Sunday, April 6, 2014

My Spectacular Failure at the Barkley Marathons 2014

Thanks to Andrew Myatt and his mom for the 'yellow gate' art!
"If you're going to face a real challenge, it has to be a real challenge." - Laz

I remember it well. Saturday December 14, 2013. That's the day I decided that I would apply for the 2014 Barkley Marathons.

It was sunny and -16 degrees Celsius. There was a bit of snow on the ground, just covering most of the single track trail that we affectionately call "the Gross Grind". I was out doing hill repeats on this monster (joke) that gains 300' in just under one quarter of a mile. That's a monster around our neighborhood anyhow :) I was attempting to beat my friend's 10 repeat record and did so by doing 15 repeats. I racked up 4500' in about 7.5 miles and called it a day. I thought that the training for the Barkley would be a lofty goal in itself and I'd be lucky to survive.

Barkley Stats:

-started in 1986 and is known to be the most difficult foot race in the world.
-14 men have completed the 100 miler in 28 years. Only Brett and Jared have 2 finishes each.
-approximately 40-45 people have ever completed the "Fun Run", which is said to be more difficult than Hardrock.
-the race consists of five, unmarked, 20 mile loops, which may be closer to 25 miles.
-each 20 mile loop this year boasted 12,500' of elevation gain...almost as much as the Vermont 100 miler!
-loops 1 and 2 are run clockwise. Loops 3 and 4 are run counter-clockwise, just to mess with you. Last loop is your choice (assuming you're the only one left, otherwise runners alternate directions).
-3 loops under 40 hours = a "Fun Run" finish.
-5 loops under 60 hours = an out of this world accomplishment.
-the course record is just over 52 hours and was set by Brett in 2012.

I'm a numbers guy (aka: Data Man), so based on a number of race reports, I constructed a schedule that set out my weekly "vertical feet" (versus miles) and started at it just to see how my body would handle this kind of abuse.

I didn't receive any condolences from Laz (Race Director Genius), but I made it on the "weight list" at #19. I was surprised and excited! Based on the past few years, I had a decent shot at getting in, so I trained as if I was in.

Hill repeats consumed me and I sought out the steepest stuff I could find that wasn't too far to drive to during the week. This time was usually spent at the Gross Grind and a few other local bumps. On the weekends, we would be at Karine's parents cottage in Wentworth Valley. This is a local ski area that has a great 'off trail' section around a look off called "High Head". Here I could gain 700' in just over a quarter of a mile (roughly a 40-45% grade). This would be my mini 'Big Hell' on the weekends.

I definitely hit some low points during my training, mentally. I thought, "I'm putting all my eggs in one basket here....cuz I don't even know if I'll get in"...and then I'd move up the weight list and it was game on again.

I managed to stay healthy and on track with my 'vert' schedule, so I was happy, peaking at just over 32,000' of climbing. However, I was a bit concerned about my lack of mileage, but hoped that the strength training side of all the hill training would make up for the lack of miles.

On March 20, 2014, Karine and I packed up the car for Tennessee. I was #2 on the weight list now, so I figured we should gamble and go. I had originally said that we shouldn't go unless I was 'in', or #1at least. Frig it. We had to have faith that it will work out. I trained pretty hard and wasn't willing to let a possible opportunity like this slip away.

Check out the Barkley Movie Trailer below. The video footage was shot in 2012--here's the link in case the video doesn't show up below: 

Looking up the middle "heinous" section of Rat Jaw
Descending Stallion Mountain
Looking down Testicle Spectacle and straight at Stallion Mountain
So we arrive in Tennessee on Sunday afternoon and beeline for the park. It was pretty funny when we were driving through Petros from Oak Ridge, and like a little kid, I excitedly said to Karine "Look, there's Meth Lab Hill...and holy cow, there's Rat Jaw. That's Indian Knob up there!" It was so nice to see these hills after looking at maps and Google Earth for months. I immediately felt slightly more comfortable knowing my surroundings.

We spent a few days playing around in the park leading up to the race (in the "legal zone") which was a great thing to do. I was still sitting at #2, but we knew it was better to be here just in case because I'd hate to be in Nova Scotia when my number was called a few days before the race. And that's what happened. The Wednesday before the Barkley, I got the email from Laz. Thank goodness. I'm in!!

We didn't do any hiking on Thursday or Friday as I was getting a little freaked out with my odd taper. We had already done roughly 9-10 hours of hiking since Sunday, which I thought was a bit much for 'race week', but I really wanted to see some of the park.

Tetsuro from Japan, Frozen Ed, Matt Mahoney, and Noe from Mexico
Heather Anderson...the PCT Unsupported Record Holder...60 days!!
The gentlemen exclaimed "Holy SHIT. Nova Scotia!?"
Our first night in the campground was Thursday. We met a whole bunch of amazing people and they just kept arriving on Friday. I felt like a stalker since I knew a lot of folks there after reading their blogs, or seeing some of their training on Twitter. I also recognized a lot of the veterans from Ed's book and other people's race reports. I did my research (or stalking), so it was kind of funny at times reciting things about this person and that person.

