Friday, 23 August 2013

The More Mile Experiment

I detest Boris Johnson. But once in a while, however, despite better intentions, I find myself smirking at something he's said and actually agreeing with him.

Shortly after participating in the recent RideLondon cycle event, the Mayor of London wrote:

   'I saw someone imitating me - pedalling alongside and puffing with satirical glee. He was one of those Gollum-like creatures whose lycra appeared to be shrink-wrapped about his spindly form.
   His legs were as brown and thin as Victorian dining-room chairs, and he seemed to be so totally hairless that one could imagine he applied Veet to every portion of his anatomy in order to minimise wind resistance. "Garn Boris," he cackled, "put your back into it, you fat bastard.'

Living on the edge of the Lincolnshire Wolds, I tend to see a lot of chaps like the one Boris describes. The rolling hills and quiet country lanes are a magnet for serious cyclists. The Alford Wheelers - the area's most esteemed club - is based just down the road and has been encouraging excellence in cycling since 1952. There's rarely a day goes by when I don't pass a solo rider or a small group in training as I drive back from work or am out running.

Recently though - especially since the London Olympics - I've started to notice more and more examples of a different breed. In the language of the running world, these people would be labelled as 'joggers'. They're folks who are just starting out, testing the water in an activity that's new to them. Folks who are getting off their arses and doing something. In my book, that's something that can only be admired and applauded. However unfit, however over-weight, they're taking positive steps to make their lives better. That's great.

What's not so great is 'the gear'. The lycra, carbon-fibre bikes, Team Sky replica kit, cleated shoes. You know. The stuff they all have, even those who probably only venture out on a bike once in a blue moon (but only then if it's not too cold and not raining). The stuff that it seems you just have to have nowadays to justify yourself as a cyclist. It's here that my admiration begins to falter somewhat.

There's a guy I see most mornings on my early run. As I hit the Halton road, he invariably passes me on my way to Spilsby. Sometimes he ignores me. Sometimes he acknowledges me with a nod. Now and again, with mixed results, I'll race him up the hill into town. Mostly, I'll just let him pass and get used to enjoying the sight of him disappearing into the distance.

He obviously takes his cycling seriously. For him it's his means of transport for getting to work and back. I've noticed, recently, that he's updated his ride from a traditional sit-up cycle to a more sporty vintage steel-framed racing bike. However, that seems to be his only nod to the 'sport' of cycling. Even on the warmest of summer mornings, he'll always be wearing his usual gear - a day-glo  yellow work coat (complete with fluorescent silver strips), a pair of blue overall trousers and a pair of safety boots. On the back of the bike, on a rack that's probably custom-built by his own hands, there'll be a small brown canvas bag and a small blue cooler box.

Now and again, when he's passed me, a question will come to mind. I'll ponder over the lycra-clad beginners I see in their small groups on a Saturday morning and think, 'Just who's got this right?' 

The answer, to me, is obvious. By regarding a cycle as a means of transport, rather than an isolated activity - something routine, rather than something you have to get dressed up for - the vast majority of people would cycle more. That's a fact.

Surprisingly, it's a fact that Boris has picked up on. Earlier this year, he announced a £913 million plan to revolutionise cycling in London, including such measures as building more cycle routes, improving junction safety and introducing strict speed limits for all traffic on some cycle routes. On the scheme's launch, he stated:

   'I want to de-lycrafy cycling. I want to make it normal - something for everyone, something you feel comfortable doing in your ordinary clothes.'

I got to talking about this subject with Our Kid a couple of months back. After getting rid of his car some years ago, he spent a short time relying on public transport, before quickly coming to the conclusion that there wasn't too much to rely on and that if he wanted to get around East Lindsey, he'd best start relying on something else. Since then, he's depended upon his second-hand Land Rover 2x2 bike. Aside from the regular scrounging of lifts to the odd remote destination, he's become an everyday cyclist, covering 30-40 miles a day on his commute to work and back.

Our Kid's very vocal on a wide range of topics. Once he'd echoed Boris' views, extolling the virtues of sit-up cycling in everyday clothes, he moved on to slagging off anyone who's ever paid over £100 for a bike or who feels the need to wear 'all the gear' before jumping on their rides.

As with Boris, it's only rarely I agree with Our Kid, but this was one of those occasions.

After a bit, his ranting led inevitably to the subject of running, and this was where the conversation became either most interesting or totally stupid.

