Tracks and Trails / Booking & Info / Blog and Chat

From +30 to -7 was certainly a shock to the system. Back to the Alps following a superb action packed 3 week trip to South East Asia with time in Thailand, Laos and Cambodia. I'm still savouring what can only be described as 'a land of smiles'.

It's fare to say that I am never happier than when i'm exploring new territory under my own steam – be it on foot, skis or snowshoes the world offers the wonder lust mind endless opportunities and itineraries for every mode of travel. Working seasons in Europe gives us November our main holiday month making Asia the perfect destination for some exploring. And how...this time by bike!

Asia has been on my cycle touring wish list for some time but with restricted time, itinerary choice overload, thought of travelling alone and wanting to make the most of my time I was doubtful I'd ever realise my long awaited plan. In the past I've done plenty of travelling on a shoestring and am lucky to be paid to work in exciting locations but always as the planner, organiser & guide – and we all need holidays. So this Autumn, when a different opportunity came up it didn't take much time to say YES. I was offered the chance to join an organised bike tour partially as a 'recce trip' for one of our partner agencies but also as a client. The trip was to join a fully supported guided biking group in Chiang Mai, Thailand and cycle to Luang Prabang in Laos. So without much persuasion I found myself looking at flights ...and piecing together a plan! Two weeks later I was flying to Bangkok......

Bangkok is like people say pretty busy but certainly worth a look. It has an unusual mix of old & new everything. I spent a day walking the main sights of the old town (Royal Palace, Wat Pho and Wat Arun), amulet market and along by the river where the ferry boats continually roar up and down then an evening at Golden Mount temple and night market – where if brave enough you can sample local cuisine of deep fried anything: beetle, bug or frog? An internal flight then took me to Chiang Mai where I was lucky enough to arrive for the Loi Krathong full moon festival & carnival parade where the tradition is to put all your troubles in a candle and float it on the river or in the air making the most amazing sights.

My link in Asia is Spice Roads an experienced tour operator specialising in bike trips across Asia. Having got a little more used to the humidity, 36 degrees and time change I was now ready for some exercise. When I met with our local Thai guide, Natt, and the rest of the group (who were from all parts of the globe) the fact that others were on their 2nd, 3rd even 6th Spice Roads' trip was definitely a good sign. Our tour was 11 days (9 days riding) joining two historic cities in what's known as the 'golden triangle' via 730km's of very undulating terrain! As we were partially on road but also a good amount off-road we used mountain bikes. You could hire bikes locally or take your own. Everyone hired and was really pleased with the quality – they have a stock of well maintained basic front suspension Trek mountain bikes and a mechanic on tap all day to deal with any problems.

The ability level was mixed too but as we had the luxury of two back up vehicles. Riders could choose as much or as little as they wanted to ride making it ideal for mixed ability couples. I quickly settled into the luxury of having a guide, snack van and someone to sort my accommodation surprisingly easily!

Following a warm up ride outside Chiang Mai we began our ride towards Laos mixing up quiet back lanes, trails along by rivers and then some single track & dirt roads in the mountains. On average we were riding 70-90 hilly km's per day, the furthest day was 145km but this was mainly on tarmac. It was so refreshing for me to take part in a trip like this as a group member. I was fully appreciating our guide Natt for his local knowledge on food, the people, the history and culture. Not to forget the language and instant ability to communicate with locals along the way. We stopped at temples, sights, to chat to villagers cutting rice & peanuts crops, collecting natural rubber, basket weavers and whole families sorting corn not to forge meeting children wanting to say hello around every corner!

We reached lesser visited hill tribes near the Myanmar (Burma) border and settlements only reached by bike or on foot. Some trails led us to a rivers edge when out of nowhere a small boat would appear and ferry us and our bikes down and across a river to continue our way or to reach our hotel. Our accommodation was a mix of high standard hotels and gorgeous eco-lodges many of which even had swimming pools. With organised snack stops every 20km (and a man to fill your water bottle!!!) it felt very luxurious! Lunches were either pre-packed noodle or rice dishes or we'd stop in a small restaurant on route. Evening meals were so tasty, fresh & healthy – our guide would choose 3 or 4 different dishes of Thai or Laos curry, stir fried vegetables, rice, chicken or fish....the perfect 'activity detox'.