Karine and I felt soooo out of our league here. The accomplishments and race resumes of this group was out of this world. Barkley finishers (John Fegy-2nd at Vol State++ and Jared Campbell-Hardrock 100 winner++), Pacific Crest Trail record holder (unsupported) Heather Anderson, multiple "Fun Run" finishers/adventure racers Bev and Alan Abbs (Bev has way too many podium finishes everywhere and Alan has the unsupported record for the Vol State 500k run across Tennessee, plus much more), Jamil Coury from Arizona who has multiple ultra wins up to the 100 mile distance and was 14th at the 2013 Hardrock 100 (even after he had a 4 hour nap at an aid station!), John Price, who graciously let us set up camp (with his tent) on his site, has run across America and has done the Vol State 500k race many times (along with many many others).

We were astounded with the talent here. As for Karine and I, it was pretty simple if people asked "So what have you done?". Sheepishly, our reply was "Ummm, we did the Vermont 100 in 2011...and I DNF'd twice at the Stone Cat 50 miler in the last 2 years". One reply was "Vermont. That's an easy one". Crap. We were good and beat up after that race. What the heck will this do to me?
(Note: ALL of the people mentioned above, and the ones not mentioned, have many, many impressive finishes in many other races that aren't mentioned above).

I was super excited to meet the pioneers of the Barkley. Frozen Ed and I had exchanged a bunch of emails in the past few months. Of course his book was very helpful, but the emails were more specific and really helped me envision parts of the course. Ed also encouraged me to keep training since he 'had a feeling' that I'd get in. Actually meeting Ed and Gail was like meeting movie stars (yes, I'm a dork when it comes to this stuff).

And then, "Santa's sleigh" pulled in. Holy s$&'s the man himself, Laz/Lazurus Lake/Gary Cantrell (Santa to me) and I'm going to meet him in a few minutes. He already had a small crowd around him near the yellow gate and I was approaching him with a huge grin on my face. I was, what I imagine to be, like a teenage girl meeting Justin Bieber.

Laz is a very kind, intelligent, and highly respected man. Both Karine and I were very intrigued by him and hung on his every word. I can safely say that I love everything 'Barkley'. The people, the course, the mysterious ways, and the camaraderie. The Barkley Marathons is 'real'. It makes you feel really alive, even if you are nearly dead. It makes you feel really small when everything is so big (by Nova Scotia standards). It makes you feel alert, even if you are sleep deprived. It demands your full attention and respect.

Laz, Little, and me
Reading my "computer generated race projection"

Heather, myself, and Tim Waz getting some helpful tips from Frozen Ed
Sometime around noon on Friday we were able to check-in, get our course directions, bib number (I started with #1...oh no!!), and 'computer generated projections/predictions' for the race. "Finishes in under 24 hours....One loop" was mine. Well, I guess it was correct in the end.

I went to the car and started piecing together the route and highlighting what made sense on my map. I also added some brief directions/instructions so I hopefully wouldn't have to resort to the 8 pages of directions in the rain. Around chicken dinner time, the master map was set out for everyone to highlight the intended route. I just had a few blank spots on my map to fill in and went back to the car to add both clockwise and counterclockwise bearings for the off trail sections.

A few others gathered around my map to either take pictures of it, or to add a good portion of the jeep roads on Stallion Mountain, which was void of any roads/trails on our park maps. I thought it was important to add this detail, which I did in the past few months using Google Earth and some help from Frozen Ed. I like seeing as many features as possible on maps, just in case I get off track and need some other features to relocate myself.

And now...we wait for the conch. The pre-race speculation of the 'new section' (pretty much every year a new section is added to make the course even more difficult) and the start time were both correct. After lying awake most of the night, the conch blew at 5:46am, signaling 1 hour until the start!! The sound was impressive and freaky to actually hear in person. Laz did blow it a few times Friday afternoon "to make sure I could still do it" he said. I did wonder if it was a trick and we were actually going to start Friday.

We signed in after Sir Rich Limacher rounded everyone up with his "Hear ye, hear ye..." speech as he walked through the campground. Took a few pics and headed to the yellow gate.

You could smell the intensity
-Photo Credit: John Price?!
6:46am. Cigarette is lit. We start running. I only ran maybe 50m and settled into a hike. On the early part of the climb I was with Billy Simpson, Jeff List, Brad Bishop, Mike Bur, and maybe someone else. Nearing the top of Bird Mountain, Brad and I caught up to Tim Waz and Nicki Rehn. The 4 of us stayed together to the first book and then got away from Brad who was being too polite during the book feeding frenzy that ensued. I didn't see him again til Sunday night.

