Monday, 26 December 2016

Late night musings

It's been a good week. On Thursday I passed my viva, and am being recommended to be given the right to supplicate for the degree of DPhil of Particle Physics at Oxford. The examiners said my thesis and defence were outstanding and I have no corrections other than two typos. This is a better outcome than I thought possible and has made me incredibly happy.
So much weight has been lifted off me. I am a new man. The future seems filled with promise and I can't wait to tackle both numerous new projects as well as just getting on with the rest of my life that has been somewhat held off because of dphil pressure.
At the same time, I'm quite strongly filled with a sense of needing to give something back. There are many problems in the world, some beyond desperate and my own life is comfortable. Politics has apparently gone mental globally and I worry for my daughter's future. What to do though. Needs some thought.

Sunday, 18 December 2016

Charlie and the Suunto Factory

October 2016

I have a secret. Since May this year I have been a beta tester for Suunto. I'm allowed to tell you that much now. In October I travelled to Finland to take part in the first Suunto Summit. It was pretty epic.

In April this year a post appeared in my Facebook newsfeed. It was an advert to become a Suunto beta tester. I have been wearing a Suunto for 2 1/2 years now, ever since my wife bought me an Ambit 2S for our anniversary. They are top of the range multi-sport watches jam-packed with features. The advert was to help beta test a new Suunto website, an update of the Movescount site. In return the tester would get a new watch so that they could keep using the old site at the same time. Of course I clicked. It sounded awesome.

About a week later I found out I was in. A small group of testers had been chosen, though some had been Suunto beta testers for a number of years. I selected my watch - a Suunto Ambit 3 Vertical in lighting blue and then immediately refused to believe that it was for real. It wasn't until I received my watch in May and the testing started that I accepted it.
Blue Suunto Ambit 3 Vertical, just about visible on my wrist

The testing was actually loads of fun, though I can't tell you much about it as I'm bound by a confidentiality agreement. I found out lots about how Suunto operates behind the scenes, and lots of new ideas for how to use the watches. During this time I ran an ultra (NDW50) and a marathon, and the watches and websites were great.

Then in July I got another offer I couldn't believe. Suunto were bringing out a new watch series, called the Spartan and some of the beta testers were going to test it for them. I couldn't believe my luck when I was chosen as one of them. We received the watch at the same time as it went on sale and immediately started a bug hunt, as some features weren't implemented yet that had been announced on release. It's been loads of fun and the watch is an absolute gem.
Spoiler for Helsinki City Trail 21k, Suunto Spartan visible on my wrist

However that is not the story I'm telling you about today. Over the summer, the woman who had initiated all of the beta testing, Karoliina, also proposed the first Suunto Summit, which was to take place in Finland in October. At first I wasn't sure if I could go. I was writing up my phd thesis, and it was getting quite near deadline. However it became clear I had to submit before the Summit, I got approval from my wife and I signed up. What could be better for washing away the cobwebs of 9 years part-time phd work than an action packed adventure in Finland.

The summit was composed of a few different pieces: first we would gather at Suunto HQ in Helsinki on the Friday, then there would be a mix of workshops on Suunto apps and features and a factory tour, before we headed to our lodgings for the weekend - an amazing log cabin in the woods north of Helsinki. The log cabin was splendid with 3 bedrooms, chalet style mattresses under the eves upstairs, a sauna and jacuzzi. The next day we all headed back into Helsinki for Helsinki City Trail, either an 11 or 21 km trail race. Then it was back to the cabin for showers and another workshop before dinner in a teepee eating reindeer. The final morning we did some orienteering before making our way back to the airport and home.

I really wanted to attend all the events, so I ended up flying to Helsinki on Thursday and staying that night in an Airbnb flat in central Helsinki. I stayed in "Helsinki downtown jugend apartment" with Petri and his wife. The flat was great, really convenient and they made me an amazing breakfast the next morning, including Kareli pies, which would become quite a feature of the weekend and were an instant hit! Straight after I arrived I headed into Helsinki to meet the other early arrivals and had a couple of drinks with them and Karoliina, before heading to a restaurant with another tester Simone for a late dinner.
View from Hotel Torni rooftop bar
The next morning I was up and about early and headed into Helsinki for a walk about prior to catching the bus to Suunto HQ. I had a couple of hours and wanted to do a bit of touristy snooping and maybe some shopping. It turned out that most shops didn't open till 11, but I did manage to walk around a lot of the central sea front and see a few parks.

