Monday, 17 July 2017

Merida Big Trail 800 first impressions and recommended upgrades

In summary | She's big, tall and fat. A little heavy as well, but boy does she roll well.

I've ridden the bike twice now and already I already know I've made the right decision.

I've only ridden a semi-fat once before, and not for long, so didn't really know how well it'd feel or work even. I took the plunge on this bike as I wanted something a little more fun than my current bike (a Niner ROS), and boy did I make a good choice.

Maxxis 3C full quality tyres as standard

I'v;e captured a few photos and thoughts below that may help you to make a decision about whether to get this bike yourself and what you can expect when it arrives.

Where did I buy it?

I bought the large Merida Big Trail 800 from Lakes Cycles in the UK and got a 9% discount over the RRP. Bargain for the spec and quality of the bike.

I'm 5' 11" and I bought the large. There's so much stand-over clearance on the bike that a Medium would have had too short a reach and I'd have had my knees around the stem when seated. On the ride I did wonder whether an XL would have fitted as well. 

The Merida Big Trail 800 2017

My very first impressions

I didn't like the grips, but they use a 3mm allen key to stay secure

  • Meh, the black paint is OK. Would have liked the blue or the red more
  • Weighs a bit, likely around the 29lb mark I'd say
  • Tyres are big, but not super massive
  • Grips aren't all that
  • Sizing is good. Lots of stand over clearance and good reach. Saddle needs to be further back
  • Bars are nice and the stem is mega short
  • Had to remove the reflectors in the wheels and the massive wheel protector behind the cassette
  • Fork width looks much larger than a regular fork
  • Brakes are basic and I wonder how well they'll work and last
  • The dropper is really nice and I love the actuator on the bar
  • LOVE the soft entry and exit cable points on the frame. So simple, silent in operation and keep the cables away from the frame - all bikes should use this as the new standard
  • Huh, the tyres are full quality 3C models, which means I won't need to upgrade them
  • The wheels were ready for tubeless from the off, just needed the valves and the gunk
  • Wonder whether the hubs will be any good
  • Huh, the wheels have the RockShox torque caps to provide a greater surface area between the hub and fork
  • Saddle looks junk

Fork width and clearance are size-able

My very first ride impressions

  • Yup, the saddle is junk
  • Grips are harsh
  • Tyres make wicked noises
  • This feels like it rolls as well as my Niner
  • Roots and bumps are simply absorbed
  • It's much more comfortable than my Niner
  • I'm impressed with acceleration and speed of direction changes
  • Ha! It's super easy to wheelie (not that I can that well)
  • I didn't notice the weight particularly
  • The dropper is dead smooth and I much prefer the lever over my Thomson on the Niner
  • Gears are perfect - didn't have to think about them once
  • Brakes were surprisingly good and were silent
  • Tyres skidded a few times on wet and rock, but picked up traction again quickly
  • Never once felt out of control

Amazing cable management

Immediate changes and upgrades

  • I changed the saddle to a more comfortable WTB Volt
  • I swapped out the grips for some ODI numbers
  • I converted the wheels to tubeless using 35 mm Stan's valves and 100ml of Stan's sealant
    • Noticeably saved weight on the bike - the tubes are MASSIVE
    • Pro Tip: I needed to use a Schwalbe air canister to inflate the wheels (110 PSI did the trick)
  • Helicopter taped the frame in key areas (prefer some damage to the frame for character)
  • I put the stem at the bottom of the stack of spacers

List of next changes and upgrades

Neat looking, flex for comfort, but isn't
compatible with my butt

  • I'd like a lower stack height headset in time and to cut the steerer tube down - never like the idea of something sticking out the top of the front of the bike
  • I'll toy with the idea of new brakes. I've had XTs for a number of years and models and really appreciate the variable lever point (which the Merida's brakes do have, but needs an allen key)
  • Longer dropper post, lighter wheels and better rear mech are on the wish list, but all items have really impressed me so will only be replaced when they break (if they break)

Look out for a more in-depth review in the coming months.

If you have any questions, then share below and I'll be sure to reply.