Tim lead us perfectly through the "Flume of Doom" and on to the North Boundary Trail corner. We made our way up Jury Ridge and ran into Michiel from Holland who was looking for the book on a much lower ridge. He joined the 3 of us to book 2, which was the beginning of the new section, steeply down to book 3, and then we slowly climbed up and out of creek confluence (the new section was in 'Hiram's Vertical Smile' area). Just before we got back out to the NBT, I was stuck part way up this rocky and muddy wall, Jared came up the hill behind me. He said he (and others) had some small navigation problems going through the new section as he scurried up the cliff and was out of sight. I was still stuck in the same spot. Jared did also say "it's better over here" to get up the wall, which was the best route.

After 35 minutes of climbing, we land on the NBT and make our way up and down the super slick and side sloping trails. It was sketchy going. On this stretch, the early lead pack started to move through at a good clip. First was Bev and Alan Abbs, then Eva P, Bob J, then John Fegy. It should be noted that John was my inspiration to make me even think that the Barkley was possible. Thanks John!!

Michiel, a Barkley veteran and writer, led us to the Garden Spot, which was where book 4 was.

So now we were basically a group of 4. We filled up our water and headed to the section on Stallion Mountain. Book 5 was at 'Leonard's Buttslide', a very short, steep, and slick out and back section. Eva was just coming up the Buttslide when we were going down, so we had made up some time somewhere.

It was here that John and I started to unintentionally get a gap on Michiel and Bob, who we didn't see again during the race. Through Bobcat rock (after a smoke and snack of course :), to Hiram's Pool&Spa, and on to book 6. From here it was down Stallion Mountain, across the New River (the camera crew and Ann from Canada saw us here), across the Highway 116, and to the Precious Jewel Swamp book (book 7) at the base of Testicle Spectacle. I was happy and comfortable.

Up and over Testicle Spectacle, down Meth Lab Hill, and we contoured over to a very pretty Raw Dog Falls for book 8. From there, it was a series of a few twists and turns to the rusty drum. And then…up, up, and away to the lookout tower via Pig Head Creek, some old jeep roads, the Prison Mine Trail, and on to the one and only, Rat Jaw. That middle section of Rat Jaw was the ugliest hill I have ever seen. Not just steep ugly, but aesthetically. It was just downright ugly. Cut down saw briers to get tangled in, slick mud, downed power lines and some other power line junk made up this middle section of Rat Jaw. Once we got over that part, it was far more 'normal' going to the lookout tower, the highest point in the park. Book 9 was also located at the tower, along with the 2nd of 2 water drops.

The Man. Jared Campbell.
Climbing the final pitch on Rat Jaw to the tower.
-Photo Credit: John Price (Thanks John!)
Just before we ascended the last steep part to the tower, Bev, Alan, and Jamil were coming down, which meant they had maybe 5 minutes on John and I. I was quite surprised to be in the mix, but it was very early to get excited about this.
The super helpful and inspiring John Fegy
Karine, along with maybe 15 others, were braving the rain and wind to cheer us on! Karen, Bo, Julian, John, Inga, Charlie, and a few others that I didn't know were there. Thanks everyone!!

Down to the Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary we go. It should be noted that I timed our "Loop 2 descent" on Rat Jaw. It took us 45 minutes...of downhill slick s*&t. It's only 1 mile long.

On our way down we saw Eva, and then Willy heading up. Into the tunnel under the prison and that water was cold!! Book 10 was attached to the posts that marked the spot where James Earl Ray jumped the prison wall for his 8 miles in 54 hours "escape". It was his escape that gave birth to the Barkley.

Next up...the climb up the Bad Thing. From this point, it was going to be a ~4km bushwhack section to the last 3 books. We saw the Abbs' and Jamil a few minutes ahead of us as we started out from the prison. All you basically do is follow the steep ridge all the way up to Indian Knob and the Eye of the Needle (book 11). Roughly 30+ minutes later, you're at the book.

Down Zipline to the Beech Fork confluence was next. We had a decent line down that didn't seem all that bad. Nearing the spot where the old road crosses the stream, we spot the group of 3 ahead. John and I catch up before getting book 12, so now we're a group of 5...and I'm really thinking "one of these things does not belong here". Me.

We climb up Big Hell and am very happy to be with this elite and über experienced crew. I still feel good and comfortable. All is well so far!

We land at final book (13) at the Chimney Top capstone and just have a slick downhill and some flatter trail to finish loop 1. I asked the group what their plan was when we arrived at camp and asked if I could tag along with them to lend a hand navigating the new section. Alan said they were taking a 25 minute break and I was welcome to join them.

Jamil, me, Alan, Bev, and John finishing Loop 1 
Getting my number for Loop 2 and heading out
Loop time = ~9:10 (3:56pm)
Time in camp = ~25 minutes
Started loop 2 at ~9h35m (4:21pm)

Jamil started out a few minutes ahead of us, so it was the 4 of us for now. We wanted to get through the new section in the daylight, which we did. In the coal pond area, we stopped to put on some warmer layers. Bev was getting cold at this point, so I offered her some hand warmers....which would have been great if they worked (they had expired--sorry Bev!!).