The Thai/ Laos border is split by the mighty Mekong. At the border we swapped guides and met Mr. Joy and took a small ferry boat to visa/passport control. After the formalities we enjoyed spending the rest of the day cruising along the Mekong with views of the limestone cliffs and jungle as a backdrop – also a welcome pause for the legs! In Laos the pace of life certainly felt slower, more relaxed and seemly less used to tourists in the places that we visited. Villagers would appear to see us ride through and children would put their hands out for a 'high five' on our way past. Friendly faces were everyone with an immediate warm smile.

Our second rest day was also in Laos and certainly a highlight of the tour. We stayed in a small town, Nong Kiau in a gorgeous eco lodge on the river's edge – the perfect place to relax, get a massage, do some washing, read a book and enjoy some down time before reaching Luang Prabang. There was an optional ride too where we cycled out to some caves that were used as a hide out during the Vietnam war and then went onto a school where we met the children and exchanged some songs! Finally reaching Luang Prabang was the perfect place to end the tour, one of Asia's most picturesque towns equipped with many welcome treats like cake & coffee shops, fine dining and the night market.

Direct flights and buses connect Luang Prabang to many parts of Asia making it easy to explore on further. So as I said goodbye to my fellow bikers I continued onto Vientiane, then to Cambodia (Phnom Penh and to Siem Reap) and completed my travels by joining friends to run a memorable and atmospheric Ankor Wat half marathon. A fantastic end to my autumn Asia adventure.

Julia

 

Think spaghetti Western, think Clint Eastwood, think amazing desert landscape, then saddle up and head off for the distant horizon! But I am not talking about a cowboy's best friend as a means of transport, instead imagine a sleek shiny Mountain Bike, full suspension cross country steed, and you are nearer the mark.

Moab in Utah, in the good old United States, is without doubt a mountain bike mecca. Having heard 'riders' talk about Moab in hushed, awe struck tones for many years I finally took myself across the Pond and headed for the desert. Moab is a 'one horse' town in the desert, near Arches National Park, which appears to have been taken over by the mountain biking community.

Why? It's simply the best riding around, and with 100 km's of trails to go at there is enough for everyone, and then some. I was worried that my 'basic' level of riding would be insufficient to enjoy the trails, but no way! Riding all day, every day I quickly became used to the rocks, and dry trails of the desert. It is world famous for Slick Rock, the name of one of the 9 mile long loops on the outskirts of Moab town. The rock is petrified sand dunes, and it grips like a grippy thing, so although the name Slick Rock might suggest you will be sliding down it, it does in fact stick to your tyres, provided you keep your 'behind' well behind the saddle on descents.

Porcupine Rim is the other world famous ride in Moab, taking an incredible line along the 'rim' of the canyons, and companies like Rim Tours offer a guiding service if you want a shuttle to the start of the ride, and a local expert to introduce you to the area. In fact many rides in both Moab, and the other mountain bike mecca of Fruita, Colorado, are called 'rim' something or other as the most stunning lines are often along the top of the plateau, with the rivers below. For instance, Western Rim, in Fruita is fabulous with incredible views of the Colorado river. Fruita is the new challenger to Moab for the title of best mountain biking destination on the planet! The two venues are only about 80 minutes drive apart and ideal twin destinations, with Fruita the more laid back and unassuming of the two. If in Fruita do check out 'Over the Edge' bike shop as the gang there are brilliant for local info on the trails and they provide an excellent service with cracking hire bikes.

