Trail running gear

Ahh…outdoor gear. I have a love-hate relationship with it.

On the one hand, I love researching the latest designs and technology relating to climbing, running and camping. More importantly, having robust outdoor clothing and equipment can make the difference between an enjoyable experience and a miserable one, where you can’t wait to get back inside into the warmth. Especially in Scotland. I tend to rediscover this every few years when I attempt to go more lightweight and minimal. In extreme cases it can even mean the difference between life and death.

On the other, I’m all too aware of the environmental impact that certain outdoor products have, and also the impact of consumerism in general.

We should aspire to be gnarly, outdoor athletes in old, battered but functional gear that has seen countless epic adventures, rather than punters in shiny, barely used gear in this seasons colours.

And at the end of the day, it’s not having the latest equipment that counts, but the engine inside.

This applies particularly to running, one of the attractions of which is the sheer simplicity of the sport.

However, when it comes to trail and mountain running, you’d be well advised to invest in a small amount of specialist gear that will last a long time and keep you warm and safe.

If you’re getting started in trail, fell or mountain running (ie. running extended distances in fairly remote backcountry areas, with changeable weather, but no overnight camp) this is the gear I currently use and would recommend as a good starting point.

  • Trail shoes
  • Merino baselayer
  • Shorts (or leggings in autumn/ winter)
  • Waterproof socks
  • Debris gaiters
  • Beanie
  • Lightweight windproof gloves
  • Buff
  • Spare micro-fleece layer
  • Lightweight waterproof jacket
  • Lightweight waterproof pants with zip to knee
  • Race vest/ Small running backpack (10 to 15 litres)
  • Watch with altimeter
  • Map, waterproof map case and compass
  • Phone
  • Survival bag
  • Emergency headtorch (Petzl e-lite)
  • Ultra-lightweight walking poles
  • Water and snacks sufficient for the route, plus an emergency gel

Obviously this list will vary slightly depending on conditions. For example adding hat and sunscreen in summer, mitts and an extra warmth layer in winter.




Lessons from the Glencoe Skyline

I used to consider myself pretty fit for my age; someone who feels very much at home walking, scrambling, running and climbing in the mountains. That was until I took part in the Glencoe Skyline Race last September.

It was a bittersweet experience. Of course it was fantastic – an epic race around Glencoe. 52km and 4750m of ascent over challenging mixed terrain surrounded by stunning scenery. The race organisation was very professional and there was a real sense of camaraderie amongst the 200 or so competitors. It was life affirming to be around such a positive, fit, enthusiastic group of people, who clearly loved being in the mountains and challenging themselves physically and mentally.

On the other hand,  it brutally brought home the realisation that amongst this elite fell running subset of the population, I have a lot to work on, in terms of fitness, endurance, speed and just being able to move more swiftly the mountains.

In fact, at times I was wondering what on earth I was doing there, amongst world class athletes such as Killian Jornet, Jonathan Albon and Emelie Fosberg. Of course, I use the word “amongst” loosely, as the only time I was anywhere near these guys was at the start line.

I cannot comprehend how the winner (Killian Jornet) managed to finish in half the time it took me to eventually haul myself round the course. The speed with which some the competitors made the steep descents down uneven scree and slippery rocks was an education for me.

My main aim was to complete the course without serious injury and within the strictly enforced cut-off times. Deep down I wanted to finish in under 10 hrs. In reality I finished in 12hrs 35 mins!

Barring injury, I’m definitely giving it another go – maybe not next year, but soon. So what lessons were learned, and what would I do differently next time:

  1. I would train harder, much harder. By that I mean I would improve my hill fitness, beasting myself with longer days in the hills, coming much closer to simulating the time and distance of the event than I did for this years preparation. I would certainly put in some 30-35km + runs over 8-10 hrs in the hills in the month before. In an ideal world I’d book a holiday in the Alps for some altitude training a few weeks before!
  2. I’d work on my leg strength, to improve my downhill speed. For me the limiting factor is knee pain in prolonged descents, rather than inability to tackle the terrain. I enjoy fast descents over scree and uneven ground, but my knees let me down.
  3. In terms of equipment, taking walking poles was the right decision for me, although I doubt any of the elite athletes use them over this distance. They helped me keep going in the latter stages of the race both on ascents and descents when I was getting tired, however this was at the expense of slowing  me down, by making forward progress much less smooth.
  4. Endurance running is as much about getting your nutrition sorted as your fitness levels. Strangely, I needed less food than I thought on the day, based on my experience in training, however I find it’s best to accept a heavier load and carry a bit extra just in case, as you’ll certainly pay the price if  you run out of adequate calories.
  5. If possible, I would bring my own food to eat the day before the race when you’re hanging out in Glencoe or Kinlochleven. I ate hotel food which, while being absolutely great on any other occasion was probably not what I would have chosen for a pre-race meal had I been at home.
  6. I think I was possibly the only person to wear a helmet on Curved Ridge! I had given this a bit of thought before the race, and my rationale was that I would be towards the back of the course which meant there would be 100+ people above me, potentially causing rock fall. In reality, this wasn’t an issue, thanks to good route planning by the race organisers and everyone moving slowly and carefully over the crux sections. I wouldn’t take a helmet again.

