Thursday, 27 December 2012

Gear Review: Gaiters - Inov-8 vs Dirty Girl

I enjoy running in the mud.  Frequently, I even enjoy running through standing water - especially if my feet are a bit tired or sore.  As a result, I have days where I end a run with almost as much muck in my shoes as on them.  I started wearing gaiters a few years ago, with Inov-8's DebriSoc - a sock with built-in gaiter.  When the sock part finally met its holey demise, I cut off the sock and kept using the gaiter.  Last year, before the River Ayr Way Challenge, I finally replaced the decrepit old things with a new pair of Inov-8 Debris Gaiter (tm) 32.  They were partially successful, but they are dreadfully dull to look at, and, ever the magpie, I have been eyeing up the wantonly excessive decoration of the Dirty Girl gaiters that are now easily available in the UK via The ULTRAmarathon Running Store.  Thanks to my fabulous parents-in-law, on Boxing Day I had the chance to test out the Dirty Girls, so here's my view of how Inov-8 and Dirty Girl stack up on a wet and filthy trail run.

The Inov-8 Debris Gaiter is pretty simple: put on gaiter, put on shoe, slide elastic bands under the shoe and hook the tab onto your laces - what could be easier?  They cover the lace knots nicely on most shoes, which is helpful in mud as well as long wet grass.  They're also fairly absorbant, which can be a hassle if there's a lot of water as well as grit on the route.  The ankle cuff is a bit bulky, which can result in quite warm ankles if you're out on a summer run.  With a price ranging from £11 to £15, and coming in any colour you like, so long as it's black, these gaiters keep the mud out at a good price.

Inov-8's Debris Gaiter 32 (Picture by Inov-8)

The Dirty Girl Gaiters stand out visually, with over 20 patterns from which to choose.  The attachment to the shoe is very straight-forward.  There's a one-time (or now-and-then) process requiring you to stick a bit of self-adhesive velcro onto the back of your shoeand then wait a day.  To wear, put on the gaiter, put on the shoe, then velcro the back of the gaiter to the shoe and hook the front to the bottom shoelace.  They are made from a basic polyester/lycra blend, so are a little stretchy but not too clingy.  The gaiter is also very light, even on a very wet day.  They don't absorb much water, and are reasonably cool.  I comfortably wore mine (without trail shoes) around the house for an afternoon to check the fit while I waited for the velcro to set on my shoes, and hardly noticed them.  On the down side, the cost of all the pretty colours is an extra few £ on the pricetag.

Nic's new Dirty Girls, in "Pink Panther" - mine are the swirly "Compulsive" pattern.

Things to be aware of about both brands:  if you wear shoes without laces (e.g. most Five-Fingers), you are going to have to find something to hook the gaiters to at the front.  An elastic band around a toe or two will do in a pinch.  If you wear La Sportiva shoes, you will also struggle to find a lace to hook onto.  I successfully used the elastic band from my old DebriSoc around the forefoot.  Nic made a fixing point by running a safety pin along the top of her lace-gaiter with good effect.  With a bit of time and fishing line, I expect the best method will be to stitch in a loop at the bottom of the lace gaiter.


If you are more concerned about grass, pebbles, and dry debris than mud and wet grit, then the Inov-8 gaiter is certainly sufficient for your needs and gives good value.  For all-round use, the Dirty Girl wins hands down on ability to withstand a wet run without adding to the weight on your feet.  They have a tighter weave, so also kept out more fine grit than the Inov-8 gaiters.  If you're going to be spending any length of time in the wet, and the current weather pattern suggests we all will be, then I would suggest spending the extra on the Dirty Girl.  And if you don't fancy colourful feet, you can always go for the olive green or nearly black options.

2012 - Been There, Ran That, You're Doing What?

Ah, December!  That time of year when we look back and pretend that the previous 12 months formed some kind of continuous experience that will magically end, be packaged up, and replaced by another year-long block.  Life, if we're lucky, lasts quite a long time, so like any good long run, we break it into manageable pieces, taking and planning one step at a time.  Every now and then, when things are going well, it's possible to take a step outside of this artificial time line and see that everything is connected, all our future somehow dependent on the miles that have come before.  We transcend the map, the GPS, and the strange taste caused by too many gels, and everything somehow fits into the great vision.  That's usually about the time I trip over a tree root.