More photos

All the bits that came with the bike

Fork uses the Torque caps to provide
a greater surface area between the hub and the fork

Super short 35 mm stem. Lots of spacers for adjustment.
Nice bar too

Deore brakes impressed more than I was expecting

Dropped remote / actuator is the best I've used

Front profile

No touchy! Cables stay away from the frame and don't tangle (lovely)

Loads of adjustment opportunity

Dinner-plate sized cassette and great looking SLX cranks (scuffed after first ride)

Artsy shot

Wednesday, 5 April 2017

Hilly trail running routes around Cookham and Maidenhead

Come the Summer, this is the best place to run in Maidenhead
I love to run hilly trails, I feel that there's nothing better than an arduous ascent and a quad-jolting descent to improve fitness and free the mind from the weeks oppression and stress. And as I quite dislike running on the flat, I pretty much only run hills.

Living in Maidenhead I'm lucky that there are a few biggish hilly trails that I can run up and around that suit my particular style.

Here are two of my favourite hill running routes around Cookham / Maidenhead.

Winter Hill* "Beast me" reps

It's 100 feet(ish) tall. Goes up like a rocket and has multiple trails that mean you can always find something to suit both the beginner trail runner and the die hard nut. The shortest run is about 5k (from the car park and after a few reps), but can obviously made to be much longer the more you do. It's also really easy to follow.
*Huh, it's not actually Winter Hill. Thanks Google!

The big loop was for the dog to get a drink on such a hot day, which she outrightly refused. Ugh.
  1. Starting at the top of Winter Hill in the car park, face the view and run right
  2. Pick up a thin trail and follow it all the way
    • Take the left at the wooden posts a 100 metres from the car park
    • Straight across the roads separated by a drop
    • Take a left at the gravel t-junction
    • Jump the gate ;-)
    • And go straight all the way down to the moor
  3. When you hit the moor, you'll see a hill screaming into the sky on your right with a well worn trail
    • Run up it
    • It has a hidden top, so save something for the end
  4. Once you're up, head left on the trail and catch a breath
  5. After 50 paces run the technical descent (slippery in the wet) to the left
  6. Hit the moor-floor-once-more (ha!), turn around and repeat in reverse what you just did
  7. And keep on repeating it up and down over the same hill
For true leg smashing training
Rather than turning around and running back-up up the technical hill, head left at the bottom for 100 meters and look left (up the hill). You'll see the light trodden trail that I've made into the side of the hill. It goes right up. It's a beast. Run up that, technical route down and repeat. Most I've done is 10 repeats. It's horrible and I love it.

For a running break
At times I need to run-off the hill reps, so at the top of the hill where you take the technical descent, take the right turning just before it. The singletrack is a lovely bumpy feel-good run and when you get to the bottom take a left and after the same distance you just ran you'll see the technical route on your left or you can take the hill rep option a little further on.

Running with a dog?
After a few reps, head down the technical descent and over the wooden bridge. Take the slight left trail from the bridge and head towards the river. There's easy access for dogs to the water, just watch for cows and swans.

Winter Hill and Bisham Wood loop

This is essentially a combination of the run above, and another run the other side of the car park at the top of Winter Hill. It's a varied route with only the end hill to challenge you, but it's 'bumpy' and fun. It's also well shaded, so ideal for midday runs within sunscreen during the week of Summer.

The Bisham part of the loop starts with running in the opposite direction of the above run (left as you face the view from the car park).

This one is harder to follow. Use a GPS if you have one.

