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Fastpacking Guy

“He was mastered by the sheer surging of life, the tidal wave of being, the perfect joy of each separate muscle, joint, and sinew in that it was everything that was not death, that it was aglow and rampant, expressing itself in movement, flying exultantly under the stars.”

-Jack London, The Call of the Wild
"Run on For a Long Time" - Click the Photo

"Run on For a Long Time" - Click the Photo

Salomon Switch, London

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Following on from my previous post, the Salomon Switch event was a huge success and fun was had by all.

To recount quickly my stroke of fortune, my friend Matt severely hurt his leg.  Now I’m not going to say this made me happy because that would make me a bad friend, but he happens to have the same size feet as me and had won a place as one of the 70 people allowed to go to the Salomon Switch event which I had missed out on.  Read into that what you will.

After work, I made my way down to Wandsworth Road Station, which is an odd place to meet, but I guess that was the point.  They did say a random place in London.  I got the Northern line to Clapham North and had a short walk up to the meeting point, with views of Battersea power station looming on the horizon.

Not being sure of what to expect, I arrived at the meeting point at which there were about 20 people and a large Salomon banner, so had obviously found the right place.

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I arrived a little earlier than most

Approaching the group, I immediately recognised Tord Nilson, who I had cyber stalked, following him being kind enough to allow me to take Matt’s place.  I can’t help cyber stalking people.  I like to put a face to a name.  Anyway, Tord remembered and was very welcoming, getting me my Switch wristband and having me logged on the ipad list.

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Tord Nilson of Salomon

Everyone at the meet was extremely friendly, probably buoyed up by the fact that they were the chosen few from the thousands of people who had entered and also the promise of a brand spanking new pair of (free) Salomon X-Screams.

The most amusing thing I noticed was how it was a meet up of around 70 ultra enthusiastic runners, all wearing rubbish trainers.  Of course, the idea was to switch your trainers to give to charity in return for a pair of Salomons.  Mine were a pair of Nike Air Max 180s which I bought about 10 years ago on an impulse and hurt my feet so much I haven’t worn since or for some reason thrown away.  They were destined to go to a trainerless person in some far off land.  I hope the person has feet that aren’t shaped like mine.

I met a Swiss fella called Nicholas, who I was jealously admiring his new Ambit 3 (which almost everyone I looked at seemed to own).  We got along well and he was training for some interesting races in the Alps.  I was also a bit surprised as he was wearing On Cloudracers which are clearly too good to give away! (Or maybe I’m just tight).  It turned out he had a new pair and wanted to get rid of these anyway.

At 7pm, we had a pep talk from Matt Ward, of Salomon, and Richard Felton of Profeet; where the run was due to end.  

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Matt Ward of Salomon (left, grey shirt) and Richard Felton (right, grey shirt) of Profeet

I had a good chat with Matt when we made it to the bar at the end of the night and he was a thoroughly nice fella; he explained that much like me, he doesn’t ever really race but just runs for the fun of it which was nice to hear.  On the Salomon website, he describes himself as a soul runner, which I think is a great term to encapsulate this choice.  Richard was also a load of fun and had a great sense of humour.

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Matt Ward, of Salomon

Following the surprisingly non-salesy talk by Matt and Richard, which focussed on have a fun run and not racing, trying out the new footwear and just enjoying the evening and each other generally, we set off in two groups with the first set wearing the black Switch reflective strips and the second set in red.  I was in the first group led by Richard.

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We followed a very comfortable pace throughout of roughly 5:30 min/kph and headed off down the road and through a park.  Everyone was chatty and friendly on the run, probably buoyed up by the arrogance of feeling exclusive (70 people out of some 5,000 who entered in the first few minutes) and a new pair of shoes.

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At 2.4km in, we reached a bridge which had the Salomon trailer with our brand spanking new X-Screams waiting for us.  There were branded deck chairs with a complimentary water bottle waiting for us and the combination of the warm orange glow street lights gave off an oddly tropical beach vibe.  Mixed with the under-railway bridge grimy backstreet setting gave an amusing counterpoint.

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We were prompted to drop our old trainers in a bin for the European Recycling Company, a charity set up to ensure clothing and shoes are reused.  I’d hardly worn my Nike Airmax 180s because of blisters and they were 10 years old, so they went in the bin.

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Finally, the moment of reckoning had come.  My old trainers that Sammy had been hassling me to get rid of were gone, and I had my new, beautiful Salomons in my hands, in all of their garish, neon, half-trail/half-road glory.  Luminous yellow for boys, pink for girls (down with the neon patriarchy!).

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I was impressed with the fit.  I’d never owned a pair of Salomon before, but they were extremely comfortable and considerably lighter than they looked.  My review will follow up, however at this point, they felt good.  I was surprised to like the lacing system as much as I did; you just pull on the plastic lock and tuck it under the tongue.  Quick and easy.

As the red group were approaching the bridge, we set off again.  Everyone was very pleased with the new X Screams by all accounts, although we did look amusing running down the road in a group of about 35, all with matching neon yellow or pink trainers.

I spent part of the way running with a girl who worked for the Running Bug website who was very nice and most likely a much faster runner than I.  Her boyfriend was running in the group behind too, so they really lucked out with winning places, although I suspect she may have got a spot because of her job.

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An obscene amount of neon footwear

My only (small) quibble, but I was slightly disappointed in the route we took.  Although it covered some beautiful scenery (running along the south bank of the Thames and crossing Wandsworth Bridge), we didn’t really cover any trail.  I thought it would have been nice to run Battersea Park (the closest thing to trail in the area), as the X Screams are supposed to be both trail and road, but most of our run was road.  As I said, a minor quibble and it might have made the route out of the way for the purpose, but it would have been nice to test both surfaces.