But I digress, Porcupine Rim, in Moab, was mind blowing....a roller coaster of a ride with staggering views and rocky technical trails that went on for mile after mile. I don't think I have ever concentrated so much on a ride ever, but it was totalling engaging and a fantastic way to empty your head of nothing but the feeling of the elements and the terrain. The other riders, depsite my poor technique, were friendly, helpful, tolerant and smiley. It was indeed inspirational to chat to a group of women from Alaska who were at least in their late 50's. Apologies girls if you were in fact younger, but you made me think that I had a few more years of learning new tricks and skills on a bike before I had to hang up my 'full suss' friend. In fact the last I saw of you, you were kicking ass and I was eating your dirt!

Eight days of riding and it was time for a break and a bit of 'tourist action', so off I set for Arches National Park, and an afternoon of more 'awesome-ness'. A totally staggering desert rock-landscape of massive red sandstone walls, and towers, and yet again I felt like I had fallen into a 'cowboy' movie. If you make it to Moab do take time to visit the Park, it is absolutely worth the experience.

So in short, if you fancy the mountain bike ride of a lifetime, get yourself across the 'Pond', head for Fruita, Colorado, then drive another 80 minutes south to Moab, Utah, and get onto those trails. If you fly into Denver, then on the way back north, take time to ride at Gunnison, near Crested Butte, for some mega swooping dirt trails. I had the pleasure of riding with Arnold Schwarzenegger's ski instructor, Todd, who referred to the swoops as 'whoopity doo da's' which about summed it up. I wonder if he gets Arnie to 'whoopity doo da' occasionally! Lindsay :-)

 

The phones have been ringing off the hook! Not sure we have 'hooks' in 2013, but you know what I mean. Travel writer with 'The Sunday Times', Jez Lazell decided that our epic cross country ski journey across the Jura mountains in France was just the ticket for a feature for last weekend. I can see it now, a log fire, a cup of something warm, the dogs lying across the hearth, and feet up with the Travel Section dreaming about winter mountains and sparkling snow crystals.

The trip which caught the fancy of Mr Lazell was the long distance 'Grand Traversee du Jura'. At 112 miles across the Jura plateau it's definitely something you can get your teeth into. Every winter we are joined by passionate cross country skiers, and if they aren't passionate at the start they are at the end, who have decide their goal will be to complete the legendary GTJ. However, it's not something just for lycra clad super athletes, reminiscent of the winter Olypmics, our version is for those looking for a stunning holiday experience, but yes, you do have to be relatively fit and capable of cross country skiing all day. But, given the views we stop for views, coffee, cake, and general 'oohing' and 'aahing' over the scenery and the special shared moments of this winter wonderland.

As stated in 'The Sunday Times' - Following a well-established, cut and pisted route along the French/Swiss border from Morteau to Giron, you don't have to be Amundsen to do this, but you need to be fit, and need to know what you're doing – the trail dips and rises for five hours per day like a gnarly dragon's tail." So yes, we can take anyone who has mastered the basics, and can ski in control and for most of the day. But you do need to be able to do the following "the GTJ traverse is designed for those that can confidently get on their skis and go! We grade this trip as an intermediate/advanced trip. On our first day we will spend time to find our ski legs but we do expect participants to be able ski a variety of terrain and longer journeys of 20-30km in length. Participants should be able to ski at a good pace and have mastered a controlled snowplough for both undulating and any steeper descents." A 'controlled' descent is always a useful tool in the skiers kit box, we are never too happy to see you disappearing into the woods like an 'extra' from 'Bridget Jones'. Though, unlike the film, we don't expect you to end up skiing straight into a pharmacy and demanding a pregnancy test kit! Bridge Jones fans will understand what I mean. It's more likely that on the GTJ you will be skiing straight off the tracks and into a coffee bar for a large slice of home made cake.

Of course, with Tracks and Trails it's all very civilised and your bags are taken round by taxi each day, while you carry just a small day sack with your comfort items. In the main the tracks are all cut and pisted with just occasional non-cut sections. It all makes for a fantastic journey in the spiritual home of French cross country skiing. Needless to say it's not news to the French and Swiss who live on and around this frontier ridge line. Each spring normally in February they stage the famous long distance race the Transjurassiene which attracts thousands of cross country skiers from around the world. Both Julia and myself have taken part in the race and the experience is really something to be savoured, not sure I did feel like I was having a totally savoury moment while climbing the dreaded 'hill', but hey ho.

