Sunday, August 14, 2016

Its been a while ...

Jings ...who knows where times go !

Its been a year rammed with adventures so haven't really had much in the way of time to write about  ... so a summary of sorts.

December ended and January started the same way ...dancing with Katie in the Clachaig Inn up in the Coe to the music of Scott McDonald. As the New Year dawned, we made our way to the Aonach Mor Uphill race, cold, icy and slightly "tired" but an awesome start ...doing things ye like with folks ye like !

We stayed north for a few days and ran trails :-)

February and a valentines weekend up in the Cairngorms. We had a long run in the snow on the Saturday around Abernethy from Glenmore and a shorter Morlich loop on the Sunday.

In between bouts of #vanlife, I did some solo mountain trips ~ two of the best were on ma local Ben Lomond and a return to the Cruachan round over which I hadn't been for a long time (nice reminder of exactly how heavy "full winter kit" is).

Easter had us up at the Coe for a Tour du Bookil and one of the best trail runs in Scotland. We then headed further north for a long run through Glen Affric (34 miler) and a shorter run up into the coire of Creag Meagaidh day after (where I found that Katie and wet snow don't mix well).

April and a return to where Katie and me all began with the Fling Ultra. Nice touch being a Mas Loco reunion with ma pal Peter Smith.

June and it was time to head over to Romania for the Bear Ultra - an amazing low key event. Katie covers what the pictures don't on her Blog

Another highlight in June was support crew for Jonny Fcukin Hall on his West Highland Way run - a race which I doubt I will ever get my head around awe of those who do it !

Next weekend was a dash north to help ma wee pal Cherie do her Celtman !

July was mainly a training month getting ready for an autumn of hard racing with Tromso, The Ben and the Coe Skyline races.

Well ...that fills in some of the detail but as always there has been a huge amount in between. Couple of other unusual highlights have included helping out with a couple of group mountain walks with folks from the gym where Katie works. It's sometimes easy to take this wee game for granted when it's pretty much your life and sharing the passion with folks fairly new to it all gives a perspective for sure. In a similar vein, I've had the privilege of setting up a couple of trail runs for the North Face community which has brought together a lovely bunch of folks to share a little trail time together.

Above all, to everyone who has been part of adventures this year ...thank you, it's been the very best of #brawtimes 

Until the next time ~ Slainte Mhath !

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Ultimate Direction Fastpack 30

My interest in the 25-30 litre pack size began back in 2000 when I started taking part in two day mountain marathons. Events that had an emphasis on moving fast, navigating over longer distances / times with an overnight camp in between. Key requirements being; keeping the weight down and being able to access food, drinks, map and compass whilst on the move.

What started as an interest became a full blow obsession in the year leading up to taking part in the 2008 Marathon des Sables. After much review, I eventually settled on the OMM Classic 25 Marathon Pack, supplemented with the 4 litre chest pouch. Since then, this has been my “fast & lite pack” of choice and I really hadn’t considered a change.

Back in 2013, Ultimate Direction came along with their Signature Vests and I was quick to adopt the Scott Jurek version for long runs both on the trails and day raids in the Scottish hills. I very quickly fell for it in terms of the comfort and ability to carry everything required, especially the bottle holder / pocket system on the front straps.

A chance conversation with the good folks from Beta Climbing Designs, whilst at the Jedburgh Three Peaks Ultra, gave an opportunity to trial the Ultimate Direction Fastpack 30 – could this be the best of both of the above with sufficient capacity, with the bigger load at the back whilst being feature rich on the front ?

A week or so later, the pack arrived and first impressions were good – build quality was impressive as you would expect with Ultimate Direction, and the next hour or so was spent exploring the pack and figuring out what would live where in the multitude of pockets. The back system looked good, giving a nice balance between stopping anything from inside the pack creating discomfort, but not being too heavy. The mesh pockets are generous and unlike a number of similar style packs, the side pockets are of sufficient size that you can access them whilst wearing the pack without needing to be double jointed.

I’ve not been a huge fan of roll closure systems, finding them a bit fiddly in the past, but this one works well in reducing the volume both in tidying up the top of the pack and critically, integrating with the compression straps on the side. This allows a range of loads to be secured nicely and prevents that horrible bounce that occurs with a half empty pack.

The inside of the back compartment has a mesh pocket which is useful for keeping those 'easy to fall into the depths of the pack' items such as a phone or car keys. There is also a “waterproof” zipper pocket on the outside but it would be a brave soul that would trust that to unprotected electronics given the UK weather (I’ve killed more than one phone through drowning). For anyone keen on using a hydration bladder, there is an opening for the tube along with a section internally to hold the bladder itself. The addition of the ice axe loops and daisy chain system make it suitable for full four season use as well.

The front has a single pocket for a bottle on the left strap and a long zippered pocket on the right. For the UK, I would seldom want more than one bottle on the front since additional bottles can easily be carried in the side pockets. Being able to hold a map / compass / GPS to my mind is a better use of the space.