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Our route, starting at Wandsworth Road station and finishing at Pro Feet

The run ended at the Profeet store, a little short of the 9k, at 7k.  I felt robbed!  I was enjoying running in my new shoes.  Still, it was a good chance to have a look around the shop and chat to the other runners.

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Arriving at Profeet

It was my first visit to Profeet and I was impressed.  The store specialises in orthotics and appear to have a very advanced and thorough level of service in this department.  They have a great range of shoes (even Hokas, which seem to be a rarity in the UK) and kit, but most importantly, the staff are extremely friendly and helpful.  They seemed to have a real family vibe going on which is always nice to see - the employees are obviously looked after.

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Following some fruit juice and fruit refreshements and a little thanks to Profeet and Salomon, we were directed over the road to the boozer, to replace carbs lost from the run, of course.

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The Durell Arms, Fulham

Very kindly, Salomon and Profeet had put on free beers and food at the pub opposite the shop and we all went there for our goodie bags and a good chat.

It was nice to meet all the runners who joined in and everyone was extremely friendly, more so with a few pints down them.  

The Salomon people gave a little speech and then everyone cracked on with the socialising.

Fun was had by all and it was the end to a great night.  Especially the ribs.  And the beer.

I said my farewells to the Profeet team; I imagine some wouldn’t look so jolly in the store the next day.  Good on them.

The lovely people at Profeet

Anyway, I’m massively grateful to both Salomon and Profeet for making this happen.  Next, I’ll be following up with a review of the X Screams.  I’ve done a fair bit of running in them in the last week so have plenty to say.

Tonight, I’ve been invited to the LED Lenser #epic event with Sophie & Charley Radcliffe (https://twitter.com/challengesophie), Leo Houlding (https://twitter.com/LeoHoulding) and James Adams (https://twitter.com/jamesradams) for a night of discussing ultra running, cycling, mountaineering and climbing adventures at a secret location.  Should be a load of fun - it’s my lucky week!  #winning

Salomon Switch

For those of you not already in the know, Salomon recently had a marketing campaign to promote their fantastic looking new X Scream running shoes.

The Salomon X Scream shoes are marketed as being ‘city trail’; a versatile shoe that works on roads as well as trails.  It’s a great idea for people who don’t want/can’t afford a quiver of shoes and I was massively keen to try them out.

Salomon Switch put the offer out to the general running public that if they applied to be part of the Switch event, then they would receive a free pair of X Screams (whilst giving away their old pair to charity) half way through a 8K run at a random location in London.  The first 100 people to apply at a set date and time on the website would be those chosen to run.  

As with anything in life, I wasn’t fast enough off the mark and lost out.  Ironically because I was a little slower than usual running home from work.  C’est la vie.

Fast forward to today, the 11th September, a day famed for bad things happening.  The day before my birthday and the birthday of Ann-Marie over at Going with the Zeitgeist.  Sammy, Lenora and I were supposed to be going to her birthday party in the evening, when I received a facebook message from my friend Matt.

He informed me that he had won the opportunity to be in the Salomon Switch event tonight (typical) but that he had torn a ligament in his knee or something equally not fun (yay!…I mean, absolutely terrible).  Fortunately, Matt has perfectly formed feet, meaning they happen to be a size 9 just like I am.  Winning.

Matt was kind enough to pass the torch to me, whilst the organiser was kind enough to let him.

I kind of wish I hadn’t done 10k of speedwork on the way to the office this morning, but then at least I had a good warm up today.  

Apparently there are going to be some Salomon sports personalities there this evening which is very exciting, I will get to have a fun run in a part of London I never even go to, I get a free pair of trainers, followed by free booze and food.  What’s not to like.

Maybe I’ll even make it to the birthday party after, although I’ll probably be very sweaty and smelly, so that might not be a good idea.

Anyway, I’m extremely excited and grateful for this opportunity.  More on this tomorrow!

Wish me luck.

On Cloudracer Review

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Following on from my cheapest barefoot running shoe trial and getting ankle injuries, it turned out that my blog post could have waited before doing a conclusive opinion.  I probably needed to do a slower transition, but I do like to jump into things feet first (bad pun intended).

I continued to run in my old New Balance trainers, which I have (probably unfairly slated) in the above post and in my Inov8 X-Talon 212 review with the use of zinc oxide tape, vaseline, gaffer tape and other scissor based modifications, although my heels still felt stiff every morning or if I sat down for too long.  Obviously I needed to get a new road running shoe.

As my birthday is approaching, I decided that my wife should get me some new trainers as a present.  Taking a walk to the Bank Sweatshop (which, by the way, is amazing and easily the best running store I’ve visited - I’ll cover this in another blog) with my colleague Kieren, I spoke to one of the very helpful staff there and explained that whenever I have gait analysis done, they always recommend me stability control shoes with loads of cushioning and a build to ‘correct’ my over pronation.  This invariably always ends in shin splints or injury for me.  

The fella in the store brought out about 5 pairs of shoes that matched the Inov8 X-Talons, all of which were roughly a 5-8mm drop; some fairly minimalist, others with more cushioning.  

The first pair I tried on were the On Clouds (as below), which immediately moulded to my feet and made the other four look like weak, injury inducing imitations.  Maybe a bit dramatic, but I like to make sure I buy the right shoes for me the first time around.image

The On Cloud

As I was wearing a suit and it was a hot day, I didn’t get to test them out on the treadmill, but we returned to the office where I asked for the advice of my peers on http://ultrarunningcommunity.com/ as I had never even heard of On as a make before seeing them in the Sweatshop store that day.