So this winter - what's your challenge going to be? According to 'The Sunday Times' -

"British cross-country ski experts Tracks & Trails (020 8144 6442, tracks-and-trails.com) runs an eight-night GTJ for £1,295, half-board, with a four-night introductory Jura Highlights Weekend teaching novices the skills needed for a GTJ costing £595, half-board. Transfers arranged on request from Geneva airport, which is served by several UK airlines, including British Airways, Flbye and Easyjet."

Walking and running are amongst the most popular of physical activities, but which is best? Nope, no easy answers to this vexing question - it all depends on what your objectives are!

If you're looking to lose weight than running wins by, erm, a mile! A recent study published in the US has shown this to be the case: you can see the publication here: "Greater Weight Loss From Running than Walking". In fact, the survey showed in the long term if your main aim is to keep your body weight constant, then running is definitely the better of the two exercises. The scientists can't exactly pinpoint why this is the case, but it would seem that in being more strenuous, and burning more calories per hour, running simply has the edge in energy expenditure. However, even when they had participants in the survey burn the same number of calories in both exercises over a weekly period, they still found running kept the weight off better. Intriguingly, it might be the case that running suppresses the appetite more after exercise - so you're less likely to consume the calories again that you've just burnt off! Another survey, this time using 10 committed female walkers, appears to show this to be the case.

However, we shouldn't knock walking - it can offer a lower impact route for many to get exercise and enjoy the outdoors. Studies have also found that hiking has health benefits we might never have imagined - such as reducing the risk of aged-related cataracts. More recent research has shown once again that both runners and walkers have far less risk of high blood pressure, unhealthy cholesterol profiles, heart disease and diabetes - all of which are increasingly common in Western societies with the stresses and challenges of modern living. Runners can reduce their risk of heart disease by exercising for just one hour per day by 4.5%, while walkers have a 9% less risk if they exercise for the same length of time each day - taking just 60 minutes out of your schedule to enjoy a walk or run clearly has an amazing results!

So, why not enjoy one of either our walking or running/fitness trips this summer in the amazing beauty of the Alps? We've lots of great trips planned to suit every taste. We can also help you arrange a tailor-made trip if you'd like to have a bespoke holiday - please contact us and we'll be glad to assist!

Lindsay

Many of us that struggle to find enough time to dedicate to training wonder how best to develop our VO2 max, given busy lives and tight schedules ('VO2 max' is shorthand for maximal oxygen uptake, a standard measure of aerobic fitness). In actual fact about 50% of our VO2 maximum is innate i.e. it's based on our own genetics… so you're to some extent blessed with being born relatively fit, or rather less so. That however does mean that the remaining 50% is in essence entirely up to you!

Recently the New York Times published an interesting piece on the 'single best exercise' - if you could do just one exercise to achieve the best level of personal fitness.. what should it be? Well, if only it were quite that easy! One sports science expert noted: "Ask a dozen physiologists which exercise is best, and you’ll get a dozen wildly divergent replies. “Trying to choose” a single best exercise is “like trying to condense the entire field” of exercise science, said Dr. Martin Gibala, of the kinesiology department at McMaster University in Canada.

Recently, in the debate as to the most time-effective way to improve VO2 max (given a limited amount of time to devote to training, what's the smartest, quickest way to get a boost to your fitness level) attention has turned to efficiency in training.

So, what is the best return on your investment time-wise? Traditionally the thinking was that you needed to go on lengthy runs to make the most improvement, but now the approach of certain experts is more toward high intensity bursts of more demanding exercise (interval training of a high intensity). High-intensity interval training (HIIT - sometimes also referred to as 'HIT') describes physical exercise that is characterized by brief, intermittent bursts of vigorous activity, interspersed by periods of rest or low-intensity exercise. The latest research appears to back up the idea that this exercise can prove especially effective.