How did 2012 fit into the progression that is my grand plan of life and running?  Let's put on the hindsight goggles and have a look. I ended 2011 with two predictions for 2012.  Prediction 1: the dry weather we'd been enjoying could not possibly continue - rather unfortunately, I was right, and am now musing about downsizing to a houseboat before the house becomes a boat.  Prediction 2: a good early season could lead to a tilt at running the whole Cotswold Way during the summer - this never really made it onto the priority list.  2012 started as a busy racing year.  The first half of the year included 15 races of distances ranging from 1 to 34 miles.  I ran 100 race miles fewer than in 2011, due to the reduction in the number of marathons.  I also raced at a minute and a half per mile faster, again due in part to fewer marathons.  By adding ultras to the calendar, I had an incentive to boost my training miles, logging 50% more in 2012 ( ~1800 for the year).

Somehow, the second half of the year seemed to include all of the "A" races for 2012.  That hadn't been the plan, it's just how the desire, energy, and ambition played out.  By mid-July, every race that had a comparator was a "best" of some kind.  For standard distance races, I had picked up a new PB at 1mi, 5km, and half marathon.  For races I had done before, I picked up course bests, including the two ultras where I beat my equivalent 2011 marathon times as part of the ultras.  2012 was shaping up rather nicely.  I was successfully building on 2011, which had indeed been a "breakthrough" year.  Looking forward to the first "A" race, at Nairn, I started to get a little ambitious and before I knew it, I was targeting a sub 1:30 half (nearly made it!), my first 40+mi race, and a new marathon PB on one of the toughest road courses in the country (it's not actually that bad - just one tough hill towards the end).

All through the fun of racing, there was an undercurrent of trying to figure out how to make running more than just a hobby.  During the summer, we launched Cotswold Running as a venture to organise races and eventually other running-related experiences.  The enterprise started well, with an enjoyable event at Broadway Tower (according to those who slogged through the mud), and will continue into 2013 with other fun challenges on the cards.

Having stared back with the hindsight goggles on, 2012 looks like a year full of enormous change.  I was happily racing faster at all distances and  running further than ever before.  Working life headed in a completely different direction.  What was going on?  But, if we ignore the artificial barrier that is January 1st, the year is simply a bridge from what came before to what lies ahead.  The running achievements flowed nicely as a result of the base laid in 2011, and have set me up for a potentially exciting 2013.  April's Highland Fling is inked in as the spring "A" race, and a few other interesting races are finding their way onto the plan.  Career-wise, what appears from the outside to be a complete divergence from the past is really just another stepping stone along the way, building on years of varied experiences and leading to - well, we'll just have to see where it leads.

Monday, 3 December 2012

Shoe Review: La Sportiva Crosslite XC

As the upper in my previous right trail shoe decreased its attachment to the lower portion of the shoe, I started to look out for a new model and brand.  Nic has been quite happy in her choice of La Sportiva Crosslites for several hundred miles, but when I tried a pair, the fit wasn't really what I was looking for.  I've been wearing Inov-8s since 2008, which makes it tough for anything new to get past the "first impression" test. I liked the upper and the rock plate, but something wasn't quite "right".  So, when I had the opportunity to try on a pair of Crosslite XC at the Snowdonia Marathon mini-expo, I took the chance and was pleasantly surprised.  The next thing I knew, I had a pair of shoes tucked under the wardrobe waiting for the untimely demise of my Roclites.

After my trip to the Wrekin last month, the time had finally come to try something new.  Carrying my new shoes in my backpack, I ran for my favourite proving ground - Bredon Hill.  My preferred approach up the hill begins with a steady track around a ploughed field, carries on through a firm pasture, slogs through a load of boggy muck, up a wetland that was like a shallow stream after all the rain, up a limestone track, and along a path that alternates between grass, slippery roots, mud, and rock.  Then it's a nice circuit of the hill and back down.  In a little over 7 miles, this route offers a fantastic mix of terrains and textures to test out a new pair of shoes.

The Crosslite XC is a light shoe (less than 280g in size 9) with a breathable upper, aggressive outsole, and lace gaiter.  Thankfully, the bright yellow mellows quickly once you hit the mud.