It turns out that they are quite big in the Triathlon scene and a lot of runners had started to notice them.  Without repeating something that is easily googleable (if that’s a word), On are a Swiss company that only started in 2010 and their shoes are already available in over 1200 running stores in 25 countries.  They’re obviously doing something right.  The branding is “cloud” themed (or #runonclouds) as initial testers said that the pods integral to the design felt like running on clouds.

Anyway, I digress.  After asking my peers on the Ultrarunning Community, it turns out as usual, that I was a bit slow off the mark.  Everyone seems to love them and not a bad word was said.  One of the community members offered to sell me a pair of the On Cloudracers, which I had seen but not tried on.  He said he had bought several pairs, but as he had too many trainers he would sell them to me for £65 unworn, which was a total bargain (down from £115 in Sweatshop).  It was an offer too good to be true.

A couple of days later when I was in the area in shorts and a t-shirt, I decided to try them on in Sweatshop and have a run on the treadmill.  I would never ever condone doing this with the intention of buying shoes somewhere else.  It’s both amoral and wrong.  I did it.

The shoes felt like gloves and were natural for me to run in.  While I was running, the fella who was serving me said “you’ll never guess what, but I’ve just seen that we’ve been told to change the prices of remaining stock to £58 as we’re just getting in the new edition which is lime green instead of orange”.  I decided to stick with the Cloudracer instead of the Clouds.

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The new lime green editions (although beautiful - I love lime green) are actually no different to the orange editions (I love the orange ones too), apart from the colour update. 

I felt bad, but the fella offering them to me from the UC site totally understood.  

Since then, I’ve ran to work and back each day for a couple of weeks (about 10k each way) and haven’t had a single problem.  These shoes are incredible.  I’m yet to test them on a long run, but seeing as I bought them specifically for running to work and back (as you know, I prefer to do my longer runs off road) the completely fit my criteria in every way.  Still, I’ll do a few longer runs and update the blog at a later date.

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#sexytime

The shoes themselves are an extremely lightweight at a mere 230g for a male size 8.5 (mine’s a 9 at about 260g I think) and the upper is a see through mesh that provides an insane amount of air flow for your feet.  If you’re like me, this is a good thing - they dry super fast from sweat or rain and help prevent blistering.

Looking at the sole, it’s clear that all of On’s shoes have a signiature design with their ‘Clouds’.  The Cloudracer features 18 low profile clouds for shock absorption which help keep the weight of the sole down, along with their patented ‘speedboard’ which provides a bit more protection and supposedly aids in the conversion of kinetic energy.  They have a 5mm drop which appears to be the sweet spot for me.

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#runningonclouds

I dislike talking about technology as I’m inherently sceptical about shoes that look like flash in the pan fads, but not only are the On Cloudracers beatifully designed, they also function perfectly for what they were designed to do.  On obviously have got something right, as countless atheletes agree with them on this shoe, including ‘Ironman World Champion Frederik Van Lierde, Olympic Gold Medalist Nicola Spirig, 5 world champions and more than 30 other elite athelites’ according to their site.  

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I can’t compliment these shoes enough and they fulfill all the criteria which I look for in a shoe.  The new iteration of the Cloudracer is the lovely green model, which I might get too.

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Anyway, buy them you won’t be disappointed.

Separately, to those nice people at On; if you’d like to send me a pair of any of your other shoes to test and review, I’d be more than happy to help!  I particularly like the look of the Clouds! (Nudge nudge, wink wink)

https://www.on-running.com/en-gb  

Fastpacking in the Brecon Beacons - Day Two

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Just in case I didn’t bore you enough with my account of day one, here we are with day two.  If you actually care about reading this, then I apologise for taking so long writing up day two.  I’ve been pretty busy since the trip and any spare minute (of which there were few) I’ve had, has been taken up trying to get out running.

The second leg of the journey aimed to bring us from the Blaen y Glyn waterfalls, around the SAS training route known as the Fan Dance (although carrying 8-10kg backpacks instead of an 18kg Bergen and a 5kg rifle) and then into Tallybont-on-Usk for a well earned pint.

After a night of torrential rain, we had a lie-in waiting for the rain to stop.  It eventually ended at about 9am and we decided to pack up the tents and tidy the area.  A welsh family who camped further down the river had kindly left their campsite covered with empty beer cans and broken deck chairs, so we tidied that up too.

The waterfall we swam in the night before was torrential, as was the tiny trickle of a river compared to the night before.  It was amazing to see the change in the tiny stream we had seen a few hours ago - the dried up river bed where we had our fire and dinner the night before had also reverted to being a river again.  We had been fascinated by the entirely dried up, boulder strewn Caerfanell River which we crossed the evening before, but we suspected this had returned to it’s former state too.

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After a quick carb heavy breakfast, we headed up the rather steep road towards the lower Neuadd Reservoir, rejoining the Beacon Way.  Although not totally in keeping with the spirit of fastpacking, we saw signs for a tea room and decided that we wouldn’t mention it on the blog.  The sign said 2 miles.

After what felt like 3 miles, we reached the 1 mile mark where we discovered a steam train we had completely missed on the map and had no idea it would be there.  It was an odd place to discover this fantastic piece of machinery and a nice surprise.

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Further down the road, there was still no sign of the tea rooms, but the scenery was stunning so we weren’t too bothered.  It was a nice change from the day before - following the rain through the night, a mist had risen over Tallybont Forest giving it a mystical quality that looked wonderful.  Obscuring the view in the distance, the mist made the area feel much more isolated and wild.

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We decided that the tea room was at the end of the rainbow.  It never got any closer.  Some leagues after the 1 mile to go sign, we encountered a ‘100m to tea room’ sign.  It felt like we were being led deeper into the forest by the locals for some nefarious purpose, as we could see more than 200m down the road and all we could see was trees.