So how did first impressions translate into first use …

The Tour de Hellvelyn is a mountain run held on the shortest Saturday in December each year in the Lake District and is described as:
  • 38 miles long with several thousand feet of ascent and descent.
  • Terrain is tough mountain trails and so fell running and navigational skills are essential
  • A winter run of this type is tough and requires good navigational skills, experience and self-reliance
  • The event is ‘low key’ with minimal support and all participants will need to be suitably experienced and equipped
  • Entries are limited and strictly limited to experienced and competent entrants. This is not an event for novice trail runners…!
Having run this twice before, I felt it was the perfect test for the Fastpack 30.

Since the the forecast was grim, and keeping the spare kit dry was essential, I packed the various bits mandatory kit all packed into dry bags. I put the loaded pack on and it felt good with the compression system doing its job nicely. One initial concern was that the pack sits higher than I am used to with the OMM Classic 25 and there are no waist pockets. Time on the trail would prove if this was an issue or simply a difference.

Waterproofs, Map, Compass etc...on the left and spare warm layer, hat, gloves stowed in dry bags

I loaded the mesh pockets on the front straps with munchies with additional food stashed in the external pocket at the rear. The idea being not to have to go into the main compartment unless I was needing spare layers. The large zipper pocket on the right hand strap took my rolled up ortleib map case perfectly along with compass and whistle. This proved invaluable on the two occasions I needed to make quick reference to the map to confirm a route choice. Had it not been as accessible, there might have been a temptation to steam on without checking first – losing time at best.

Conditions were brutal, with driving rain and high winds almost constantly, so I was pleased that whilst soaked through, there was no noticeable increase in pack weight.

Of all the course sections, the wind was at its worst on the initial descent from Grizedale Tarn. Again, the concern of the pack sitting high came to mind as I struggled to maintain balance in the fiercest of gusts, but I gained a level of comfort watching other runners with a variety of packs have similar issues.

By the time I reached the control at Side Farm, I was tired and the simplicity of being able to refill the drinks bottle quickly before continuing on the course was appreciated. In a similar vein, leaving the last control at Martindale Church in the last light, getting my headtorch out of the main back compartment via the roll top involved little in the way of faff, with the two clips on the compression system staying nicely in place.

Overall, I finished the event a happy beard with the pack doing everything I needed and performing well. At 30 litres it may be oversized for a one day event like the Tour de Hellvelyn but the compression system meant that it wasn’t noticeable and I am now looking forward to the next test with an overnight bothy gig next on the agenda. Will post an update to cover how it performs with a heavier load in the back soon hopefully, but so far can’t think on a dislike !

Has it replaced my OMM sack?…Very possibly, and I would highly recommend it to anyone looking into a flexible pack for fast and lite adventures.

A huge shout of thanks to the folks at Beta Climbing Designs for the opportunity - lovely bunch who are passionate about the products they supply.

Aye was wet !

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Arrochar ...

Of the many Scottish Mountain areas which are steeped in history, one of my favourite are the Arrochar "Alps" - early hill days included ascents of Ben Arthur aka The Cobbler with my Dad and cousin as wee boys. As the years went on my knowledge of the area grew through books like "Mountain Days & Bothy Nights", "Always a Little Further" and "May Your Fire Always be Lit" - these described different and unique eras of escape, exploration and mountaineering.

Over the years, I sought out the Caves which provided early climbers with accommodation and climbed some of the classic lines on the Cobbler including Recess Route, Punsters Crack, Nimlin's Direct and Naismiths.

It was during an easy walking day in the late 1980s that I got chatting to some guys at the Narnain Bouders who were training for a race over the surrounding summits. I asked about the route and smiled when they informed me that it went from Succouth over to Ben Vorlich before heading to Ben Vane, Ben Ime and Beinn Narnain. At that time I didn't think it was actually possible to do that route in a single push ! The race was sadly dropped from the calendar by the time I took up hill running but thankfully it was resurrected by Westies in 2007. Since then I have raced, marshalled and been sweep runner ...must race it again soon.

Cobbler Path Junction
These days, the Alps have become a regular training ground and bolt hole when a little bit of head space and altitude are required.

Sunday morning saw an early start ... just before dawn in fact. This was due to a mix of insomnia and also wanting to avoid the bad weather which was forecast to start arriving mid morning before really shitting out in the early afternoon.

The days of the direct pipe track are gone and the route took the "slipper" path up to the point where the old traverse track leads back to the route up Beinn Narnain. This provide a nice warm up before the steep and constant climb up Narnain itself. On the summit the wind was okay but it was clear the forecast had been accurate and the things were deteriorating. An initial navigational error on the descent was quickly corrected before enjoying the run down to the bealach and decision point. With the weather still be "doable", I started up Ben Ime ...round the summit and a quick descent back down. Breifly chatted to a guy who had been on the Cobbler who shared the bad news that it was horrible up top ~ I decided to go and see for myself . In the end, it wasn't nice but I did manage to thread the needle and sit on the true summit before a very careful down-climb to pick up my pack and drop down to the path via the corrie route.

