Trail running – Mountains Need Not Apply

Take living in London for example, the closest respectable hills to London are the Chilterns, an appropriately named area of docile green farmland which reaches up only 250 meters (875 ft) at its highest point. As a Londoner myself, I naturally stick to the trails immediately available to me in the city.

Yes, it is a far call from the dramatic mountain backdrops which dominate the sport’s online social media presence, but for many of us, it is all we know. In fact, running on flat trails offers a wholly underappreciated and underrepresented experience.

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Canals trails often link green spaces across cities.

Recent studies show that time in nature leads to better mental health. Anecdotally, I can vouch for my meandering runs through the flat terrain of South East England as being cathartic experiences.

Mentally, I gain a lot from running on the trails in my area which cannot be said for running on the roads. A forested section of trail along the river might not be as dramatic or photogenic as bombing down a slope in the San Juan Mountains but it offers a moment of calm and meditation which is valuable in and of itself.

Trail Running - Mountain Need Not Apply

Taken on the London Loop. A quiet trail running 150 miles around Greater London

In a time where 55% of the world’s population lives in cities with projections suggesting that the planets city-dwelling population will increase to 68% by 2050, remote mountain trails are simply out of the reach of many runners all over the world. Trail running in unexotic, urban and flat locations is often the only option for the average runner and urban trail running is, in my opinion, the next frontier for the sport.

Urban trail running might sound like an oxymoron, but our cities are increasingly tied together by green spaces. London is encircled by countryside (the “greenbelt”) and 17.8% of Greater London is public “open space”.

Furthermore, 19.3% of the Greater London area consists of important wildlife conservation sites. If you look hard enough, even in cities as urbanised and dense as London, you will find areas ripe for long training runs and even trail races.

As the world’s cities continue to grow the importance of green space is increasingly evident. Environmental benefits, mental health improvements and routes for alternative traffic (cycle paths for example) are just a handful of reasons why cities are beginning to focus on protecting and increasing their green space.

Runners should capitalise on the trails that they likely have access to in their city. Search for remote stretches of greenspace regardless of whether they offer mountain vistas and appreciate the respite from the busy, paved streets that encompass day to day life.

References:

https://www.un.org/development/desa/en/news/population/2018-revision-of-world-urbanization-prospects.html
https://www.gigl.org.uk/keyfigures/
https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/07/180706102842.htm

Walking 350 Miles in the Altra Lone Peak 3.5’S

To be precise, I walked 342 miles from Mexico to a McDonald’s sat at the foot of the San Gabriel range in a pair of Altra Lone Peak 3.5’s – but it sounds more glamorous to round it up to 350 and omit the fast food stop.

Anyway, here are my thoughts:

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FIT

The very first hiker that I bumped into on the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) was just 40 miles into his hike but was already complaining about his shoes. He called himself The Kid (or perhaps it was Michigan) and he was hiking in a pair of Soloman Sportivas.

This was my first day. I started 40 miles up the trail due to permit issues, and I was already encountering hikers who were falling victim to poorly fitting shoes – from then on, I paid close attention to my feet.

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Looking back on the rugged San Jacinto Mountains

Being a runner, I’m used to the “break-in period” with new shoes and so I took the Altras out for a spin on a handful of gentle 5K runs before setting off for SoCal.

My planning paid off and the Altras worked from day one. Not a single blister flared up the entire month that I was in the desert. I would excitedly mention this to fellow hikers who were also wearing Lone Peak’s and, to my surprise, the majority of them had the same experience.

Although entirely anecdotal, the number of people that I met in Altras was impressively high. In fact, The Altras had to be the most popular shoe on trail.

They were so prevalent, it became a running joke that we navigated by Altra footprints. Every now and then, when I would lose my bearings, I knew that if I looked down and saw an Altra footprint in the dirt that I was still heading the right way. Amongst all of these hikers, I only ever met 1 person that had a serious issue with their pair.

The fit, in my personal experience, is good.  Perhaps this is a result of the minimal approach that Altra takes when offering support in their shoes. The design features (specifically, the zero drop heel and wide toe box) naturally cater to the biomechanics and form of a broad range of people.

I was happy to enjoy this aspect of the shoe and not have to fret about blisters ending my hike early.

 

MATERIALS AND QUALITY

The shoes fit well and looked after my feet whilst they were in working condition but, to an extent, the materials let me down.

To my annoyance, my pair had a slight defect in the heel. No one else hiking in the shoe seemed to have this issue, but I managed to permanently disfigure the heel cushioning by lazily slipping the shoes on one morning. I had compressed the cushioning in one shoe and it just refused to bounce back into shape.

This all happened in the days leading up to flying out to the US. I thought it would be a serious problem and so contacted customer service (who very kindly sent out a replacement pair at no charge), but it luckily turned out to be a minor annoyance.

 

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You should be able to spot the difference in the heels of the new (left) and old (right) shoe above. The right-hand shoe is misshapen.

This was the only issue I found with the quality of the shoes. Perhaps if a firmer material was used in the heel then such an issue would be avoided – this would, however, be at the expense of comfort.

As to the lifespan of these shoes, I managed to squeeze just over 500 miles out of my first pair. 350 of those miles were walked in the SoCal desert and the remaining 150 were run in the British countryside.

The tread on the Altras performed reasonably well in both environments, particularly on my permanently muddy local trails in the UK, but in the desert, the tread seemed to wear down at a faster rate.

The general quality of the stitching, seams and materials used is good and, whilst the tread lasts, the shoe grips nicely in a variety of environments. Importantly, the one defect that arose from lacklustre cushioning in the heel was negligible and I managed to enjoy a respectable number of miles before needing a replacement.

Expect your pair to give you 450 to 500 comfortable miles before the Altras give in.

 

ALTRA SPECIFIC DESIGN FEATURES

Altra famously is the brand that specialises in zero-drop, wide toe box shoes. Their shoes are spacious and differ from the 12mm drop stability shoes that many runners start with. For someone like me, this new feeling felt unnatural at first.

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The Lone Peak 3.5’s profile

When I bought the shoes the wide toe box felt so large that I ended up picking up a pair which was a half size too small. Don’t make the same mistake as me and stick to your normal sizing – the space takes time to get used to, but is an essential part of what makes Altras so comfortable.

Secondly, if you have never used zero-drop running shoes, you’ll have to ease yourself into them. It’s a completely new running experience.

Think of it like the moment you took the stabilisers off your bike.

I’m no scientist, but arguably your stabilising and supporting muscles don’t have to work nearly as hard in stability shoes – zero-drop shoes make you more responsible for your form and so unless you have a Mo-Farah/God-like stride, you’ll have to adjust to the change.

Essentially, the breaking-in process comes down to running small distances and running them slowly. For me, this wasn’t hard because, for the first week of running in zero-drop shoes, the pain in my plantar fascia was telling me to slow down. I listened to my feet and quickly fell into a routine of taking my Altras out on slow days only.

This process takes time but take solace in the fact that you are strengthening your feet and maybe even cleaning up your form.

 

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FINAL THOUGHTS

The Lone Peak’s are an incredibly flexible shoe – revered in the thru-hiking community, they’re also a great all-terrain trail running shoe.

Perhaps I  have a romanticised view of their quality, but on my hike, they were utterly reliable and I wouldn’t have changed a thing.

If you are looking for a versatile shoe which can introduce you to zero-drop and, in my case, kickstart an obsession with Altras, pick up a pair.