After about 400m we came across the elusive tea rooms at 11am.  It was closed.

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We went around the back to the entrance to see if there were any opening hours.  It was a large barn conversion and looked very nice, however there were no details about opening times.  Just as we were deliberating whether to go or not, another family arrived and said it was due to open at 11.  The time was 11:10 by this point, so we decided to wait.

A few minutes later, a lady opened the door and apologised as she was delayed feeding the pussy (snigger) and let us in.  The place was stunning and a little surreal.  As we walked in, surrounded by Royal Daulton china-ware in all its floral glory neatly laid out on every table with Chopin’s Nocturne Opus 9 No.2 playing (I know I’m being pretentious, but I play the piano and had recently learnt this, making things even stranger), the scene couldn’t be more at odds with the grimy minimalist camping and running in rain, thunder and lightning of the previous 24 hours.

The Old Barn Tea Rooms doesn’t even mention the tea rooms on the website (linked) however it was certainly worth writing home about.  I know it’s disgusting, but we had a lot of mileage to cover until the evening eating nuts and berries, so we all had a full english with a cream tea for desert.  I battled with myself over whether I should be honest about this in the blog, but honest won over.  We got greedy.

After the great breakfast and fantastic company of the ladies who run this great little tea room, we headed off at mid day, a little later than we’d hoped.

Following the Beacons Way, we headed on to the (lower?) Neuadd Reservoir which we crossed the overflow barrier as it was pretty empty.

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Following the reservoir, we begun the climb up Graid Y Fan Ddu to the west to begin the horseshoe/fan dance route.  It was heavy going, but our legs were warmed up from the previous day, so although steep, seemed quite easy.

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Once up on the ridge, we were confronted by stunning views of the route for our day ahead, many miles of scenery which we wouldn’t be fortunate enough to see on our short stay and obviously more mounds of sheep poo.  It was pretty cloudy which kept things a little cooler and although obscured the view slightly, was still very pretty.

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Running the ridgeline was relatively easy as the ascent all the way until Craig y Byllfa and Corn Du is fairly shallow.  The terrain on the horseshoe is considerably more technical than all the other terrain we had (and would) run with rubble and rocky ground in places, marsh in others, but that made things more fun.  I particularly enjoyed the ridge line named rhiw yr ysgyfarnog.

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The hike up to Corn Du (we were trying to be efficient - running up that hill with a 8-10kg backpack feels like bouncing on the spot) was fairly steep, but the path looks fantastic and ends near the summit with some incredible natural formations of what I think might have been granite that were like very Lovecraftesque, cyclopean steps.

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The top of Corn Du offers some brilliant views (as does everywhere at any point on the route, actually) of the Usk and Brecon areas.  You can see the reservoir from anywhere you are so I’ll stop mentioning that.  It became a bit annoying if I’m honest - the damned thing never gets any further away regardless of how far you travel.  The horseshoe was easily the busiest part of our entire trip, with a fair few people hiking up Fan y Big (later), however for some reason most people avoided Corn Du which was a shame, as it’s far more interesting than it’s slightly taller twin.

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The view from Corn du with Pen Milan (hill) on the left and Cwm-llch (village in the valley) right of centre.  Out of view to the right would be the direction to Brecon about 10k as the bird flies

We had a good run down Corn Du as the trail was fairly steep, but quite hard packed red mud and easier to run on than the rocky path on the other side.  We also knew that the climb back up to the summit of Pen y Fan was on the other side, so it was nice to get some running in before more hiking.

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Pen y Fan from Corn Du - it was still quite cloudy

It was nice to see a handful of other trail runners on the hills.  Some were going at a considerable pace, but then they weren’t carrying backpacks or water, so we assumed were probably travelling a shorter distance than us.  Or just much fitter.

The climb to Pen y Fan from Cribyn was surprisingly easy from Corn du, as the real challenge is on the other side, known as ‘Jacob’s ladder’.  Much as I found Snowdon less enjoyable than Glyder Fawr, I found Corn Du so much more enjoyable - maybe I just prefer the underdog.

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We stopped for a bite to eat and a photo at the top of the tallest peak in the Southern United Kingdom, before heading down the arduous looking Jacob’s Ladder and then back up towards the much more ominous looking Cribyn.  The descent and ascent between the two, I believe, is probably the most steep between all of the peaks on the fan.  As luck would have it, the clouds completely cleared while we were on Pen y Fan, which we took as a good omen.  It also offered some fantastic views which had been hidden until then.

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Heading down ‘Jacob’s Ladder’ from Pen y Fan and stopping for a photo of Cribyn

Jacob’s Ladder was a pleasure to run.  It’s pretty technical and a bit hair raising in places, with the ruggedly built rock path offering some fantastic opportunities for breaking your ankles, along with being steep enough to turn your legs to jelly by the bottom.  Also looking at the ascent ahead of us, it looked like a while before we’d be able to do any running anyway, so we took full advantage.

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We had a bite to eat at the bottom to give our legs a quick break for a minute, before continuing up the hill.  There is a fantastic little part of the path that is usually flooded, offering some stunning photo opportunities, in between the two peaks.

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After a punishing climb up to the top of Cribyn, we had a great view of the route we had taken and could almost see as far as the tea rooms, which seemed longer ago than it probably was.  The sky was extremely clear by now and we were allowed a couple of nice photos of Pen y Fan.

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From Cribyn onwards, we didn’t see a single soul.  The hills were essentially deserted, apart from Pen y Fan, but it was very nice to have all this space to ourselves.