At the Garden Spot, Bev was too cold to continue. It was sad to see her go off into the dark and stormy night by herself, but she made the right call. Alan and I were on our own at the moment as John was just behind us and Jamil was still up ahead somewhere. The four of us reunited just before Leonard's Buttslide. We were moving, but it was noticeably slower than loop 1. There wasn't any navigational mishaps to speak of...well, except for me leading all of us astray on Testicle Spectacle of all places, but we were all just slowing down. When we were running down from Chimney Top, my eyes were going a little googley and I was sleepy. I had caffeine tabs on me, but decided that I needed to sleep for a bit versus trying to stay awake. This decision was probably the number one reason I missed the cutoff to start loop 4, but I moved far better on loop 3.

Jamil and I in the women's bathroom after a long Loop 2
Loop time = ~13h45m (6:10am)
Time in camp = ~2h03m
Started loop 3 at 8:13am

As Jamil, John, and Alan were preparing to leave camp and start loop 3, I was unsure what I was going to do. I knew I just needed to lay down for a bit. Karine was asking if she could do this and that and my only reply was "it doesn't matter". I showered and set my alarm for 25-30 minutes later. I did doze off for a few minutes, but that was about it. When I got up (before my alarm went off), I was a new person. All I could think of now was "Great. You just gave away an hour daylight. Not cool. Get moving."

The group of 3 left almost an hour earlier, so my thoughts of seeing them were gone. I got my new number from Laz while Karine was saying "It's only 14 hours of your life. Go go go!" I was basically leaving camp around the 25.5 hour mark, which meant I had ~14.5 hours to make the 40 hour time limit for a "Fun Run" finish. I figured I'd be finishing just after 10pm.

Getting my number for my solo Loop 3
I ran out of camp at a decent clip, all the way to the base of the climb. I was feeling good. The sun was coming out and it was going to be a nice day. 
Meanwhile, back at camp, Karine gets to handle :) Thanks!!
I get over Rough Ridge and startled a sweet and slightly spooked dog! She was barking and running away, stopping to bark some more, running away, etc. I wrongfully assumed that she was with some nearby hikers. After a few minutes of talking nicely to her, she was my new best friend. She was pretty happy and followed me up to the capstones. There was no way I wanted her to follow me down Big Hell, so I had to try and scare her away (which I felt bad about) by swinging my trekking pole into the leaves like a fool. She pretty much stayed put and I didn't see her until after the race. I made it to the first book in 1h20m. The descent down to Beech Fork took 20+ minutes, but I landed right at the Beech Tree. I headed up the brook for about 10 minutes until the old trail crossed over at the confluence. I started up Zipline on a bearing on the south side of the small creek, which was steeper, but not as rocky. I thought I heard voices just upstream from the confluence when I started, but didn't think much of it. After a while, I reached the top and find that John, Alan, and Jamil's pages are still there. I immediately thought I missed a book and had a small moment of panic. I hoped that everything was okay with them and headed down to the prison, which I somehow goofed up a bit. Might have lost a few minutes, but that's all, and figured the group's pages would be gone. Nope. Damn, I was really starting to worry about them now.

It was sunny and warm and I had way too many clothes on. My pack was pretty full, but I managed to squeeze in my shell and a hoodie. A camera guy was on the lower part of the Big Rat with me and I asked him if he was coming to the top with me. He quickly said "No" and that another camera guy would be up above.

I still believed I'd see the group coming down Rat Jaw, but it wasn't until I was heading down that I saw them, almost at the intersection of the old Prison Mine Trail and Rat Jaw. They were safe and sound thankfully. We exchanged a few words and carried on our way, figuring I'd see them sometime soon.

Down to the rusty drum was no problem. I even ventured over to peek down Danger Dave's Climbing Wall and thought "Hell NO". Down Pussy Ridge I went! I somehow crossed over the jeep road that the book was on and landed close to the bottom of Meth Lab Hill. I backtracked and within a few minutes, I was at the book.

The climb up Meth Lab Hill was slow and warm. I was over dressed and too lazy to take clothes off, so I trudged on.

The climb up Stallion Mountain took a while. My climbing legs were failing and I really wasn't eating enough. I ran out of water before the top and was so tempted to drink out of Barley Mouth Brook...but I didn't. I also had a strange song pop into my head at this point, which thankfully didn't stick around for too long. "Afternoon Delight" by the Starland Vocal Band. Why? I have no friggin' clue. I have zero recollection of ever hearing that song in recent years. Luckily I only know 2 words.

From the Garden Spot on, I swore I could hear the 3 guys chatting away, especially when I was up higher, they seemed to be below me. I was trying to get down a few M&M's at a time, but that was about it. I was happy that I got to go down that long ridge in the new section since it was longer than the other side leaving the book...or so I thought. Distance-wise, it certainly was shorter to go from the book at the stream confluence, up to the book off of Jury Ridge, but man I was sucking at climbing and that last steep pitch to the book kinda sucked. Actually, it sucked a fair amount. I sat down a few times on the way up and listened for the guys. I figured I'd get out on the NBT and just try to recover for 'the catch' and hope to hang on with them up Checkmate Hill.