This was a run covering Winter Hill > Bisham Wood > Winter Hill
  1. Run along the trail away from the car park
  2. You'll run onto someone's drive, follow the trail to the right of the wall
  3. After a minute or so take the left spur near a wooden post up the hill
  4. Moments later you'll pop out into an open
  5. Run straight ahead into the trees (don't follow the trail left)
  6. Look for the lightly trodden markings and spacings on the ground and openings between trees
  7. You'll end up by a road with a trail immediately across it (you can't see the trail from the other side)
  8. Cross the road and cut across all trails heading far-left for a couple hundred metres
  9. You'll come to a road at some point and follow it right (follow it right on the trail if possible)
    • If on the trail, take the left turnings; until
  10. At the very long and straight bridleway (either on the road or on the trail) take a right and head all the way to the top
  11. You'll come to two wooden gates (take the furthest one from you, not the one on the left)
  12. Follow the trail all around until you come to another wooden gate at the top of a large descent
  13. Take that descent heading right and down
  14. Take the slight up-hill right at the first set of signposts into the trees
  15. You'll pop out near another set of signposts with 4 routes and a wooden gate to your left, take the first right (not the immediate sharp right leading back-up the hill)
  16. Follow this route for 500 metres and then take the left turning down a very steep 'chute'
    • This left turn is from an intersecting singletrack from the right
  17. At the bottom of the chute take a right
  18. Take care when you come to the road - look for cars and cyclists (this is also my, and many others, cycling hill rep route)
  19. Cross over and take the right up the trail
  20. This is a long and hard hill run, enjoy
    • There are also about 30 steps at the very top too
  21. Before you step onto the road, take the left and follow the trail
  22. If you have a good memory the wooden post you come to is the same wooden post at the start of the run, either run the route again (about 2.5km) or continue along back to the car park
If you're after something flatter then the moors make for great fast and flat trail routes. If you run during the warmer months you can get a belting ice cream at the Cookham Moor car park. Sometimes it makes it even worth running the flat for a hill-goer like me.

Monday, 5 December 2016

Inaugural Centurion Running Wendover Woods 50 ultra-marthon race report

I'm not really sure whether I was looking forward to this run. I don't recall any excitement or even apprehension before it. It was simply a date in the diary that I'd be running 50 miles with near 10,000 feet of climbing.

The day started with a large field with lots of cars. Not the usual Centurion start I thought. I registered, dropped a kit bag off and cuddled myself to keep warm. I didn't see a single soul that I recognised, except for Susie Chan, because everyone recognises Susie Chan.

We walked a short way down to the start and heard the familiar race briefing. I was puzzled at a chap running around with a camera pointing at shoes and trying to coax people into an impromptu interview. I let him be. I was in a world of my own, waiting to get started and be away with the trails.

The first lap

The first lap was done at a good pace. 1:55 or there about. I stopped only briefly at the midway aid station, thanks to a doggie-bag tied to my pack, and for a touch longer at the start of the 2nd lap. I found I didn't need to top up my water bottles for at least the first 15 miles owing to the cool temperatures and short distance between aid-stations. If I was doing the run again, I'd only bring one bottle with me.

Unlike point-to-point marathons, and perhaps because of the extreme elevation change, the runners were bunched up more than I'd have expected. And again, the extreme elevation probably kept chatter to a minimum. Except for Susie Chan. She and her friends were having a right old natter! Though I confess that I enjoyed the background noise to an otherwise eerily silent wood.

The route itself is tough. It demands attention and effort all of the time, but rewards with some absolute corkers of trail that twist and dance through the woods, with such steep gradients that you nearly fall forward. Nothing too technical, but there was little opportunity to switch off and glide.

The second lap

If lap one was a flyer, then lap two was a stinker. My knee started to 'ping' early on and whilst I tried to ignore it, the whole second lap was spent limping and struggling. It was the familiar ITBS and I felt like my ticket was up. I'd pushed myself too far into a corner and my body was no longer willing to accept my brazen orders. The thought of stopping was delicious to my mind. I could stop, warm-up and forget about all of this running crap. Oddly I found going up hill was a relief, but downhill was agony. It was at this low that I thought of Becky Shuttleworth popping pills like they were candy on the A100. So, in her honour, I had a cheeky single ibuprofen and painkiller and hoped they'd kick in quickly.

I think it was on the second loop that I saw Kojiro who's a good buddy that I've ran with a few times. Being taller than him and being further up the hill, it probably wasn't the most sensible way to begin a friendly hug. I think he must have caught a face-full of doggie bag, but it was a delight to see him. He was going strongly and I let him fly by within a few minutes. Like a demented game of cat and mouse, he finished only 15 minutes ahead of me, but for the 12+ hours we were out there, we only saw each other for 2 minutes. Madness.

The third lap

By lap 3 I was feeling better, but staying sensible. For some reason this was the longest of the laps. Not in time, I don't even know how long it took, but for some reason in my head I thought that this was the second to last lap. Because the third lap brings me to the fourth lap, and when I finish the fourth lap, I'll be at the number five and this insidious run ends at the number five, right? RIGHT?

My terrible maths was distracting me from my running and drew my focus to how I was feeling and how much further there was to go, which is rarely ever a good thing.