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Seeing as I’d been doing most of the navigating and the rest of the route was pretty straight forward, along with Andy having a printed map in his hand, I put my map in my backpack as I decided I didn’t need it and Andy could navigate anyway.

We followed a couple of ridges, made extremely mature jokes about the following peak, Fan y Big, and generally enjoyed being able to run a little more due to it being more flat.

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After some time, Andy pointed to a route on the map and decided that we should follow a path where it forked to the right, on the approach to Waun Rydd.  As we followed this path with a steep climb to the left, we were confronted by the remains of a Lancaster Bomber from a crash during a training exercise during WW2.  I’d read about this and we had hoped to see it on the first day but missed it out due to the sun going down.  Although it was fantastic to see the memorial, sobering as it was, I pointed out that we had clearly taken a wrong turn.

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I showed the team on Andy’s map that we needed to be at the top of Waun Rydd, not on the south slope.  We climbed up a steep rocky cliff with a spring flowing down it to reach a higher ridge on the side of the hill, where Andy led us along a path.

Later on, I mentioned to Andy that I thought we were heading in the wrong direction, as clearly there shouldn’t be a steep cliff next to the path - it headed directly over the top of a fairly rounded hill.

I took great pleasure in this.  After having been the butt of jokes for the entirety of the previous day for navigating us into someones garden (all of 30 metres out of our way), Andy had successfully navigated us about 600 metres to the south of our correct path, with a swampy marsh land between us and it. 

Despite the dull trudgery of wading through spongey (most likely) leech infested marshland, I had the joyful smugness of being able to return some fire for day one.

After a very slow and disheartening slog through the marsh, we were finally confronted by our path, leading down the hill, towards our final peak, the considerably smaller Twyn Du.  By this point, Joe’s legs were completely shot away, although he as usual was a complete machine and only made a passing joke about walking like he’d had an accident.

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The final stretch, viewing Twyn Du from Waun Rydd/Craig y Fan, with the Tallybont Reservoir on the right and our destination, Tallybont on Usk at the base of the smaller hill in the distance, to the left of Craig y Fan.

We were all very tired and the last part was mainly a trudge with one thing on our mind - reaching the pub.  Elaine called ahead at this point and the pub said they stop serving food at 9.  The time was 8:15 and we still had some way to go.

Seeing as Andy and I were the only two who knew the route and Elaine and I were the only two up for a run, Andy walked with Joe while we ran ahead to the pub to order food.

The last 6-7k run began down a fern strewn hill, through some overgrown footpaths that we had to wade thorough, but was mainly road.  I was amazed by how much energy I had left.  I wasn’t surprised by Elaine pounding it down the road - she’s an absolute monster, but I felt exhilarated and full of energy so we made good time.  It’s amazing what the promise of booze does to you, especially when your reservoir ran out a couple of hours before.

Finally arriving in Tallybont On Usk (stunning village by the way) we arrived at the famous Star Inn.  Real ales, great food and somewhere to sit.  Heaven.

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Me, face on the bar.  Elaine, looking perfectly fine.

Andy and Joe arrived after about 30-40 minutes, just in time for the food.  We stuck around for a good few drinks, before getting a taxi back to the camp site.

To finish off the trip, we hiked up a hill near the site in the Black Mountains to see Castle Dinas, the remains of a hill fort, but we were all knackered, so decided to finish the journey with that and drive back to London.

It was a fantastic weekend and the next few days we all slept like logs and ate ravenously.  Our next trip is being considered, but we’re thinking the more gentle routes, the Isle of Wight coastal route or maybe the Mendip Hills.

Suggestions on a postcard please! 

Fastpacking in the Brecon Beacons - Day One

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After a weekend of fastpacking around the Brecon Beacons, my legs feel like jelly.  That’s a good thing.  The weekend was fantastic and everything went to plan; I miss the place already.

We set off on Thursday afternoon, arriving in the national park at around 9pm.  We camped the first night in a small village called Cwmdu (pronounced Coom-dee), nestled at the foot of the Black Mountains.  It had a pub, The Farmer’s Arms, cafe (the Mynydd Ddu Tea Room) and campsite.  The site, Cwmdu Campsite, is run by a lovely couple and has warm showers, with good wifi. Unfortunately, when we got to the pub at 10 after setting up, it had already closed as it was a Thursday and I imagine not so busy.  Damn it.  Still, probably a good omen in another way - things might not have gone to plan if we had hit the pub on the first night.

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The first night, there were heavy showers, thunder and lightning.  When Elaine and Joe were laughing at Andy for not being woken up by the storm, I joined in, until I found out there was thunder and lightning.  It turns out I’m more aware of the rain and so slept like a log too.  Still, the weather was clear by the time we woke up and it was a nice day.

Unfortunately, Joe and Andy actually took my advice (always a bad idea) following my Inov8 Race Pro 30 review so we ended up with matching backpacks.  Anyone who knows Inov8 must have thought that their standards for sponsorship had really gone down hill (excuse the rubbish pun).

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To begin the first day with a full stomach and therefore a lighter backpack, we headed over to the cafe, where they do a fantastic cooked breakfast, with local award winning welsh cakes and other treats.  Fully sated, we headed off into the hills.

Day one focused in getting us to the gorgeous Tallybont Reservoir and Blaen y Glyn waterfalls.  The planned route, according to MapMyRun, which I had decided to use (with portable battery chargers) seeing as I don’t own a fancy GPS watch, worked out to be 20km on the route we had mapped.  When we started off, we decided on a slightly different route, that ended up being a little longer (about 32k).

First off, we left Cwmdu and hiked up a quite steep and fern covered hill just to the West called Pen Tir (432m).  I mentioned that I quite liked ferns, which I was unfairly ribbed for on the entire journey.  Once we were relatively level, we were able to run the length of it northwards, where it looped to the West and then South, on a joined hill called Mynydd Langorse (515m).