Oh no...Checkmate Hill is up next in a really short time. I almost sat at the bottom to wait for the group, just to recover a bit more since I had gagged a few times due to exertion. I figured I'd get a head start on them and make my way up the last climb. Ahhhh....the last climb. That's a nice thought…assuming I had no chance at coming in under 36 hours.

I stopped a few times on the way up. One time I swore I saw 2 of the guys, or 2 random people, staring back at me, but they didn't move. Must have been trees impersonating people.

It was really nice seeing that square stone with the last book beside it, although I thought for sure it was going to come down to a sprint finish to the yellow gate. I was looking back repeatedly, waiting to be caught.

The final downhill was great! I imagined myself running like Nick Hollon on his 5th loop in 2013 down Bird Mountain...except I wasn't running THAT fast. It did take 17 minutes, so I was happy with that, and with no real muscle soreness.

When I came into view of the yellow gate, I tried to let out a coyote howl to alert people, but my voice crackled a bit. Folks were gathered at that lovely gate though, so that was a great sight. I was pretty pumped to see Karine and to be done for the day.

When I had started loop 3, all I thought about was coming under the 40 hour time limit for the Fun Run. I didn't think I had a shot at coming under 36 hours to continue on loop 4, and I really didn't know what the official race time was. In the end, I was 36 minutes over the cutoff, and not allowed to go out on loop 4.

Fun Run finish time of 36h36m.
The happy finish!
-Photo Credit: Marcy Beard (Thanks Marcy!)

Laz asked which way I'd do Loop 5 if I could. Tough call.
Getting 'tapped' out by Davy
Photo Credit: John or Marcy?! Thanks!!

Karine was pretty emotional (in a happy way of course) and I was happy to be done in the daylight (7:21pm Sunday). Most people didn't expect me to finish before Alan, Jamil, and John since they had almost an hour head start, but I assured everyone that "they'll be here in a few minutes. I've been hearing them behind me for a few hours now." In the end, they had an amazing finish, down to the wire, finishing with just 4 minutes on the clock (39h56m)!! Way to go guys!!

Hanging out at the gate and chatting with everyone was awesome!! I am very grateful for that time. Ed offered me a chair and we all just chatted and swapped stories. Laz then reminded me that I needed to pass in my pages. I pull them out in a nice and neat pile and start counting them out with everyone watching. 10, 11, 12..."where's my 13th page??? I knew I screwed up something to get ahead of the guys!!" The panic quickly subsided when I unfolded my bib number to reveal the 13th page. PHEWWWWW!! Next up was Davy playing the taps for me on the famous bugle. I could do nothing but smile.
John and I Monday morning
John, me, Alan, and Bev
Julian (Jared's awesome support dude), Karine, me, and Marcy
Rich Limacher, President of the Limacher Hilton
Saying goodbye to "the man"

I've read about the Barkley for years. I've seen all the photos and videos that exist online. I contemplated applying back in 2012 after contacting John Fegy, Jonathan Basham, David Horton, Blake Wood, and Laz. I still have those emails from July 2012.

I had told Laz that I hope to meet him. His reply was "be careful what you wish for!" Gulp. That alone was super intimidating. David Horton said in his reply "I hope you have done a LOT of tough stuff"...double gulp. I was a chicken.

Coming away from the Barkley 2014 makes me think that is possible to finish 5 loops...not more impossible. This makes me happy and psyched for another hopeful opportunity in 2015. I learned a lot during the race thanks to John Fegy, Bev, Alan, and Jamil. I am forever thankful for all the help along the way 'out there'. Again, John is the reason I thought 'this may be possible'. He flipped my switch. Thank you.

Frozen Ed was like my mentor leading up to this race. We'd share our training stories and I'd ask for course details. Ed was encouraging me along the way to continue training since he thought I'd get my chance to line up at the yellow gate. It was touch and go for a while, wondering if all the hill repeats were worth it or not, but Ed remained positive. Thank you!!

Thanks to our awesome Nova Scotia Trail Running family members for coming out to join me through the week on the Gross Grind. Just knowing that other people would be there kept me going and was super helpful. The regulars were: Karine, Tania, Chad, Anthony, Colin, Andrew W, and Al. You all may not have thought it was a big deal, but you were all very helpful. Thank you!!

Karine was my biggest supporter as always. She was always encouraging and super helpful. I was becoming even less helpful with household duties, but there was always a good meal ready for our 8-8:30pm supper after the training was done for the day. Weekends were spent at the cottage where I'd be gone for half the day or so, trudging in the snow and usually alone. Thank you, thank you Karine! I'm pretty lucky to be with her…and to be marrying her in August 2014 :)

Saying goodbye to everyone in camp Monday morning was tough. We love the Barkley family and wouldn't trade our time with all of you for anything. It was well worth the round trip drive of 5300+ kilometres.