The fourth lap

But, by the fourth lap I was feeling pretty good. I contemplated whether I was enjoying the race, and whilst I concluded that I was happy to be out there, it's not a route or a race format that I'd quickly sign-up to again. I found that I felt happiest telling myself that on the next lap it would be the very last time I had to run this hill, or dodge those roots or feel mocked by seeing the midway aid-station a solid few miles before I was able to banquet there. Yes, I was absolutely happy that this race was almost over.

The fifth and final lap

So with that, I can't really describe what came over me on the fifth lap, because my inner voice had changed so that I was now upset that this was perhaps the last time I was going to run this trail. I savoured the trails and jumped into the downhills. I marched the ups and thanked the marshalls with big smiles and waves. I won't say that the thought of the race ending wasn't a big part of my happiness, and certainly knowing the route well enough by then that I knew how far I was away from the end was handy, but overall I was genuinely happy to be out in the dark running around a small wood in the Chilterns.

Thank you to the Marshalls

More so than in any other Centurion race did I want to thank the volunteers. I was out running around and staying warm, but these lovely souls were standing around, no doubt going through as much struggle as were, to provide us with the support we needed to complete our run. Can't thank them enough.

A final thank you to Bessie

We found each other on 'The Snake', a rather steep and long hill that seemed to go on forever. It wasn't something we planned, but I seized the moment and took Bessy in my hand and we would go to help each other up the rest of the hills on lap 5 and we crossed the line together as well. I couldn't have done those last few miles without Bessy, you're the most beautiful stick I ever did see.

Bessie and me, with men carrying straight jackets just out of shot

Next up: North Downs Way 50 in May 2017 (and a kid being born between now and then).

Garmin trace of the Centurion Running Wendover Woods 50
Photos from Stuart March photography

Tuesday, 29 November 2016

Inaugural Centurion Running Chilterns Wonderland 2016 ultra-marathon race comment

For the sake of future reference, I'm going to share this 'comment', rather than a regular race report on the Centurion Running Chiltern Wonderland 50 mile ultra-marathon.

I wouldn't do it again

There, I said it. Centurion can't please everyone, even though their organisation, support and community really are fabulous. I just simply couldn't get on with this run. I've run parts of the route before and it wasn't overly difficult, even though the elevation is quite a lot more than their other 50 milers. No, for me it was the constant twist and turns. I never seemed to be going in one direction for all that long before I had to change course. I also found that there was a lot more road than I'd have liked, though I admit that may just have been because the last few miles were on tarmac and seemed to go on forever.

Typing this several months after the event I can't remember a single outstanding moment. I loved some of the big hills, but otherwise I couldn't tell you much about the route or describe any of the trails or how they made me feel.

Overall, I'm definitely glad I did it and if friends were doing it in the future I would to, but I'm happy enough to leave it as a one-off event.

All photo credits to Stuart March Photography.

Sunday, 7 August 2016

10 things I learned volunteering at the Centurion Running North Downs Way 100

I'd completed the run myself in 2015 in a very steady 28 hours. I was a wreck by the end and, thinking on it, I was a wreck pretty much at the start too. The sun was relentless and no matter how much water I carried from one checkpoint, I was dry and gasping long before the next.

Through those 28 hours, I had the support of my wife in the evening and fellow runners, but perhaps something that I can only now fully appreciate, after volunteering to be part of the 'Centurion Army', is that in fact I was supported by probably well over 100 other people.

Caterham, aid station 5

What a team and what a fantastic group of people as well. Devoted in serving others, freely giving up their time and so enthusiastic and Altruistic in helping every single runner who came through.
  • "You want those bottles filled?... Just drop them and go find some food."
  • "How are you finding it? Anything I can do to help?"
  • "Taken any electrolytes on yet. Remember to take it steady in this heat."
  • "Top-up anyone? How about trying coke with a bit of water?"
  • "You take the seat, I'll get the bladder out."
I'm not going to say it was easy, especially as there were a fair few very frantic moments, but even with the effort and focus needed to get everything done and get everyone served in the least amount of time, it was a genuine pleasure and a real joy to be there. To be some small part in support other ultra-runners achieving their goal is something I'd recommend for any other runner who has yet to give something back to the community. And you may learn a thing or two along the way as well, as I did.