Runner's World also published a good article on the concept - 'Train less for better results'. Too good to be true? Well, research does seem to indicate that HIIT has specific benefits. The Guardian also wrote on the discovery by Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh that after just two weeks of HIIT previously sedentary men experienced considerable health gains. Bare in mind, though, that you should be careful when exercising at a high intensity level not to push yourself too far and, as always, be mindful of avoiding injury. Another key finding in sports medicine has been the need to stick with your fitness programme. You should focus then on regular workouts, even if you don’t spend a lot of time exercising. The good news is that the health benefits of participating in an activity, even when short, follow a breathtakingly steep curve, and you'll certainly notice the benefits from a regular commitment to exercise!

Julia

Shock horror the 'guide' is wearing walking shoes! That was certainly the reaction a few years ago when I turned up to meet my group of Tour du Mont Blanc hikers with low cut walking shoes. The walking shoes in question were North Face Hedgehogs and five years later I am still guiding wearing 'Hedgehogs'. Certainly, since then it has become more and more common for 'walkers' to be wearing low cut 'shoes' rather than heavy duty walking boots and from my own experience the benefits are clear.

Perhaps the biggest difference you will notice is that the traditional 'ankle support' is absent. My ankles have never been twisted, and they seem to be much stronger since I shunned my walking boots! Don't get me wrong, boots are essential mountain wear, and there is always a pair of boots in my luggage just in case there is snow overnight or the terrain is super rough.

So why wear walking shoes? Well, they are lighter, more comfortable, not so hot in the summer sun, allow me to move faster and let me keep going all day without discomfort. Perhaps the biggest difference is that I can do major ascents and descents day after day during the guiding season without any knee problems. Think about it - our ankles are designed to move from side to side, but with high ankle support they are trapped in position which means our knees have to absorb more of the movement and shock.

A few things to consider -

Comfort

Hiking shoes usually have thinner soles than walking boots, but with a shoe like the 'Hedgehog' the sole is stiff enough to absorb any rough or sharp rocky terrain. On very hot days my feet do not overheat and on very wet days the Goretex liner keeps them dry. However, I would normally wear a very short gaiter to stop the water running into them. Again I go for 'light' and in fact use trail running gaiters, which are also handy when walking on scree as they stop any small pieces of grit getting into your shoe. For maximum comfort I have indeed guided in Trail Running Shoes such as the Scott eRide Grip. These are great, but the sole is thinner than the Hedgehog and they are best for good paths and trail where the terrain is not mega rocky. Last autumn I wore the eRide while guiding in the Sikkim area of Indian Himalayas.

Weight

No one likes to feel like every step is an effort and with hiking shoes you will find you are indeed much lighter on your feet. Shoes are usually about half the weight of leather walking boots and when every day involves thousands of steps then the difference does mount up. Almost all the major walking boot manufacturers now make a 'shoe' for walking. A good page to check which shows a range of shoes available is the one from Merrell.

Weather

We've already touched on the heat factor, but what about water. Walking boots definitely win out when it comes to crossing streams! You can usually rock hop across and keep your feet dry. Walking shoes usually mean damp feet if you actually have to put your feet in the water. However, the plus side is that shoes, because they are made of thin synthetic materials do dry quickly, whereas if you do actually get your walking boots saturated then they are going to take a long time to dry out. I have crossed streams ankle deep with my shoes full of water, only to have them dry out in about an hour on a sunny day. In cold snowy weather, then yes, it's once again the boots that win out, though I have crossed snow fields very comfortably in shoes. Some shoes have soles which are tortionally rigid and can cut reasonable steps! Though as stated at the start - I always keep a pair of boots in my overnight bag in case 'winter' arrives overnight. There is a list of top ten hiking boots to be found in The Independent newspaper.