Hope to see you all in 2015. Take care and hit them hills ;)

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Thursday Night Run Schedule for the Spring/Summer 2014

*Please pack water, food, cell phone, 1st Aid Kit, and a jacket.
*This is a fun and social group run, so the group will stay together for the duration of the run. *There will always be someone that knows the route at the front and at the back of the group.
*Stops along the way are frequent.
*Duration: ~1hr-1h30m   Distance: 6k-12k
*All runs will start at 6pm unless otherwise noted.

April 3rd - Wright Lake Run (at the very end of the road now)- Westwood Subdivision- From Hammonds Plains Rd/Wilson’s/DQ in Tantallon, drive 4.4k into Westwood Hills Subdivision. Turn LEFT on to Wright Lake Run. Drive 1.4k to the end of the pavement and park in the cul-de-sac.
Bring a change of clothes for the post-run get together at Lefty’s Pub!!

April 10th – Bowater Gate off Hwy. 103 – From Exit 5 on Hwy 103, continue on the highway towards Hubbards for 3.5kms. You will have just crossed a bridge and water towers (towers on your right). Turn right at the first gravel road 250m after the bridge. Park in by the gate(s), 100m off the highway.

April 17th - Station Road- From the Bike&Bean Café, drive 3.5k towards Hubbards. Turn RIGHT on to Station Rd. Park on the shoulder near ’15 Station Rd’.

April 24th - Bike & Bean Café, Tantallon

May 1st - Islandview Drive- from the Bike&Bean Café, drive 7.8k towards Hubbards. Turn RIGHT on Islandview Drive, just before the big Yellow Church. Drive 1.2k and park on the shoulder of the road. On the left is an outdoor skating rink. On the right is a small gravel road that leads to the ballfield.

May 8th - Ballfield Road- Drive 2.1k down Peggys Cove Road 2.1k. Turn LEFT on to Ballfield Rd. Park at the bottom of the hill, before the gate that may or may not be open.

May 15th – Bluff Trail – meet at the Bluff Trail Parking lot. To access the parking lot you go to exit 4 on hwy 103, turn onto the Bay Road (Rt.3) heading back to Halifax, go 2 km to Bay Self-Storage on the right. The Bluff Trail parking lot is immediately afterward. The civic address is #2890. (GPS: 44.666577,-63.762932.) 

May 22nd - Wright Lake Run/Lefty’s
May 29th - Bowater Gate
June 5th - Station Road
June 12th - Bike & Bean Cafe
June 19th - Islandview Drive
June 26th - Ballfield Road
July 3rd - Bluff Trail
July 10th - Wright Lake Run/Lefty’s
July 17th - Bowater Gate
July 24th - Station Road
July 31st - Bike & Bean Cafe
Aug 7th - Islandview Drive
Aug 14th - Ballfield Road
Aug 21st - Bluff Trail
Aug 28th - Wright Lake Run/Lefty’s
Sept 4th - Bowater Gate
Sept 11th - Station Road
Sept 18th - Bike & Bean Cafe
Sept 25th - Islandview Drive
Oct 2nd - Ballfield Road

Friday, January 10, 2014

Gear Review: Salomon Fellraiser

Thank you Andrew Woods for the great review!
Full disclosure:  I’m not paid by Salomon, nor given free shoes (is there a way I can swing that deal?).  I am, however, a Salomon gear junkie.  Most of my running shoe collection and half of the rest of my outdoor gear is Salomon.  My skis, and my daughter’s skis, are Salomon.  I even rep Salomon on my car and on my work laptop (hope I don’t get in trouble for that).

About the reviewer:

Weekly distance when not in training: 35-40 km

Typical long run: 20-25km.  I’m not an ultra-runner.

Style of runner: Kinda slow, not graceful.  I’m generally a mid-foot striker but I’ll also just land on whatever part of the foot hurts the least.  I’m not picky about my form (probably why I’m not better at this sport).  I don’t really race.  I just like to be out in the woods.

Where I run:  I spend most of my time on the technical trails around Halifax, Nova Scotia.  There is little elevation, but it’s always rocky, rooty, and muddy.  You get your feet wet on every single trail run in Halifax.  Even ATV trail or double-track is gnarly.

Shoes I use from Salomon: Fellcross, Sense Mantra, Speedcross, Spikecross
Other Shoes: Saucony Kinvara (road)

The specs on the Fellraiser (as tested)
·         size 10
·         290 grams (10.2 oz) – but I didn’t measure them, that’s from Salomon’s website
·         Red/black/grey
·         $109 from a big, big US online-retailer
·         ~150km run in them to date

Since the Fellraiser comes from the same family of shoes as the Fellcross and the Speedcross, this review will primarily use these two shoes as comparators to the new Fellraiser.