'I was walking into Sutton a couple of days ago,' he said, 'when I had this thought. I saw a couple of fit-looking women. They were maybe going out somewhere and looking really smart. I saw them and I thought to myself, 'Would they be seen dead walking down Sutton high street in a fluorescent pink, shiny, cheap-looking t-shirt?'  Of course they fucking wouldn't! But I bet when they go for a run or go to the gym, they dress up in all the 'proper gear' - florescent pink, shiny, cheap-looking t-shirts and think it's right as rain. But it's not right as rain, is it? It's shit. It looks shit. Do you know what I'd wear for running if I was a woman? A nice tailored blouse. Something that I'd not be ashamed going down Sutton high street in, even if I weren't running.'

He took a breath, so I got a word in.

'If you're doing a sport, you need the proper gear,' I replied. 'A technical t-shirt probably does the job better than a tailored blouse.'

'Maybe it does,' he went on. 'But why a fucking fluorescent pink technical t-shirt? You'd never wear that colour in real life. And who's to say a technical t-shirt is better than a blouse anyway?'

I thought about what he was saying, but before I had time to say anything, he was off again.

'You know what you should run in?' he goes, 'A nice, lightweight cotton shirt. Not only will it look good, but it'll work just as well as those expensive tops you get conned into buying. Those two blokes you go on about - Joss Naylor and Yiannis Tridimas - they're class runners - they don't believe all that bollocks that you've got to look a certain way to be a good runner - they just run in whatever they fucking want!'

Our Kid ranted on for a good half-hour longer, but I think you've got the gist of where he was coming from.

I thought about what he'd been saying over the subsequent couple of days and began to realise that however ridiculous his views sounded at the time, there was a whole lot of truth in his ideas. In much the same way as beginner cyclists feel they need to don Lycra and replica team jerseys before they jump on a bike, runners also have to conform to 'the look'. You know what it is. Turn up to any running club's training night and the majority of those present will rock 'the look'. Of course, there'll also be the odd weirdo who doesn't. But, far from not having a clue, that bloke in a faded cotton t-shirt, long shorts and Lidl trainers is often the only one who does.

Both the cycling and running industries are extremely proficient in persuading the general public that a very important part of being able to enjoy your chosen sporting activity is down to the gear you do it in. I agree that if you're rock climbing or running up mountains, money spent on best quality kit is generally money well spent. In such situations, indeed, you put your life into risk if you're not sufficiently kitted out. But, surely, that's not the case with riding a bike for 30 miles at the weekend, or running on tarmac?

Advertisements and articles in the national running magazines (who are reliant on advertising money from sports industry manufacturers for their very existence) will have you believe some right old shite. Firstly, you'll need to spend the best part of £100 on a pair of trainers, and then replace them every couple of months (for your own good). You'll need running clothing with special powers to wick away any excess moisture from your skin. You'll need arm warmers for those chilly autumn mornings, and a pair of compression socks that will magically make your legs feel better when you run any distance over 5 miles. You'll need to spend £15 on a pair of high performance socks and £55 on a pair of running tights because Ron Hill tracksters at £12 a pair are just something those old guys who were running in the '80s wear. You'll need a GPS watch that will track the exact distance you've covered, the exact number of seconds you've been moving, the precise number of calories you've expended. You'll need an app on your smart phone to compare your performance on pre-determined courses against other runners you've never met, before automatically downloading a map of your run, together with stats, to the Facebook pages of your friends, thereby giving them something else to ignore as they scroll through memes and inane status updates in a search for anything remotely interesting. You'll need...

I'll stop there, but I could go on till the ink in this biro runs dry.

In the days after Our Kid's rant, I chanced upon a couple of guys who's attitudes seemed to reflect his views.

Jay Aldous is a 51-year old ultra-running phenomenon. In 2011 his 13.52 100 mile split at the Desert Solstice 24 hour race set a new world record for the 50 to 54 years age group. In 2012 he secured overall wins at the Devil's Backbone 50, the Salt Lake 100 and the Pony Express 100, as well as finishing top 5 in such high profile races as the Javelina Jundred and the Leadville 100. For an athlete of his age, these performances are remarkable. What's also remarkable is that Aldous does most of his training, and all of his racing, in button-down cotton shirts.