Protection

There is no doubt that boots protect your ankles from scrapes and bangs on rough and rocky ground, and I am first to admit that I have on more than one occassion had a bloody ankle! However, I would argue that wearing shoes generally means I am lighter on my feet and take more care about where I step. The side support on boots does protect your ankle from sprains and twists, and offers more protection when crossing wet terrain or streams. The stiffer sole on a boot also protects the sole of your foot, but if you choose your walking shoe carefully you can get a decent enough sole which will work well on a large variety of terrain.

Getting Started
As walking shoes offer less support it's a good idea to get used to them gradually and give your ankles a chance to become stronger before fully committing to a long trip. I did once have a female client, however, who at the end of the first day of the Tour du Mont Blanc decided her knees where too sore from the first big descent to Les Contamines and who popped into a mountain shop and bought a pair of walking shoes and proceeded to wear them for the rest of the trip with zero problems.

Final Word

Walking shoes may not be for everyone, and if you have weak ankles then boots will definitely give more support. It's a subject which generates plenty of debate, and there are strong supporters of both. All I can say from personal experience is that walking shoes have saved my knees, and hopefully I will be working as a hiking guide for many years to come. NB: my 'boots' are always in my overnight bag - just in case! If you join us on a Tracks and Trails trip you will be asked to bring boots with you in case the weather turns wintry, but we will not object if you wear hiking shoes on the trail.

When I saw the Guardian Newspaper, image of Austrian daredevil, 24 year old, Mich Kemeter balancing precariously high above the Verdon Gorge I felt quite ill. Having peered from the top of these magnificient jagged cliffs into the depths I know just how stomach churning the experience can be, so what possessed Mich to tight-rope walk across the chasm without safety ropes defies belief.

I spent last Spring guiding a walking trip to, and through, the Verdon Gorge, which is know as the Grand Canyon of Europe. It is truly an amazing place - I had been prepared to be impressed and I was ! The Gorge is about 25 kilometres long and in places it is 700 metres deep. The turquoise-green waters gave the river its name, the Verdon, and aside from the jaw dropping depths of the Gorge itself, it's the colour of the water for which it is also famed.

The most impressive stretch of the Gorges du Verdon lies between the beautiful towns of Castellane and Moustiers-Sainte-Marie which are themselves well worth a visit. Without doubt the spring is the best time to walk in the area, the countryside feels fresh and clean, and the scorching heat of the summer is still to arrive. The wild flowers emerging in the Provencal landscape bring a burst of colour to the scene and can only add to the experience.

I am hoping to be heading back there this spring to guide our trip which is based in the area, and takes in the Gorge itself. I could never get too much of the stunning, wild, jagged beauty that is the Grand Canyon of Europe.This wonder of nature is a spectacular sight to behold.

http://www.tracks-and-trails.com/index.php/eng/Walking/Scheduled-Departures/Verdon-Gorge-Grand-Canyon-of-Europe

Lindsay

Scott Icerunners and the ion-mask!

Just when you think Spring is in the air this week the Alps were covered in another metre or more of snow and that's just at valley level. What a season - this winter just keeps on giving! But for many runners this can be a tricky time to get the miles and speed sessions in due to the challenging conditions underfoot. From fresh snow, slush, hard packed snow or ice – you can see how it can be tempting to skip a training session or two! In previous years I've worn spikes over my shoes (see previous blog) to keep me running but this year I've been delighted to try the new Scott Icerunners. A big plus for Icerunners too is that they feel like a normal trainer/sneaker on the different surfaces, where as when you wear spikes as you change surfaces you can often feel them underfoot. The Icerunners certainly offer an excellent compromise for an 'all terrain winter shoe' however on long steep sections of technical ice I would still recommend more of a crampon – such as the Kahtoola Microspikes over the top. That said, whilst trying out new equipment like this don't commit yourself and run into tricky terrain where turning back becomes awkward.

The Scott Icerunners are not only stylish to look at but have been really well designed, offering a trainer which provides excellent traction in pretty much all conditions and can truly promote itself as an "all terrain" running shoe. I've taken it on snow, mud, ice, road, gritty trails and rock and so far I'm really impressed with them. I had a half size larger than normal to enable me to wear warmer/thicker socks which allows for a little warm air to circulate – important for those sub 10 runs.