This is going to sound controversial for anyone who’s really into trail shoes, but I think Salomon’s Fellcross are the best shoes ever made for running on trails. They hug – maybe even affectionately caress – the feet.  They have incredible grip and ground feel.  They’re as light as you’d want in a shoe that is actually tough enough to survive a few months on the trail.  They drain very quickly.  The fit is incredible.  They’re deep enough to accommodate an insole for arch support (hey, I’ve got fallen arches.  What are you going to do?).  And most importantly to me, they’re relatively narrow in the toe-box.  I want shoes that, when I’m on uneven ground, I can get to the sides of the shoes quickly and push off.  I am not a big fan of wide toe boxes and sloppy-feeling shoes (see New Balance’s line, and even Salomon’s Wings/XT-Wings series).  Consequently, I love the Fellcross.

So when Salomon announced the Fellraiser, I was excited.  It was described as being in the same family as the Fellcross and Speedcross - possibly even using the same last as those shoes – but having a modified upper and outsole lugging.  And the big benefit: much less expensive.  Salomon’s S-Lab range of products are pricey, to say the least.  The Fellraiser is billed as an entry-level product offering, with a price to match.

How could I not buy a pair?  With a fondness for the Speedcross and a downright love affair with the Fellcross, I needed to try out this new cousin.  So I got my brother to pick me up a pair when he was in the US. 

It would be easy for you to go to Salomon’s website and compare the official specs of the various shoes, so I’ll provide a more subjective take on the shoes.  I’m also going to assume you’re familiar with Salomon’s shoes, like the type of rubber they use, the typical fabrics for the upper, the lacing system, etc.

So let’s go!

Yes, this is important.  And to be honest, they just don’t look as hot as the other shoes in Salomon’s line.  Check out these pics, from Castleberg Outdoors.
The colors are pretty slick.  Especially the women’s.  The purple-and-blue scheme sorta makes me want to be a girl.  Or instead maybe buy girl’s shoes.  Or perhaps just wait until my daughter is old enough to trail run and then buy them for her.

But I’m not completely sold on the look.  They don’t have the sleek, fast, awesome look of the Fellcross, nor the big, beefy traditional-running-shoe look of the Speedcross.  They’re just kind of there. The massive tongue and tiny heel collar add to the strange vibe.

From the side: Fellcross, Fellraiser, and Speedcross

And from the top.  Left to right: Speedcross, Fellraiser, Fellcross

One thing I love about the Fellcross (and the way it is lugged) is that if the ground is a little soft, you can just get up on the balls of your feet – or the edge of your foot – and dig those lugs in a little deeper to regain your grip.  It’s a great shoe for feeling the ground.  And it’s the biggest reason why I love that shoe. 

So how does the Fellraiser make out? 

In this area, it’s a big, big win. The lugs on the outsole are Salomon’s best yet.  They are still plenty deep and very aggressive, and so they’re just great in the mud. However, they are larger than those found on the Fellcross, and so I find that the shoes handle flatter or smoother terrain better than the Fellcross.  When descending something technical and soft at speed, these shoes give you confidence and leave you smiling – no slippies here.  And as you’d expect, the outsole sheds mud without you ever noticing that it was caught on your sole.  Bonus: I’ve found them to be excellent on smooth granite (we’ve got plenty of that around these parts).  If the rock faces are wet, however, you’re still going to slip some.  (Let me know if there’s a shoe that is actually good on wet, smooth rock.)
Comparing the Fellraiser’s lugs (red) to the Speedcross’ lugs (yellow)

Left to right: the sole of the Fellcross, Fellraiser, and Speedcross.  It’s easy to see how much wider the lugs are on the Fellraiser.  This is great, in my opinion.

Cushioning/mid-sole and ground feel
In theory, there is more cushioning in the Fellraiser than the Fellcross, but nowhere near as much as the Speedcross.  The Fellraiser is definitely stacked higher (there is more material between your foot and the ground) than the Fellcross, but that – to me – doesn’t make it feel softer, or more cushioned, or more plush.  If you were to run on pavement or logging road in the Speedcross, you would feel the pillowy softness under your feet. On those types of harder surfaces, the Fellraiser and Fellcross both feel like they have the same cushioning – which is to say, not much cushioning at all.

But take the Fellraisers onto technical terrain with jagged roots or rocks, and this is where you’ll notice the extra cushioning – and not in a good way.  Some runners talk about how “stiff” a shoe is, or how “soft” it is.  These words don’t mean that much to me, or perhaps I’m not using them the way others use them.  What I would say is this: there is noticeably less ground feel with the Fellraiser compared to the Fellcross.  The minor bit of extra cushioning makes the shoe feel significantly stiffer than the Fellraiser.   The shoes feel like they pivot over a sharp rock – like a teeter totter – as opposed to flexing around it.  To me, that’s a bad thing.