Jamil Coury is currently one of the US's most highly-tipped up and coming stars. His resurrection in this year's Hardrock is the stuff of legend. When he started running 7 years ago, he sported 'the look'. However, over the course of those years, he has developed his own style, partly in a bid to assert his own individuality in a bland scene, and partly just to take the piss out of the preconception that runners should look a certain way. His current signature look involves a pair of board shorts, mismatched ladies plaid socks ($2 a pair from Target) and cheap plastic sunglasses. Whilst this attire is guaranteed not to be promoted by running companies, his performances have only continued to improve. I'm sure you'll agree he looks amazing.

Our culture has become lazy. Whereas once we were prepared to work for results, now we simply want to buy it. We'll happily spend £3000 on a carbon-framed road bike or £150 on ultra-lightweight hydration race vest in a bid to improve performance. What we'd be less inclined to do is lose a few pounds through eating healthily and training harder. The results would be the same, although, of course, the latter involves some graft which, surprisingly, even 'endurance' athletes aren't prepared to do. How often do you see a fat man stood at the start of a long race in all the expensive gear?  Very often. And that's sad.

Running is very simple. You need only a pair of shoes and a pair of shorts (check out Anton Krupicka). If you want to run faster or run longer when you're racing, you need to run faster or run longer when you're not racing. It really is that simple. You can buy all the gear you want in order to run faster or run harder in races but, ultimately, that gear is going to make fuck-all difference. The only thing that is - despite the promises of running equipment manufacturers - is hard work.

A couple of weeks ago, I was reading a review for the forthcoming Brooks Transcend running shoe. It was full of the usual crap that, as potential consumers, we're subject to everytime we open a running magazine or a running-related website.

Stuff like:

'The Transcend is not just another shoe with cushioning. It is an engineered marvel of premium materials and insightful technologies that deliver an effortless ride by adapting to you.'

'Transcend is the galactic wonder shoe that delivers a joyful, well-tuned experience.'

'No sew tunnels integrate laces into the velvety upper for a stellar fit and lush feel customized to you. Feet go in and never want to come out.'

'Divine midsole delivers 25% more than our BioMoGo DNA cushioning and smartly adapts to your every stride like a foot clairvoyant, providing amazing energy return and support.'

'Medial and lateral sides deliver on-demand support, allowing hips, knees and joints to move within their unique motion path.'

'A uniquely shaped outsole disperses pressure evenly in the heel, mid-foot and forefoot, so you can glide effortlessly to the place where rainbows live.'

Holding back disbelief, I went through a mental checklist of pertinent questions relating to these wonder shoes:

How much will they cost? I believe it will be in the region of £130.

Will they make me run faster? No.

Will they make me a better runner? No.

Will they prevent me from getting injured? No.

Are they likely to last 1000 miles? Maybe. Maybe not. Whatever the answer, I'll be encouraged to replace them after 400-500 miles.

In a month's time, am I likely to experience that depressingly familiar feeling that I've been duped into spending the equivalent of two days wages on what was promised to be a pot of gold, but actually turned out to be a crock of shit? Almost certainly.

I'd been on the verge of an impulse purchase for a few days, but had convinced myself that I didn't really need another pair of trainers. However, after digesting the Transcend's claims and the answers to my own questions, I could no longer resist.

After a swift internet search, I bought these:

The More Mile experiment had begun.

I've bought More Mile shorts and socks for a while now. The brand doesn't have the credibility of the running industry giants, but I've found its clothing, whilst being extremely cheap, is as well made and equally, if not more durable than the likes of Nike and Adidas.

More Mile's off-road shoe, the Cheviot, caused a minor stir on fell-running forums over the winter months, retailing at under £30 when it's immediate rival's shoes were costing over £90. There were rave reviews, but also a fair few disparaging ones. I guess, though, that this is par for the course for any particular shoe. Some people will like them. Some won't.

My shoe, the More Mile Oslo 11 is a semi-minimalist road shoe. In contrast to my last road shoe, the Merrell Mix Master Move, which cost me over £70, the Oslo set me back £19.95.

Over the next few months, I'll give this shoe a good hammering. I'll wear it for all my road-running and racing.

After a handful of runs, I've been more than pleased with its fit and performance. I'm hopeful that my experiment will be informative and enlightening in the sense that price doesn't always equate to quality. I'm quietly confident that I'll be asking one particular question often in the coming weeks: 'Why on earth did I ever spend so much money on road shoes in the past?'

Time will tell.

You can follow my experiment on my facebook page.