La Sportiva Crosslite XC - "Before"
The first thing you notice when you put on the Crosslite XC is that you can't get to the bottom of your laces.  Adjusting the tension requires an old-fashioned tug on the ends and some hope that you'll get it right.  It took a few tries, especially with cold fingers (I'd had a nice, if very cold, road run to reach my testing ground).  After a couple of stops, I got the laces right and was able to tuck them into the gaiter.  The gaiter comes up high enough to provide a good anti-muck layer above the most vulnerable grit access point, but not quite far enough to allow you to completely hide the knots.  Being able to tuck away the loops in the laces should help to keep the shoes from being untied by running through long grass, but the knots still get caked with mud as you find with any other shoe that needs to be tied.

The rubberized toe box and reinforced upper proved suitably robust against the various rocks, sticks, and roots I encountered on my way.  My feet kept reasonably dry when running through small amounts of mud, and the shoes seemed to drain quickly when I went through anything particularly deep.  I never felt like the shoe was holding an unnecessary amount of the water I was running through.

Widely-spaced lugs, angled to support ascending and descending.
The Crosslite XC is billed as an aggressive fell and trail shoe, designed for wet and slippery conditions.  The outsole bears out the description.  The lugs are angled in all directions to support forward motion - the outer lugs on the forefoot are angled to resist sliding away from the centre line, the main forefoot lugs are angled to grip and pull through as you go up hill and to push mud away as you go down hill, and at the back you can see the lugs turned around, so they offer extra grip as your heel digs into the shifting earth/scree on a messy descent.  The "FriXion" rubber compound is a soft rubber, ideal for wet rock.  The grip on wet limestone descents was unexpectedly good, comparing quite favourably to the popular Inov-8 Mudclaw. The harder sole on the standard Crosslite is not quite as sticky across wet rock, but wears well on the road sections of a route - I'm not sure how long the XC will cope with the inevitable road running between trails, but the extra stability on wet limestone is worth it on my local trails.  I felt incredibly well connected to the ground on my descent through wet leaves, rock, roots, and grass, with good grip throughout.

The rock plate and rigid sole provided excellent protection from the occasional sharp rock, but the difference  from the incredible flexibility I normally have in my shoes may take some getting used to.  I can think of several races over the past year when I would have loved the extra protection, so I'll be breaking myself in as quickly as possible.
They wash up well in running water, and don't keep it with you  once you carry on.
Towards the end of my run, I tested the built-in gaiters with a knee-deep mis-step.  Very little filth got into the shoe, which made a nice change from my previous pair.  I did manage to sweep some grit into the shoes as I washed off the mud in a stream, but nothing more than could be expected with the vigour of my swishing about.  Happily, the shoes also released the water as I ran, so there was no squelching after just a field or two.

As I sat to change back into road shoes for the 10K run home from the test, I encountered an unexpected bonus.  Although I hadn't really noticed the fit once I got the lace tension right, the Crosslite XC heel box fits me perfectly, with no slipping.  My feet typically tear out the heel box cushioning in all of my shoes, but these gripped in just the right places - to the extent that I struggled to get the slimy things off my very wet feet!

In summary, the Crosslite XC is an excellent fell shoe, great for wet and slippery conditions, with a great fit.  It handles rough terrain as well as its better-known rivals, and feels like it will last a bit longer.  It seems like La Sportiva are phasing it out (I can't find it on their website any more), so it's worth stocking up before they disappear entirely.  That said, based on my experience so far, I'd happily consider any new light-weight replacement the manufacturers come out with.

Mid-life update: 
It's nearing the end of February, and I've put nearly 200 miles on these shoes, so I thought it useful to update the review. Mostly, I have been running in mud - up muddy hills, down muddy hills, through wet and muddy fields.  The longest I've spent in the shoes is around 6.5 hours.  They really do drain well. I've managed 1 dry run in that time, and the shoes held up well.  My feet didn't get too hot, but I must say that after 20 miles, I was feeling a bit battered by the combination of already-tired feet, minimal cushioning and the fairly rigid sole.  I'm quite happy to run on a minimally cushioned shoe, but I would have liked a bit more freedom for my feet for a run of that distance given the amazing lack of soft ground on that day.  

As with nearly every shoe I've worn this winter, I am seeing some heavy wear around the toe box.  But, unlike my Inov-8s, I haven't had any holes developing in the Crosslite XC.  The fabric is pretty robust.  The test will be whether it separates from the sole after another hundred miles.  So far, the signs are that the shoe will last well.

I still think this is a top-notch shoe, but I can't see wearing it for any of the 8-12 hour events I've got coming up in the spring.  But, since that's not what the shoe is designed for, I won't complain about that!