Then I headed back into town to the Central Train Station to catch the bus. I met Simone from Italy, who I'd had dinner with the night before, Craig and Adrienne from Canada, Jacub and Dita from the Czech Republic and Paul from Australia. We travelled together to Suunto HQ and chatted about our adventures and interests. Probably most interesting was Jacub and Dita's story of meeting because they were both wearing Suunto watches.
We successfully got off at the right stop, and then all had a bit of pilgrim moment taking pictures outside the holy site.

Inside I was a little overwhelmed by the Suunto historical wall of watches. So much tech goodness!

We met up with Karoliina and a few other Suunto staff, and tucked into a buffet lunch in the Suunto cafeteria.
The afternoon was split between workshops on coming features for the Spartan, a panel question and answer session and a factory tour.
Panel discussion at Suunto HQ. Credit: Matt Mitchell, Suunto.

Factory tour. Credit: Matt Mitchell, Suunto.

Piles of compasses! Credit: Matt Mitchell, Suunto.

Piles of watches for shipping.
More Suunto shenanigans. Credit: Matt Mitchell, Suunto.

More of the group arrived during the afternoon, and it was great getting to know everyone. After dinner we got into a couple of vehicles to drive to our lodging for the weekend, an amazing log cabin at Karhunpesa in Espoo.

The log cabin was incredible. It had views over forested Finnish countryside, a huge fireplace, a sauna and an 8 person outdoor jacuzzi. It was to be our sanctuary for the next couple of days. After a little more getting to know each other over a beer or two we headed to bed, as the next day we were taking part in Helsinki City Trail!
Suunto staff were hosting us at the cabin, in particular Karoliina and Teemu, who looked after us so well. In the morning they got up before anyone else and made us an amazing breakfast, including more hot buttery Kareli pies!
After breakfast we all got ready for the run, and piled into a couple of vans for the journey to the start. I was in a van driven by Matt Mitchell, who had come to work at Suunto from Canada. He was a really nice guy but asked what our goals for the race were. Everyone else was sensible and had researched the race, but I said it was my first half for ages and I was just going to go all in. My last half had been a flat fast road run where I got a PB. Helsinki City Trail would turn out a little different...
The start was the north of the city, and the 11k started a little earlier than the 21k. I watched the first start and then warmed up. I wasn't even overly concerned at the sharp hill near the start or the technical terrain. My normal attempt to run fast in the warm up so that I don't in the race didn't work either...
I started the race in the middle of the pack and then went full charge at 8 min miles. For the first couple of miles. It was the most technical demanding trail I have ever run on. It was relentlessly hilly. You needed to concentrate on your foot placement at all times. My heart rate leapt to over 180 bpm almost immediately and stayed there. There was no way I could keep this effort level up, and after the first 2 miles I started slowing down, though my heart rate stayed high the whole race. I was constantly overtaken. By the end I was run/walking 11 min miles and finished in 2:12 something. I had had my ass thoroughly handed to me. The second picture above is from the end of the race and I think it is clear how destroyed I was.
I met up with the other Suunto staff and summit attendees and compared notes. A couple of people had outstanding races and hats off to them, others had found the course challenging. Everyone pointed out to me how I didn't stop shaking for about half an hour.
I loved it. It was a new level of challenge I will need to be tougher for and treat with a great deal more respect. Bring on next year!
We headed back to Karhunpesa and jumped in showers and the jacuzzi. Then there was a final Suunto workshop and a meeting with the head of Suunto, before we headed to the nearby giant teepee to eat reindeer. This was another highlight of the weekend for me. Something utterly unique and wonderful.
I only have one photo of the night, where Karoliina and Maria played the guitar and sang a few songs for us. As I said utterly unique and wonderful.
My table was in great cheer and laughed the whole evening. Good times.
After another good nights sleep under the rafters and more Kareli pies the next morning it was time for the final event of the weekend: some good Finnish orienteering. Suunto employee Kimmo planned and laid some trails, and we formed groups and tried to find them.
This was terrific fun and something I had not done for over 20 years. It made me feel more confident about my navigation and interested to try my hand at races where navigation was more of a feature. Karoliina's husband cycled out later that morning to pick up all of the controls.

After we packed up, said our goodbyes and headed to the airport. I had made some firm friends, found at loads about Suunto, created incredible memories and put some faces to some of the people I share ideas with in the beta testing.
We could not have been better hosted by the Suunto staff and I would give especial thanks to Karoliina for so much hard work to make an enjoyable weekend for us.
What a weekend!