From L to R, Chris (the boss lady), John (fruit-man), Scott (time-man),
Stephen (time-man) and Paul (water and muffin-man)

10 things I learned volunteering for an ultra-marathon

  1. Nuun electrolytes were a very welcome gift to the runners. I brought two packs with me, but perhaps 3 would have covered the whole day better
  2. The more jugs you have for serving out water the better. We started with 2 water, 1 coke and 1 electrolyte and then we found a third for an extra water. I would have easily worked with 5 water jugs
  3. Coke and water is a new thing and everyone seemed to love it. Came from a suggestion from aid-station 4 and a bunch of people were asking for it - must try it myself
  4. A funnel would have made things a lot easier when pouring water from a 25 gallon can. A wedged paper bowl did a good job, but I'll bring a wide funnel next time
  5. Water melon was the food of choice and I learned that it's loaded with electrolytes too
  6. Water melon, tangerines and pineapple were the most popular choices, with biscuits and sandwiches the less popular. Guess the heat attracts people to fresh and moist fruits
  7. The race leaders who came through ate so little and carried tiny little bottles, don't know how they do it
  8. Serving when you've been through that experience before makes everything that little bit more real and really motivates to help them as best you can. At one point, someone had left behind their own electrolytes, dashing off to return them, it was clear that was much appreciated. And I know I would have been close to tears if when I came to use them and they weren't there
  9. You get to see everyone in the race! Such an odd experience, but I got to see every single person who came through Caterham. If my Go-Pro hadn't failed, then I would likely have had photos of the lot of them too
  10. If you're going to use a Go-Pro to capture the race in photos, check the battery and check the settings. Mine died within 20 minutes and I didn't even get a single runner!
  11. Bonus learning! Cover yourself in sun-tan lotion, it's a long day out there and the back of my legs and arms are somewhat glowing and crunchy right now
Caterham aid station 5

Monday, 23 May 2016

Centurion running North Downs Way 50 2016 ultra-marathon race report

My preparation and running strategy for the Centurion 2016 North Downs Way 50 ultra-marathon, much the same as my strategy for every other run, can best be described through the experience I've had with my toenail.

My biggest-toenail on my biggest-toe on my biggest-right-foot was damaged as a result of the NDW100 last year. It never really recovered, but never really gave up its affections for its toe and doggedly held on - even through another ultra-marathon, the 2016 SDW50. However, with increased 'training' recently, and the demand from my wife that I cut my toenails the day of the event, it gave up the ghost and mostly detached itself. A swift tug would have completed its demise.

Why am I telling you this again? Because it's a near perfect example of how I deal with pre-race and race running strategy. I don't. My toenail had pretty much fallen off of my toe and yet I simply placed it back into its seat and slapped a plaster around it. No one would be the wiser, not even me.

So when I asked Justin 'Jimmy' Bateman (above right (love running with that guy, BTW)) on the run "When does it feel like you're running 50 miles?" I was metaphorically bound up in plasters and, through self-coerced ignorance, 'out for a jog' that just seemed to keep going one step at a time.

And there were a lot of steps. 100,000 or more I should think. They took me through some very familiar trails, twists, ups and downs and through some of the most beautiful parts of England. Having ran here twice last year, I was quite familiar. But still I gazed at the lofty views from Denby's vineyard and ran more slowly through the colourful woods carpeted with bluebells and other coloured plants (with names that I'll never care to learn). I even enjoyed the sprawling tapestry of roots in the ground as they cross-crossed my path and caused me to dance between them. All of the trail, apart from those bloody steps, were a delight. Actually the steps weren't even too bad and I even appreciated the fields between the last check point and the finish a little more than I did the previous two times.

What possessed Stuart March to take such a photo?
... And why did I pay for such a photo?
I think that appreciation came mostly from the pace I held in my eagerness to catch-up with Jimmy and Ilsuk 'The-Man-The-Myth-The-Train' Han. You see, I had started with both of them and I had a burning desire to finish it with them too. But it was not to be. I'd failed myself and whilst I have no regrets on my efforts on the run, I was a little gutted to have left myself behind.