Their science:

  • Water repellent/breathable 'ionmask' treated upper
  • Contain the eRide midsole
  • Icetrek traction Vibram outsole
  • Weighing in at 250gm

They have a sleek design in attractive colours (good for the bar as well as the trail!), a neat minimal lacing system with a simple waterproof cuff/gaiter to prevent the snow from getting inside. A waterproof feel to the upper and a stiff rubber sole with little rubber studs for traction.

So what is the Ionmask?

A protective layer, invisible to wearers, and is said to be over one thousand times thinner than a human hair! The technology is molecularly bonded across the surface of the shoe making it extremely durable, waterproof & breathable without affecting the look or feel of the product. Scott state that the ion-mask™ lasts as long as the material itself and is not compromised by everyday wear. By resisting the absorption of water and dirt, ion-mask™ should guard against stains, making products look newer for longer.

The Scott eRide component adds a biomechanically efficient and stable midsole. Vibram have added the latest Icetrek rubber outsole giving a secure winterised fit, good surface traction and cushioning on pretty much all surfaces. As the Icetrek sole is designed for a variety of surfaces and is therefore quite stiff, my only thoughts are that you wouldn't want to run for too long a period on normal tarmac....but you're unlikely to find too much of that in the Alps for a while yet!

Over all Scott have certainly created a superb quality shoe which combines; good winter traction, breathability & water repellency, style and comfort, therefore creating a versatile, high performance all-round multi-terrain winter trail shoe.

Next on the Scott shoe list when Spring does finally appear are the T2 KINABALU.

Julia

Last month the record for running the winter Ramsay round was well and truly broken.

The 'Ramsay's Round' is a 24-hour hill circuit of 60 miles taking in 24 summits of Scottish Munros including; Ben Nevis, the Aonachs, Grey Corries, the Loch Trieg group and the Mamores with a total climb of around 28,500 feet / 8686m. First run by Charlie Ramsay in 1978, this is one of the world's toughest mountain running challenges and taken on and completed by very few.

Friend and fellow fell runner Jon Gay ran the 24 Munros solo over 23rd/24th February 2013 in 23 hours 18 minutes. That's a whole four hours quicker than the previous record set in 2012. It's difficult to imagine - but it's a bit like ascending Everest from sea level, mostly at night, on your own. Only four people are known to have done it in winter in the 34 years since the summer round was first completed. Anyone into winter 'munroing' will know that just one or two Scottish mountains can prove to be tricky, even in the summer.

"I was pleased to complete a Ramsay's in summer 2010 along with Pete Duggan. I am an average runner especially on the flat, but ok at ascending or general hill bashing. Completion for me in winter seemed a long shot."

The required winter skills, physical fitness and understanding of the 'round' is an achievement in itself taking years to develop. Tackling any of these mountains in winter, at night and alone at this speed is definitely noteworthy. The Round.

"Ascending the Ben the cloud was down and there was fine snow falling. Here we go again I thought, whilst struggling with my crampons/ reviving my fingers. But emerging down Carn Mor Dearg Arete (runnable due to snow cover) I entered an Alpine wonderland with rime on the rocks and full 'styrofoam' neve (hard snow) underfoot.

Shortly after I started feeling sick, weak and dizzy- completely debilitating. I gave in a number of times and had to lie briefly in the snow, before becoming cold. It was a thorough effort of will to move. If there had been any weather threat or higher wind chill I would have force marched myself immediately down, I guess, to the bothy. But it appeared to be temporary low blood sugar or the body generally protesting
as it does on these long routes. Glucose gradually brought me back to life.

Jon added: "Besides the mountains being so 'runnable' and the weather perfect, the near full moon topped everything. The solid snow may have made it faster or marginally less exhausting than summer. I have been extremely lucky. I am obviously delighted to complete but feel humbled to have got a decent time in winter when many runners could have gone faster in such wonderful conditions."