Cobbler Summit
Ended up back at the van by 11:30am soaked but a happy beard. All that was left to do was belt south for some B&B (Blonde and Beard) time with Katie #brawtimes indeed.

The way down ...

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Jedburgh Ultra anniversary run !

One of the many things I love about running is that it can take you to places you might not otherwise visit and creates an opportunity to meet folks who despite coming from many different backgrounds share the same passion. I’ve been privileged to have put in trail time around the England, Wales, various countries in Europe, Mexico, Australia, Mexico and the USA. Every place has its own character but the more I have travelled the more I appreciate the diversity and beauty of this wee bit hill and glen I call home here in Scotland.

With my history being on the higher summits of Scotland, the majority of time I went north of Glasgow but hill racing has taken me to Dumfries and Galloway as well as the hills around Peebles. The Karrimor International Mountain Marathon (now the Original Mountain Marathon) took me as far south as Langholm back in 2003. Keen to get a Scottish Ultra in the legs before the end of the year, I threw my hat into the ring for the Jedburgh 38 miler.

Nice touch to this event was it falling on the six month anniversary of The Fling race where on Conic Hill, Katie and me first met ~ we decided running Jedburgh to be a fitting way of marking that. From memory, we’ve really only had one traditional “date night” but loads of amazing times together ! We were to be joined by the full Team Hall with Jonny running and Holly / Momma Crew on cheerleading duty.

The Two Breweries and the Pentlands Skyline were chosen as training races and it was hoped that the extra ascent would translate into extra flat miles but I was still very nervous as Jedburgh race day approached.

We settled into a little bit of luxury in the cabin which included a hot tub (highly recommended as post race recovery), grabbed some food a beer or two and sorted race kit. Maybe a throwback from the largely self-sufficient nature of mountaineering and hill running but I’ve never really gotten on with drop bags. For me, they only add complication and my preference is to carry whatever I reckon I’ll need and supplement that with whatever the race organisers provide at controls (although a few of Katie’s crisps and a wee Mars bar thing were enjoyed just before the climb onto the Eildons).

Anyways …

Race registration
Registration done and a quick YMCA styled warm up and we were off. Firstly starting out of town but soon onto trails, over the shoogly bridge and out towards the first checkpoint at Maxton. 

Pacing was “social” and I simply enjoyed running with Katie. We had been lucky with a dry start but the dark black clouds indicated it wasn’t to last and when the rain arrived it did so in style. Waterproof jacket on and into the mudfest ! Approaching Maxton was good since it marked a chunk of achievement and smiles all round seeing Momma Crew and Holly. They confirmed Jonny was running well and we headed off with minimal fuss.

The next section had us along possibly one of the prettiest trails I’ve been on – along side the River Tweed with natural woodland above and around us. Couldn’t help but wonder what those trees had seen in their time. Another checkpoint and a few hugs later we were starting up the first of the Eildons where we met fellow Westerlands Runner Damon who along with the Mountain Rescue Team were providing safety cover. The hills were steep but short and I nipped ahead to get a wee action shot of Blondie descending on the GoPro – a short domestic followed which I won’t bore the reader with …suffice to say I was deemed to be in the wrong.

Coming off the last Eildon, it felt like we only had the run back to the start left. Technically correct but that was still hours away. Another checkpoint done and we maintained a reasonable pace back towards Maxton but could see our initial target time slipping into the distance. The rain was off, sun out so time really didn’t matter …life was good ! Back along the Tweed and towards Maxton gave the opportunity to enjoy the views all over again.

Ten miles …only ten miles to go. Lovely race marshal pointed up the tarmac hill, we smiled and my legs complained to the point I called “hill” and a run became a walk …a fast walk but a walk none the less. I felt Katie was looking stronger and felt a serious pang of guilt for holding her back. Next few miles saw a shuffle when possible and a good few photograph stops on anything that resembled a climb. Lovely thing about running through the trees was that you could never really see that far ahead so morale stayed intact. The last mile or so cruised by and we even managed to make up a place crossing the line hand in hand.

Blondie, Beardy and Jonny

The rest of Team Hall were there along with race crew to congratulate us – that made crossing the line all the more special. The evening was spent rehydrating, eating, chatting to fellow runners and aye, a wee soak in the hot tub.

Huge shout out to Noanie, Angela and everyone involved in delivering the event. This is the very best of ultra running ~ a grassroots but super professional adventure organised by folks not to make money but born out of passion to give folks something very special indeed.

In reflection …

I cannot think of a better way to celebrate the six months since Katie and me met out on Conic. Lots has happened and running Jedburgh together maybe mirrored much of the time since Katie first tugged ma beard …we work well together, support each other, share the same sense of adventure, sense of humour, sense of what’s right and wrong … and have each other’s back …at all times. Sometimes the very best adventures are the ones closest to home and maybe they actually help define home. Katie put a truly touching a beautiful post on Facebook that actually brought a wee tear to ma eye …a happy one right enough. I’d like to echo her pride in that, every day I am proud to call her ma girl and look forward to whatever is next in our story #brawtimes for reals.

#lifeisgood for Akabill