How is the shoe rockered?  It’s listed as having a 6mm drop from heel to toe.  That’s more than the Fellcross’ 4mm* but less than the Speedcross’ 11mm.  Now, I’m mostly indifferent to the amount of drop on a shoe (frankly, there seems to be too much made on this issue), but I’ll say this: when in the Speedcross, I’m noticeably tipped forward.  When I’m in the Fellcross, I feel flat and back on my heels.  The Fellraiser gives me the same feeling as the Fellcross.

Finally, as you might have guessed, there is no rock plate in this shoe.

*I’ve actually read that the Fellcross has a 3mm drop, while others I’ve spoken to say a 6mm drop.  Salomon’s website cites a 4mm drop.  Point being, the Fellraiser and Fellcross have the same feel.

Comfort / fit / sizing
The Fellraiser fits exactly as you’d expect from this family of shoes – narrow through the mid and forefoot.  It’s not quite as snug as the Fellcross, but slightly more snug than the Speedcross.  Despite the noticeably lower heel collar, the shoe still accommodates an insert (like Superfeet or Sole) quite well.

The toe-box is weirdly shaped.  It’s more square than those of its cousins, and so you might want to consider sizing up a half-size.  To elaborate: I am perfectly comfortable in 10 in the Speedcross.  I have had both 10 and 10.5 in the Fellcross – they both work, but the 10.5 is slightly more comfortable.  I got the 10 in the Fellraiser, and I find I’m sliding my toes against the front of the toe box on descents, and I feel that this is related to front of the shoe being more square.  As a further comparison, I have 10 in the Sense Mantra and those fit very well.

A note about the fabric of the upper: I mostly don’t care about what types of materials shoes are made from, as long as they are tough and expel water quickly.  However, the Fellraiser’s material is noticeably different than that of the other two, and not in a good way.  It is a very loose weave.  It feels flimsy and cheap.  The worst part?  Water and even small particles of dirt will enter the shoe through the fabric.  I have finished runs where there has been gobs of mud under my feet on the insole because it has entered the shoe through the fabric.  I suppose the good news on that front is that any water you take on will quickly be expelled, but don’t expect any resistance to water entering the shoe.  One puddle and your feet will be soaked.

Finishing touches
This is among the cheapest of Salomon’s trail shoes, and it is obvious.  Generally , the shoe does not have a robust feel, but two issues jump out at me:

Firstly, the way the various piece of fabric meet at the toe is strange.  I can, if I lift my big toe up in the shoe, feel a joint of two different pieces.  It’s annoying, and might even cause blisters on really long days (it didn’t for me, so I can’t really call this a “fit” issue).  Take a look at the overhead picture to see where the red piece of fabric meets the black where the big toe would be.

And secondly, what is the deal with that monstrosity of a tongue?  It is huge! And while the size doesn’t really bother me, here’s what does: it appears as though Salomon shrunk the lace garage on this tongue.  I have never had any problem shoving the whole lace and the little pulley into the garage, but on this shoe it just is impossible to get it in there. The garage is so loose and the pulley flops around so much that the entire lace eventually pops out during the run. It was infuriating, but I fixed the situation by putting an elastic band around the entire tongue and slipping the lace under that first.  An easy fix to a relatively minor problem… but Salomon, how could you mess this up?

In general, there is just a noticeable quality difference between this shoe and anything from the S-Lab series of shoes, or even the Speedcross.  The finer touches are just so much better on every other Salomon shoe I own.

In summary
I like the shoe and I’m glad that I bought it.  I was hoping for the Fellcross but with a slightly looser fit and a slightly stiffer/thicker sole. I would say I got that – and maybe I got something even stiffer than I wanted.

I was also hoping for a shoe that would provide cushion for longer runs and for runs that have significant distance on logging roads or non-technical ATV trail, yet still had great feel and response on technical single track – a true all-mountain shoe.  I don’t think that this is the shoe. 

I wanted to love it and had such great expectations for it.  Perhaps it was unreasonable for me to expect so much, and especially at an entry level price.  But … the shoe just leaves me wanting a more.

And the reason I want more is that I didn't expect the downgrade in quality, in the little details. It just isn't as nicely finished a shoe as other Salomon kicks.  My biggest peeve, as noted, is that the lace doesn't stay in the garage – even though it was an easy modification and fix for me to make.

For me, I would still prefer the Fellcross for anything technical and shorter than 30km, while I’d still reach for the Speedcross or Sense Mantra for a long, non-technical runs.   
This review is finishing on a negative note, but it doesn’t need to read this way: I love the fit and the incredible grip. The drainage is also top notch (provided you don’t care about the minimal protection from water entering the shoe), and the price is great. 

So I’d definitely recommend them as a first trail shoe for someone who wants to try the sport, and especially if the person will be running on technical trails and doesn’t want to break the bank.  For an experienced trail runner, you might want to add the Fellraiser to the arsenal as a training shoe.  For the shoe snob who has money to burn, you’ll probably end up looking elsewhere.
Now stop reading and get out and into the woods.