What an impressive achievement and example of dedication - an amazing achievement, Jon: this will be a touch record to beat!

Julia

Factbox 

Jon lost 6 kgs and just carried 1.4 kgs of food!

Jon's Kit Notes:

Thin Lowe Alpine Balaclava - Less likely to get lost than a hat.

Led Lenser H7 headtorch - Light weight, very bright with a penetrating/focussing beam, helped navigation. AAA batteries faded after about 8 hours on full beam. Took 2 spare sets of 3.

Smartwool tee shirt - Warm when damp from sweat.

Omm 'Smitten' long sleeve top - Thumb loops to help keep hands warm.

Montane 'Event' jacket

Inov 8 Roc lite 318 fell shoes - A size and a half too big to fit socks. They have a rand at the front which seems to help keep toes warm-ish. Roclites can be bought via the online shop Facewest.

Karrimor 'Xlite' 15 litre running sack - £15 incredibly light, sculpted and comfortable.

Camp XL20 200 gram ski touring axe - Carried between back and rucsack strap for immediate access, string leash clipped to chest strap.

Kahtoola 10 point flexible walking crampons - Great on fell shoes. When you need them you really need them? Wore them on Ben, Aonachs, Easains and most of night in Mamores. Avoid Kahtoola micro spike copies from ebay or you will be tying them together on the move. Postman's rubber crampons- never again. Instep crampons made from the back of a climbing crampon - painful.

Cut down Silva compass tied to sac belt.

Harvey Ramsey Map - Includes East Loch Treig area.

Ortleib waterproof bag - Bag tied to rucsac.

Schedule and pencil. Idiot card with pacing/ timing etc. For when the brain cells die!

Tesco bag to keep 'downstairs' warm. Essential and better than using a hat. Try 2!!

Download Jon's full report, split times and full kit list here.

To run barefoot, or not?

Barefoot running is getting a lot of attention these days. Should you retire those well-worn shoes and go 'au naturel'?

Seems like more and more runners, including a fair few trail runners, are making the switch to barefoot running. Most aren't exactly running completely 'au naturel', but instead are choosing the latest foot attire from well-known manufacturers such as Vibram, VIVOBAREFOOT, Nike and Merrell. Indeed, there's quite a difference between the different models, and some you'd hardly call 'barefoot models' - Nike in fact talk of 'barefoot-like running' and still seem to place quite an emphasis on putting a bit more rubber (and cushioning) between your feet and the trail. Vibram (at least styling-wise) appear to have bought in most to the concept: the look of the fivefingers models are not for everyone!

Vibram also seem to have cottoned on to the fact that some runners experience a little discomfort when adapting to the new shoes. They've produced a handy FAQ section on their site, which you'll find here. That said, there are some genuine concerns as to whether the switch to minimalist shoes is the right step - or leap - for everyone. You'll read on the websites of the manufacturers that the new models all help you run 'more naturally', with 'a closer connection to the ground'... but we should remain conscious that, after all, they're also trying to shift new shoes in an already crowded market. The move to minimalism represents a great opportunity for Nike et al to encourage everyone go out and buy yet another new piece of kit. This is where science steps in and raises a few questions...

A new report published in February adds to the ongoing debate. This latest research, published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, suggested that some runners are ill-suited to adapting to the barefoot-style shoes and develop new aches and injuries. Conversely, others found that the more minimalist shoes didn't hamper their running technique and had no impact on raising their exposure to running-related injuries.

These results represent just the very start of the ongoing research into barefoot running equipment and running techniques associated with the new shoes. The researcher, Dr. Sarah Ridge, is now reviewing additional data about the volunteers in the programme and analysing information about each runner’s mileage, running form, body weight, etc. She noted that the results don’t necessarily mean everyone switching to minimal footwear will court foot injuries, just that in making the transition you'd do best to do so slowly. Be cautious and listen to your body (as always!!!).

Julia

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