seam sealed
Revolutionary two-fabric panel construction
Magic Seam™ construction for improved weather protection, lighter weight, and increased comfort
“Lizzy Hawker had just finished running a nine-stage race through some of Nepal’s wildest trails when she learned that her flight back to Katmandu, about 200 miles away, was canceled because of bad weather. So, rather than wait for the next flight, she ran there.”
There’s an excellent article on Lizzy Hawker in the 16th April 2013 edition of the New York Times, well worth a read for a look at the ultra-running exploits of this amazing woman, 5 times winner of the UTMB, most recently with a lead of 45 minutes over the next woman.
It should come as no surprise to anyone who read my previous post, ‘D33 Or Bust‘, that Saturday 16th March, the day of the D33 ultramarathon, proved to be a tough day for me. Due to a number of factors explained in that previous post, training just hadn’t gone to plan and, as I approached the day of the D33, the first Scottish Ultra Marathon Series race of the year, I was filled with all kinds of concern regarding how the day was going to pan out. I even considered giving the race a miss but both Race Director George Reid and fellow runner Ian Minty offered some sound advice, telling me to turn up and do the best that I could. Looking back, I am glad that I listened to their advice. Not only did I finish the race, I wasn’t last and, as I found out at George’s pre-race briefing, I was one of only 14 ‘ever presents’, who have run each of the 4 D33 ultramarathons held.
This time last year I had run in excess of 400 miles with a number of long slow runs including back to back sessions, basically the ideal preparation for the 33 mile event. This year I had completed just over 1/4 of that, with no run longer than 11 miles, basically the worst possible preparation for pretty much any event other than, say, a half marathon!
I knew this was going to hurt, and it did!
The legs coped well up to the 11 mile mark, the distance I had become ‘comfortable’ with in training. However, by the time I reached the half way mark at 16.5 miles, just on the outskirts of Banchory, I could feel tightening throughout my legs and, by the 18 mile mark, I was running in pain. ‘Only’ 15 miles to go. I must have been visibly pained by the time I reached the 27 mile mark as a kind walker, out for a stroll on the Deeside Way, took pity on me and offered me some paracetamol which I gladly accepted. This eased the pain somewhat and left me to deal with the cramping that occurred whenever I changed pace (think 1st and 2nd gear only by this point!). I had forgotten just how long that last section felt but was glad to meet in with a number of other runners who were similarly toiling. I was not alone out there at least!
The first time I ran this race, back in 2010, I completed it in a time of 06:03:01. Each year I have chipped away at that time, completing in 05:58:56 and, in 2012, my event PB time of 05:36:10. This year I finally crossed the line in a time of 06:18:33, 214th out of 252 finishers. I’m not sure how many DNFs there were on the day but over 300 had actually signed up to the event.
The weather throughout the day was cold and wet, quite unlike the usual D33 warmer weather that accompanies the event. To be honest, that probably worked in my favour. There have been times in the past where I have toiled in the heat and, this year, that might just have been the straw that broke the camel’s back. As it was, I was layered up with my Helly Hansen Dry Revolution LS and my Montane Minimus waterproof, which kept me at just the right temperature throughout the day.
I did have one particularly ‘doh’ moment. Around the 20 mile mark the rain once again started to pour down with some force and I decided to put up the hood on my Montane Minimus. Without thinking, I unrolled the hood and threw it over my head, at which point, some 20 miles worth of accumulated rain water went straight down my back, soaking and chilling me in an instant. That’s certainly something that I hope never to repeat – beware of hoods! :o)
So it was tough, but I got there in the end – Now on to the positives.
As with every D33, it’s great to finally get the Scottish Ultra Marathon Series underway, even if I was ‘slightly’ unprepared this year. To be honest, the training hasn’t exactly had the opportunity to kick up a notch or two since that day so I think, this year, the challenge is definitely going to focus on completion of events rather than on racking up PBs.
It was also great to see so many familiar faces, and lots of new ones. This year the pre race chat for most people that I met up with was about my newly born son Harris. It was nice to have so many people asking after him. He did make an appearance at the end of the race with Leanne but, given the conditions and my slightly later than usual finish, we didn’t get the chance to introduce him to many of you. I am sure everyone will get a chance to meet him soon enough :o)
It was great to finish. That usually goes without saying but, this year, finishing was particularly important to me and I can quite honestly say that I am content with my time. I expected to take longer if truth be told. I was met by Race Director George Reid on the finish line and had to laugh as he pointed out “see what you can achieve without training”. Thanks George :o) As always, the D33 medal, produced by www.craftrocks.co.uk, was unique and completed a goodie bag that included, among other things, custom labelled Brewdog Beer.
Huge thanks to RD George, his assistant Karen and all of the marshals who gave up their time and stood about on a terribly cold and wet day.
While things didn’t exactly go to plan, I did complete the 33 miles of the route and, in doing so, logged a long slow run session towards my Highland Fling training. There’s not long now until the next of my SUMS events, the 53 mile Hoka Highland Fling on 27th April, and I am already looking forward to getting back on to the West Highland Way for the first time in ages.
I also made the most of the opportunity to test some new kit.
I wore the excellent new Salomon Advanced Skin S-Lab 12 Set 2013 Backpack for the first time and was delighted with the fit, performance and functionality of the vest pack. Is this the pack I have been searching for all this time? Review to follow shortly.
Given the varied terrain, including everything from concrete and forest trail to gloopy mud, combined with the lack of miles in my legs, I opted to wear The North Face Ultra Guide trainers on the day. I have mostly been wearing minimalist footwear of late but the additional cushioning of the Ultra Guide made for a comfortable race and helped me onwards to the finish on the day. As above, review to follow shortly.
So, lots of positives on an otherwise tough day but now it’s confession time.
I had many lows and highs on the 16th, fairly typical when running an ultramarathon. However, on this occasion, the lows far outweighed the highs. Certainly part of this was down to the lack of race fitness. However, the large part was guilt at leaving my new-born son for so long. By the time I reached the finish line, I had made up my mind to retire from running ultras, at least for the foreseeable future. And then I read a comment on my blog over at The Running Bug – “when he’s old enough you will be Harris’s hero when he sees you cross the finish line”. The comment made quite an impact. I would love to think that at some point the wee fella looked up to me, seeing me complete an ultramarathon, albeit far down the field and despite the huge effort required to get to that finish line.
A conversation with a relative in the days following the race concluded that “it’s who I am” and “it’s just what I do“. Right enough, without running a large part of my life would be missing. However, we did also discuss moderation. What’s to stop me dropping down to more manageable distances, at least for the foreseeable future? It’s certainly not something that I will discount. It has been ages since I did a 10k or a 1/2 marathon.
However, when I found myself booking a VW Campervan the other night for my support crew for this year’s 95 mile West Highland Way Race, I knew that my mind was made up, at least for now. So, the news of my ultra retiral is indeed premature!
That was ultramarathon number 16 completed – see you all at my next one, the Hoka Highland Fling.