Having said that, if I'd have known they would have abandoned me, I'd have hung out with the 'Bazooka!'. Mad, hilarious and all awesome, the Bazooka! was the nick-name I gave to Goska. She gave me the nickname 'Sean Penn' after calling me Nash and Josh and asking 'what's your name, again' 4 times. She was immediately a character I liked and quite literally a barking mad one at that. She ran past Ilsuk with a bark and growled at some sheep. See, character. Tracking towards coming in under the cut-off time of 13 hours, but making it in with a last stellar effort of 10:25, I was happy to get a chance to offer congrats at the finish. She beamed a huge smile, shared a note of congrats and fist-bumped me a goodbye - hope to run with her again sometime!

I pushed Ilsuk and Jimmy out of the way
to be the first to get a photo across the stones
I'm not sure whether it was because I was usually on the heels of Jimmy, but I didn't really get to know anyone else. I was generally quiet and focused with getting on with the run. The heat at times was exhausting and couple it with the hills it all certainly made chat less of a priority. Still, in the opening flatter miles it was nice to chat with Jimmy and Ilsuk, but for their army of fans. It seemed every other corner there were people running or waiting to greet them. Ilsuk himself was of course effortlessly roving and chatting around the conga line keeping up his network of fans and friends. Such a flirt.

I did find some time during the 09:49 I was out there to contemplate both the previous years 50 and 100 events. The NDW 50 had stolen my heart with the heat, the route and the hills, but the 100 had trampled my body for much the same reasons. I was genuinely broken at the end of the NDW 100 miler. But here I was out on the same trails and I asked myself whether I'd do the 100 again. And whilst I didn't out-rightly call it, I think I would. However, I was surprised at my reaction to the question and I felt a genuine pang of in-trepidation about the thought of doing it again. It really was brutal. Which, for me, is cause enough to stand once more at the start some time and see it through.

These are the bacon sarnies you've been looking for
It's of course not a Centurion event without mentioning the volunteers. Splendid people who not only are really helpful in getting you topped up with water, pep-talked to continue or stuffed with food, they're mostly runners themselves and really get why we're out here and pushing ourselves through it. I really must make an effort to volunteer to help - I think if I carry on and do more runs without volunteering I'll be missing one of the biggest, if not the best, parts of the community.

And lastly, whilst ultra distance runners report hallucinations, apparitions and such, it's quite rare they happen so early into an event. But Jimmy caught a photo to prove that this did in fact happen around mile 8 or so. Props to the 'Naval Division' for the offer of the bacon sarnies and the Imperial Fleet for taking the time to make the run even more fun.

Next up for me with Centurion events is the Chiltern Wonderland.

Pleased with another NDW50 finish

Garmin trace and data of the North Downs Way 50.

Thursday, 12 May 2016

What size is the Syntace X12 axle O ring?

This is a question I'd asked myself when I found my X12 Syntace O ring ripped in half during a recent service. Disappointingly, the O ring had only lasted 9 months and I hadn't removed my wheel all that much during that time. With little doubt that I'd need to replace it again in 9 months, I thought it best to get a few spares in.

Unfortunately, Google was of no help and whilst I had found forum posts of people who had found replacement O rings, no one had bothered to share the size. Syntace certainly didn't offer much in the way of information on their own design and I didn't want to buy a complete new axle for the sake of something that should cost in the region of £0.30.

Finding the one ring to rule them all

O rings are measured with an internal diameter (the hole), outside diameter (the distance between two opposite outside points) and then finally the cross section (the thickness of the ring). With a ruler I took a rough measuring of the old O ring and ordered a selection of similar sizes, in different materials, from Polymax to then compare them to the original.

Different qualities of O ring

It's worth noting that there are different materials for O rings which offer different properties. The closest feel to the original was Nitrile, but in the end I opted for EDPM O rings as they are hardier in the natural elements; perfect for UK weather. And now that I have the right size, I can easily order new O rings as needed.

The Syntace X12 O ring size has an outside diameter of 17 mm, internal diameter of 12 mm and then a cross section of 2.5 mm.

The EDPM O rings, which I could only find in British standard sizing, ended up being slightly larger, we're talking 0.12 mm, and still fitted just fine.

Want a Syntace X12 O ring for free?

Contact Syntace direct and they'll send you some in the post, for free! Neat. You may need to explain why you need replacements, I explained how they fell apart within 9 months, but they were posted quickly and with a minimal of fuss.