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We ran past a few hikers taking photographs who exclaimed ‘you must be mad’ as we passed.  Usually a good sign that you’re doing something right.

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The hill leads to another along a fairly even ridge, called Clwydygraig (420m) where our route joined the Beacons Way, a fantastic path that we were to have many more encounters with, that runs nearly the entire width of Wales.  The first 3 hills had great views of the more densely populated areas of our route, along with tiny 3 inch high sheep.

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We were lead down into the town of Bwlch, at which point we stopped for an ice cream.  Hardly self sufficient survival in the wilderness, but I’m a sucker for a Magnum.  Fastpacking be damned.

After leaving Bwlch, the plan was to head up Buckland Hill (316m) via the footpath to the south.  Unfortunately, my fantastic orienteering skills led us up into someone’s back garden.  To my credit, it did look like a footpath, but the actual footpath was about 15m further ahead on the road after a slight bend.  Everyone had fully justified dig at my expense.

Once we were on the right path, navigation was easy as we were able to follow an extremely straight tree line that perfectly bisected the hill from NE to SW which we were able to follow on the path.  After a few minutes of running alonside the tree line, we were confronted by a posse of wild(ish) ponies, at which a particularly amorous white small one took a shine to Andy and started kissing him on the lips.  When Joe came over the pony started stamping it’s feet so we decided to leave.  I don’t blame the pony.  Joe is a bit of a freak after all.

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The route down the hill was a fantastic run at just the right gradient to really leg it, but soon became overgrown with (lovely) ferns.  We waded through these until we reached a field that was a minefield of thistles and grass seeds that got right into your shoes.image

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Following this horrific ordeal, we tried to reach the footbridge at OL13 135202 by running down what we hadn’t realised was a private road, to Buckland Old Mill.  There seemed to be no access to the footbridge, which was later confirmed by a local to have been overgrown.  We decided to run East along the Afon Wysg Usk River to cross it at Llangynidr.  There were some very hidden away footpaths on the steep hill alongside the river which was very pretty.  We could hear the sound of laughing children down at the river, but it was a little steep and looked quite fast flowing so we decided to not risk a crossing there.

Llangynidr offered some nice views from a very picturesque bridge that led us up to a shop with some seating outside, where we took a break, bought a gallon bottle of water and a big bag of ice to refill our reservoirs/bladders.  That turned out to be a really good idea.

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After a short jog alongside the canal towpath and a stop to help a canalboater with the lock, we started ascending Tor y Foel (551), which Andy pointed out could be the Welsh Eiffel Tower (rubbish play on words - Tour Eiffel, geddit?  It’s like having your grandad out for the trip).

Although Tor Y Foel is certainly far from the highest hill we ascended on the trip, we agreed that it was the most punishing.  After a good number of hours of running and hiking, the sun came out in full force and Tor y Foel starts it’s elongated climb at Llangynidr from around 100m, and has multiple false summits purposefully designed to destroy morale and induce sweaty exhaustion.

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Finally, we made it to the top and were rewarded with stunning views of the entire route we had just achieved, along with the length of the Tallybont reservoir and our route yet to complete.  After a short spell of admiring the view, everyone started to get a bit moaney as we clearly had quite a distance still to Blaen y Glyn (‘at the end of the mountains at the end of the reservoir, just past the last one in the distance’ I believe was my answer when asked if we were nearly there).  I had tried to be motivational and tell the team that it wasn’t that far to go.  This is where I earned the nickname ‘Gozu’ from Joe (to quote the film “everything I say from this point on is a lie’).

We took this point to stop and have something to eat.  Elaine and I had made a load of ridiculously calorie filled flapjacks, however we decided to tuck into the food our fantastic sponsors, Perfect Balance, had provided us with.  In case you hadn’t read my previous review, OMG these are amazing.  It was hard to stop ourselves gorging and getting bloated - really hard.  We ran.

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Panoramic on Tor y Fael

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Joe and Elaine on top of Tor y Fael

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View from Tor y Fael of Bucklands Hill (we ran the tree line) with the ridge behind it we had just ran.

The descent down Tor Y Fael was the perfect decline for a fast and technical run, but not so steep as to be risky so we had a great time going down whilst viewing the stunning vista ahead of us.  Elation soon turned to discomfort however, as a few of the team realised their legs had turned to jelly at the bottom.

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The Descent from Tor y Foel to the Tallybont Forest and Reservoir - stunning views

We managed to get back onto the Beacons Way trail, which split off to go down hill at a gentle gradient through the stunning Tallybont Forest.  The sun was going down and the light cutting through the trees at a 45 degree angle was sublime.

Crossing a dried up river filled full of boulders washed down from the mountain, followed by a farmers field, we finally came out on an actual road, with a B&B in front of us.  A tempting sight, but we had all been looking forward to the waterfall and a good swim.  We weren’t disappointed.

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Just down the hill from the waterfall, we found a raised level platform of grass in between a gentle stream and a dried out river bed on the other side.  It was the perfect place to camp - out of the wind, paths for water on either side, with plenty of fire wood and a safe place with nothing but hard mud to set it.

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Setting up the Coleman Raid and the Yellowstone Matterhorn tents 

The waterfall that we decided to swim in was certainly rival to the beauty of the rolling hills we had been running all day.  At the base of the waterfall, the slate rock had developed a square ‘hot tub’ with seats and a plunge pool in the middle.  It reminded me of how Japanese gardens are supposed to look like wild nature, but are actually designed down to the last grain of sand.  

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Best shower I’ve had in a while!