Wednesday, 15 June 2016

Run Commuting is Better

I started to run commute as a way of getting in some long runs when the weekends were busy. I live a perfect distance from work (9 miles) so running in and home could replace a 20 mile effort some of the time. I am fortunate enough to be able to cover most of the distance on footpaths and bridleways, with a few options on routes. When my daughter was born last year, I decided to leave our car with my wife and commute either by foot or bike every day. In order to build up the running I would bike in, run home, then the next day run in, bike home. This worked well for 3 weeks and then my legs fell off. Seriously I got really sore calves that took months and some decent physio to go away. I hadn't actually been running any more total mileage than I had before, but by condensing all my running into 4 days, with very little rest between evening/morning runs my body was getting battered.
But I was hooked! I asked for some advice online and decided to break some of the runs up by getting the train part of the way. This alternate route was much less pretty but at a bit less than 6 miles put less strain on my legs. After a couple of cautious months I started to reintroduce weeks of the full 36 miles and everything was gravy.

As the nights drew in my evening runs were done by the light of my head torch and the morning was often accompanied by the rising sun.

 As spring rolled around, the evening runs were glorious.

 I even started to explore some alternative routes.

After my wife's maternity leave ended, we both went part-time. I started working Tues-Friday and my wife worked all day Monday and the other 4 afternoons, with our daughter then in nursery at the same time. This meant that I only had 4 days to commute in, but that I could have a lift home on those days. Since then I've been largely running two days a week and cycling two. This has been much easier than what I was doing before, and I have managed another 50 mile ultra and my mileage is settling again. I have no doubt that all the condensed commuting improved me as a runner, but it took a toll first!
My wife and I are still in negotiation over how I can fit in running up to Ridgeway in August. Ideally I will be pretty consistent, but also have a few 50-60 mile weeks. Last week I managed 38, but only by adding a 12 mile run on Sunday night, which is meant to be reserved for family. This week the plan is for two 9 milers then I've got the inaugural Hampshire Hoppit trail marathon on Sunday, so it should be about 44 miles. To get 60 though I will need to do 36+ during the week then another marathon on the weekend... I do have permission to do some longer commutes sometimes and could easily extend the run home by coming back on the Ridgeway.
Anyway the point of this post is that run commuting is amazing. I love seeing the world in different times and lights and weathers. I love travelling by foot. Making my work journey also a powerful fitness tool appeals to me on all kinds of levels. And when the weather is right it's oh so pretty!

After Ridgeway I've agreed not to do any more ultras for a bit, to allow for family time and changes. I still plan to do a few marathons and shorter ultras, but will have to see how to maintain my base as much as possible while taking as little time to run as possible! It will be a new challenge. Then hopefully, in a couple more years I can take on the NDW100 ;) It should still be waiting for me.

Thursday, 19 May 2016

North Downs Way 50

Day 13612
This was a perfect race. Everything came together. It was a beautiful day. The scenery was jaw dropping. The company was excellent. The course was brutal. I finished in a time I was delighted with. My second race organised by Centurion, and they rightly deserve their reputation.
I had dithered for ages about what to do about transportation and accommodation. It was my daughter's first birthday the Monday after, and my wife was somewhat unimpressed with my planning in booking the race on her birthday weekend. We arranged that they would go to her parents in Claygate and I would meet them there after the race. I first thought about getting the train and camping, but logistics were all tricky. The nearest campsite was 3 miles from the start, so should I bring my bike, etc. Then my friend Sue offered me a lift to the start from home. She had run the race last year, and is a superstar of the greatest proportions. Once I'd considered I had to accept, and she picked me up from my door at 5:45 on a Saturday morning. Sue you are an angel.
We got to the HQ in Farnham a little before 7. I registered and Sue stayed for a little then headed off for a bit of Parkrun tourism. I met up with a friend Pete from work, a much faster runner who was training for SDW100. Soon James Elson gave the race briefing and warned us that the race would be more than 50 miles so no complaining! With that concluded, we trundled off to the start.

A horn blew, watches were started and we were off. The initial section was through wooded trails out of Farnham. The runners were quite bunched and there were lots of funnel points where we had to slow to a walk. I took all these as early opportunities for careful pacing. I ran with Pete for a couple of miles, but soon bumped into another chap Kev who was running his first ultra. Pete ran on ahead and Kev and I would chat away the next 30 or so miles.
Traditional Didcot Runners Jazz Hands
The people you run with can be such a big part of your experience. One of the things I had found odd about SDW50 was that I hadn't really got to know anyone. A big part of running ultras is the social element and then I had run for 10 1/2 hours largely in my own head. I enjoyed it but it was not what I had expected. NDW50 was to more than make up for this.
Kev was an utter character. He had not run more than a marathon, and was undertrained due to an unanticipated extended trip to Australia. He had bets with various people on the outcome, including his wife, who had promised to iron his clothes every day for a week should he finish. He had taken part in a number of crazy challenges and was being crewed by a mate who would turn up in a big 4x4 at the crew meeting areas. He was planning on running the NDW100 in August: this was really a training run.
We exchanged life and running histories and the miles flew by.