Low volume marathon training


This year I’ve decided to attempt the Glencoe Skyline, a 55km mountain run which circumnavigates Glencoe in the Scottish Highlands, involving 4700m of ascent with some scrambling/ rock climbing thrown in for good measure. To quote the race organisers ” the nature of the challenge is very severe and there is a risk of serious injury or death whilst participating in the event.” I’m excited and terrified in equal measure.

I’ve done quite a few challenging races in the past, but I’ve never actually run a pure marathon, so it made sense to incorporate one into my Skyline training schedule.

After all, there’s something special about a marathon – not just the challenging distance, but its history – its beginnings with Pheidippides in 490B.C, Spyridon Louis winning the event in the first Olympics of the modern era fortified by local wine, the famous races, the legendary athletes.

First timers like myself inevitably start with a lot of questions about training and nutrition, and the amount of information out there is overwhelming and often conflicting. How many times a week should you run? Should you do any other types of exercise other than running? What is a tempo run? What should you eat before, during and after a race?

It’s highly unlikely that there’s a one size fits all training plan. Ideally we would all have our own coach, who could devise personalised training regimes based on our goals, fitness, physiology, natural abilities, proneness to injuries etc.

But most of us don’t have this luxury, so we have to pick a training plan that sounds reasonable, monitor our performance, experiment with it, and tweak it as our training progresses.

In keeping with my interest in a time efficient, less is more approach to training, I was interested in trying a 3 day a week marathon training schedule, as advocated by some running authorities.

I like the idea of this approach – it seems more achieveable and realistic for the average runner (like myself), and in theory, reduces the risk of injury in the short term. It may also have more of a chance of establishing a lifelong commitment to distance running, than more hardcore training plans which advocate running five or six times a week.

Anyway, here’s how it went:

The plan:

My aim was to get round the course in one piece without getting injured, and use the training as a stepping  stone towards the ultra marathon.

It was a bit of a struggle to find a race that fitted in with work and family commitments and occurred on a date that allowed me enough time to train. Eventually I picked the Lakeland Trails marathon – it sounded great (a loop of Coniston in the Lake District) and it took place about the right time in my training schedule.

I didn’t have the luxury of the usual 4 to 6 month plan, but I thought I had a reasonable base level of fitness, so I found a 10 week plan from a running magazine which advocated 4 runs per week, 2 rest days, with a day of cross training.

training plan


The reality:

I work full time and have a young family so I modified the plan to suit. I ran three times a week – I would do an easy 6km run, a 10km run, and a long slow run which was supposed to build to a maximum of 18 miles on week 8. Runs were generally off road on hilly terrain. I tried to add in two sessions of circuit training a week where possible, leaving me two days off.

Training was going well until about 3 weeks away when I developed flu, which forced me to take 10 days off training and so I failed to achieve my long slow run of 18 miles. I never ran further than 14 miles and there was no time for a taper.

On race day itself, I felt I had recovered from my bout of flu and was happy that I could run safely without too great a risk of viral myocarditis. The first half of the race was fine and I felt strong, however my lack of training in the last few weeks eventually took its toll, and the last 10km was particularly grim, and I finished in a slower time that I had hoped.

Given my age and suboptimal training, I expected to feel worse in the days after the marathon, but apart from some knee pain and a bit of nausea on the evening after the race, I recovered better than I thought.

What went well?

Having some sort of plan written down and pinned to the wall was crucial. I stuck to it as far as possible, but didn’t beat myself up if I missed the occasional session through work or other commitments.

I’m a big fan of training as specifically as possible for the event you’re involved in. This was an off-road trail marathon on the fells of the Lake District, so I tried to train in a similar environment.

Learning points

Getting sick was unfortunate, although in retrospect fairly inevitable. It’s highly likely that you’re going to get sick or pick up an injury at some point during your training, so factor this in. Give yourself enough time to train properly, even if you already consider yourself fit.

I like the idea that you can run a marathon using a regime based around only 3 runs per week, however, it doesn’t leave you with much leeway when things inevitably don’t go to plan – like getting sick (or going on a stag weekend the weekend before the race).

Also, once your ambitions go beyond finishing the race in a vaguely respectable time, you’ll undoubtedly need to up your weekly mileage, whilst still focusing on being as efficient and effective as possible during your sessions.

Here are a few other tips I picked up from my first marathon experience:

  • Train as specifically as you can (ideally reconnoitre the course)
  • Every run should have a purpose (hills, speed work, endurance)
  • Factor in set backs – trainer harder and for longer than you might think is necessary
  • Listen to your body