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We had a lovely freezing swim which worked wonders on our legs, washed our clothes and changed for camp.  There was a dried up river bed next to our tent that allowed a small fire (it was on mud with no chance of anything near catching fire) and we tested the hexamine stove out, which was extremely light, easy to split the weight of fuel blocks between the team and boiled a pan of river water extremely quickly.

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Dinner consisted of freeze dried food (Mountain House chilli con carne for me, spaghetti bolognese for Andy and Elaine), with a boil in the bag MRE for Joe.  We had a nice cup of hot chocolate around the fire before turning in for the night.

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The light and my Inov8 baselayer making us look considerably more burnt than we actually were

All in all, a fantastic first day.  Some of us were looking forward to the larger climbs of day two than others, but we were all enjoying the trip.

The final mapped route was as below.  I’ll update with day 2 tomorrow.

Fastpacking - Part 3. Last minute Team Preparations

As our trip is fast approaching, we decided to meet up and finalise plans and checklists.  Elaine suggested that Andy and I meet at her office rather than a pub, as we could use a meeting room with a big table for the maps and more importantly, her office also has a bar.  Win-win situation.

Joe lives in Gosport, near Portsmouth making it difficult for him to attend, and Adam is on holiday with a couple of other friends travelling around Cornwall (I think) on their motorbikes, so we decided that we could fill them in when we set off.

First, we went through the route that I had previously mentioned (although in more detail) in my previous post, looking over camping spots and water sources.

A concern Elaine raised was whether the many small streams running from the hills would still be there as it’s been quite hot recently and is the height of summer.  A fair point.  Fortunately, along our route, there are a good few larger contributary streams for the Tallybont Reservoir which are unlikely to dry up, and there are few parts of the route that would put us without water for more than an hour at a time.  As we all have 2 litre water reservoirs, that shouldn’t be a problem.

Another issue that was discussed was cooking.  We had all decided that enjoying a nice hot meal at the end of the night would be worth the extra weight, but starting fires in the forest is a big no-no.  Adam has a small stove that weighs about 100g that uses Butane C-250 canisters (that weight 370g), however we decided that carrying single use fuel blocks would be easier to distribute in weight and would be considerably lighter.

Hexamine fuel blocks weigh approximately 28g each, and two will boil 450ml of water in just over 4 minutes.  This is roughly enough for 1 Mountain House meal, so carrying 6 would be enough for the meal on the Friday night, a breakfast on the Saturday morning and several cups of tea throughout the trip.  Carrying our own allowance of hexamine blocks makes distribution of weight easier, which is useful.

It was good to ensure that at least two other team members are completely with the route for navigation purposes, as when you’re tired, it’s easy to make mistakes.  Plus if we go the wrong way, I’m not the only one to blame.

Only a few week to go until the trip so hopefully the weather holds out!  Should be loads of fun.

Perfect Balance Foods - Part 1; Private Test

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A company called Perfect Balance added me on Twitter and I was interested by what they had on offer.  They touted their sports nutrition/protein bars as being made from 100% natural ingredients, they’re UK based and had great pictures of feeding their child with their product (a true product test for a parent!) and I liked their simple packaging.

I messaged them to thank them for following me and said that I’d love to do a product test and review on my website.  Esta and Matt contacted me back right away with their story, product details and said they’d love to send me samples for the review and to support my team on the next fastpacking trip.  The email was very positive and friendly - I could see that they are a family who are fully behind and have every confidence in their product.  Plus I always like people who feed me, as long as the food is good.

Both Esta and Matt are personal trainers with a wealth of fitness and nutrition experience behind them.  Esta is qualified in the management of obesity and diabetes, lower back pain and nutrition for health, is currently qualifying as a registered clinical nutritionist, along with previously being a competitive half marathon runner.  Matt, also a personal trainer, is a strength and conditioning coach, body builder and a rugby player of 11 years, so they clearly know their stuff.

They decided to start the business after reading the labels of current leading protein bar manufacturers and being ‘horrified’ at the ingredients listed and levels of added sugar.  Beautifully expressed by Esta as “in a bit of an indignant, I’m going to change the world, rage”, the couple set out to start their own recipe.

So here we are, with the package arriving on my desk.  It was 12:45, I hadn’t brought any lunch and had run to work.  I promised myself I’d hold off for a more subjective moment to carry out the review.

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Obviously I couldn’t.  I was hungry.  My legs were aching.  I convinced myself that this was what they were made for right?  What better time to eat one.  Or two.

Opening the pack, I was confronted by another bag, with a handle.  Teasing me.

Inside that pack, they had kindly provided me with 3 Orange PB bars and 3 Mocha PB bars.

I immediately ate one of the orange bars.  It was delicious.  Most protein bars have a chewy, slightly spongy texture, which the Perfect Balance bar also had, however it did taste more natural (whatever that means).  I suffer from IBS and am quite sensitive to certain foodstuffs, with many protein bars giving me a bit of acid reflux.  I’m quite specific about what I can eat when I’m running and I didn’t get as much as a twinge from these.

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The orange bar smells and tastes like a Jaffa cake.  If you don’t like that, then there’s something wrong with you and you’re not welcome on my blog.  It was moist and chewy, with a great balance of sweet and savoury, with a slight dark chocolate-eque dry bite to end it.  Lovely.

The bar contains 215 kcal which for the weight of XXX, is a respectably high amount and certainly perfect for a well rounded fastpacking food.  They have a well balanced 19.42g of carbs, 12.2g of protein to a 9.8g of fat.  Not as high a protein content as other protein bars on the market, but they taste much better and you need carbs to repair muscle anyway.  Plus with using seeds, the fat is more likely to be healthier omega fats, rather than bulking agents (my own, relatively uneducated opinion, please don’t sue me mega-corporation protein people).