One of the extraordinary things about Kev became apparent a few miles in. He was an avid Twitterer and had an astonishing memory for names and faces. Despite this being his first ultra, he recognised almost everyone running round us, sometimes to their bemusement. Then, to my complete amazement, he started recognising other people on the NDW walking or running the other way. This was a bit spooky. I began to think he must have a chip in his head feeding him info. Pretty cool stuff. He did work for a satellite company. Far out.
The miles literally passed without me noticing. Every few subjective seconds my watch would beep, and another mile would have gone by. Delightful running. A bit before Box Hill we started encountering another group and particularly a stylish lady named Marina. We leapfrogged each other a bit for a while. Kev obviously knew her and the people she was with. And their pets. He loved dogs and gave every dog we passed a big fuss. Top man.

Kev and Marina
The stairs at Box Hill were pretty impressive. I think Kev was starting to feel it here. I also started getting some pre-cramp twinges and knew I would need to run my own race to get by. We ran with Marina some more on and off, and made it to about 35 miles I think. Kev managed to activate a speed sign for cars - 12 mph pretty impressive. However he was starting to flag also so with regret I wished him well and pushed on. I think this was the right decision as my legs fettled out and I had no more cramp signs for the rest of the race.
Continuing alone, fruit in hand
Running up another enormous climb, I paused to admire the view and saw Marina running a few metres behind me. She caught up shortly and we then ran most of the rest of the race together. Marina was an impressive runner who had strung together marathons on adjacent weekends a fair bit prior to the race, including Brighton, London and Paris if my memory serves. She had done a few ultras but not NDW.

The second half of the race was significantly harder than the first, undulating pretty constantly, with plenty of steps and tree roots to challenge tiring legs. The views however were absolutely staggering. I tried to keep up with photos but probably fell behind a little as I tired. I was so pleased with my fitness overall. I kept moving, relentless forward progress as the saying goes and felt strong until a couple of miles before the end.

Checkpoint time was minimised, in no way a reflection on the outstanding and delightful volunteers. Apart from half way when I did a sock change and re-grease, I was in and out like a rat out of an aqueduct. I stuck to firm favourites: watermelon and other fruit. I discovered cherry tomatoes - little juice explosions. A few crisps and cups of coke kept me moving. This generally worked outstandingly well. The only change I would make is to eat a little more energy dense food. I ate all my peanut butter and jam sandwiches by 30 miles and then didn't eat much else other than fruit. I did enjoy one of 33Shake's energy gels - lots of seeds and stuff you add water to, which was superb. When I bonked at mile 49 a bite of energy bar - impossible to eat at this stage but I somehow got it down - revived me for the last mile. However I had told Marina to run on and it would have been nice to finish together. For longer races, Ridgeway and others (?!?!) I will need to make sure I keep taking in fuel. Still nearly perfect is not too shabby. The other remarkable food story was Marina's sister who surprised her at a checkpoint with a box of pineapple. I was quite jealous, but then when she popped up again later in the race Marina waved me over and I gratefully filled my face with juicy sweet goodness.
As I said Marina went ahead about a mile before the end. My watch had died at mile 49 so I was flying blind timewise but knew I was doing OK. As the energy bar got into my blood I ran the last lanes into Knockholt Pound. Rounding the corner to see the Centurion finish I felt strong and glad. Not as emotional as some other races, but so full of positive energy. The crowd around the finish gave me a lovely roar in and I finished traditionally with hands in the air. 10:16:26, in the first half of the pack. Better than I could have hoped for. Marina met me for a hug and we got a picture.

Marina had finished a few minutes before me, Pete in 9:47 and Kev in an outstanding 11:15.
One I'd stopped I started feeling cold so quickly went to the hall with an amazing volunteer who got Marina and I hotdogs and drinks while we got changed.
I said my goodbyes, got on the bus to the start and made it to Claygate for the birthday party on Sun.
I loved this race. I think I'd like to do it again. I might even try the 100 one day.
Update: Kev had received some ironed goods on Monday morning, though it seemed optimistic that this would continue throughout the week ;)