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As I was looking for a direct comparison, I thought it would be foolish to ignore the mocha bar.  I’m not a fan of anything coffee flavour, so this was entirely altruistic of me and nothing to do with having loved the orange bar.  Plus eating them side by side would give me a more balanced view.

The packaging of their bars is identical, with the logo and flavour of the bar on the front and the content breakdown on the back.

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The calorie breakdown is very similar to the orange flavour protein bar, with 210 calories, 18.23 grams of carbs, 12.16 grams of protein and 9.9% grams of fat.

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Something to note that both bars contain almost no sodium, which is a bonus.  If I want to increase my electrolyte balance, I prefer to do it with fluids anyway.

Despite not being a fan of coffee flavoured items, the mocha bar was lovely.  It had the same terrific texture as the orange and the flavour was subtle and worked well with the rest of the ingredients.  I was suprised at how well balanced it was.

I definitely prefer the orange, which is purely a matter of taste, however there wasn’t much in it between the two.  Esta and Matt are in the process of launching their website, so you can contact them directly for orders, and their bars are exceptionally good value.  

The next stage of testing will be on the Beacons Run, where Joe, Andy, Elaine, Adam and I will do a vote off on which flavour we prefer from their range.

Full details of where to get them are below.  I hope you enjoy them as much as I did! -

Flavours -
Original
210 kcal
18.23g carbs
12.16g protein
9.9g fat
0.0009g
Choc Orange
215 kcal
19.42g carbs
12.2g protein
9.9g fat
0.0009g sodium
Coconut chocolate
234 kcal
16.9g carbs
12.1g protein
13.1g fat
0.011g sodium
Mocha
210 kcal
18.23g carbs
12.16g protein
9.9g fat
0.0009g sodium
Cost -
£8.99 for 10
£15.99 for 20
10% discount on orders over £50 through sports / athletic club affiliation.
Delivery -
£2.89 orders under £50
FREE orders over £50
Payment -
By paypal: perfectbalanceorders@gmail.com
 
Postage -
£2.83 within the UK
Or, cash on collection if you’re local.

Gelert X-Treme Lite 600 1 Season Sleeping Bag

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Fastpacking.  It’s all about using the bare minimum, but that’s not just necessarily just about the weight.  For me, it’s an ethos that should extend into everything.  Your running form to save energy, your concept of whether certain comforts are necessary, but also into cost.

What is the point of paying for all the bells and whistles, if you don’t need them?  

Planning for our fastpacking trip in the Brecon Beacons, which is going to be in the height of summer, I decided that my sleeping bag should be as light and pack as small as possible.  Clearly this is a main consideration for any trip or piece of kit when running, but I wanted to go as minimal as I could.

After searching extensively online, I found the Gelert X-Treme Lite 600.  There were sleeping bags a little warmer for the weight and pack size, but they were down and at least £40 more expensive.  

The Gelert X-Treme Lite 600, as the name suggests, weighs a mere 600 grams, packs down to 26x13cm (although I have managed to compress it down to about 18x14cm) and only costs £25.  An absolute bargain.  This is of course, assuming that it actually keeps me even slightly warm.

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As you can see from the image, the sleeping bag is mummy shaped to reduce heat loss, features a zip on the right side (I’m left handed, but at this price, beggars can’t be choosers) with a fully elasticated hood tor additional warmth.  It boasts a type of filling called ‘3D Spiral Fibre’ within a highly durable nylon rip-stop shell.  What difference this makes to the filling I’m not sure, however the suggested comfort temperature is 12.6C.  It also comes with a handy internal pocket, which is good for a torch or phone.

My main concern with this sleeping bag was whether it would be warm enough.  A friend of mine, Andy, bought the same sleeping bag for a planned trip and said he was freezing all night.  I thought I’d get one and put it to the test.

Although not the most extreme of scenarios, I tested the sleeping bag in my tent…in my garden.  It was a cool summer night compared to the much hotter evenings we’ve been having recently so I thought it’d be a fair test.

Donning some rather fetching thermal leggings, a thermal baselayer and my trusty inov8 Base Elite 200 top, I proceeded into my garden.

Sitting inside my trusty Coleman Raid tent and on top of my recently repaired Vango Trek self inflating mat (review to follow), was the sleeping bag, waiting for me.

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Upon climbing in, I realised that it was certainly not the most spacious sleeping bag I had ever owned.  I’m just under 5’7” and not that wide, but it was a pretty tight fit even for me.  This wasn’t something I was bothered about, as the less spare space there is, the better the warmth is maintained, however it might be a consideration for the larger camper.

Wearing my thermal leggings, top and a baselayer, I was very comfortable in the Gelert X-Treme Lite 600 and fell asleep fairly quickly, which I would say was a good yardstick for a sleeping bag.  Upon waking, it would have been nicer to be a little warmer, but I was by no means uncomfortable.  Saying that, the local weather report put my area as approximately 14C that night and I was wearing a (admittedly thin) thermal jump suit.

The Gelert X-Treme Lite 600 sleeping bag is not going to be winning any awards for it’s warmth, however it was never marketed for that.  What it is, is a sleeping bag that weighs only a little more than a cotton bag liner whilst being a hell of a lot warmer.  

Used with the right clothes at the right time of the year, there is little that the Gelert X-Treme Lite 600 can be faulted on for the price.  Not only does it make a great warm weather bag, but would also function admirably being doubled up with another sleeping bag to extend the comfort range of both.

Unfortunately, Gelert don’t have this sleeping bag on their website any more but you can find it easily for sale online still.

For summer fastpacking in warm conditions, you can’t do much better.