Now everyone has had (mostly) his say about 2014, its time for my geriatric armchair contribution. Being late is not only my style but also allows me to freely piggyback on what has already been produced by those making a living from this. It’s not easy for anyone to spot current developments and changes correctly (fish and water, frogs and boiling water, apes and bananas), also not for those right in the middle of things. There is even a case to be made that the judgement of the well-known talking heads is compromised by definition, while the dilettantes may or may not stumble upon truth. Whatever your own intuitions regarding this, don’t make too much of the below impressions.
Let’s start with the coming of age of Fastest Known Times.
Before I say more about FTKs I have to share something else though. Travailen is produced for Red Bull by the african attachment (who are also working for Salomon). These South Africans not only do sports but also music. Not my kinda style but from one South African band one quickly gets to the next so it didn’t take me long to get to Die Antwoord, of whom I’ve already shared songs, but why not another.
You may think this can’t have anything to do with trailrunning but that would be a mistake. The hyping of a counter culture, that’s not really the one you’ve grown up in, with a wink, an eye for commerce, slick visuals, fun and shock value, a taste for the extreme, machismo but put to shame by the girl, the importance of fashion and looks, and the accessories, it’s all there, and it’s the answer to making it big. (Just in case you actually like Die Antwoord, I do, and wanna know a bit more, you’ll enjoy this)
Back on topic, FKTs. Ian Corless 2014 is dominated by races and the competing elite but Steve Birkinshaw‘s new FTK on the 214 Wainwright peaks (beating British fell running icon Joss Naylor‘s time) gets a prominent place. As do Kilian Jornet’s FTKs on Denali and Aconcagua (even though Denali was mostly on skies). Which may hint at one of the reasons FKTs get increasing attention: for some elite competitors these projects are now equally important to winning yet another race and their sponsors seem happy to support them in that. The kind of attitude, focus and life-style that they ‘brand’ is nicely described by Anton Krupicka in a recent interview he had with iRunFar.
When asked: As someone with a near-encyclopaedic knowledge of the history of ultra/mountain running and having yourself been at the centre of the changes that have happened in the last eight years or so, how do you feel the sport is progressing, the good and the bad?
He answered: I’m not exactly sure why, but I always find this to be an uninteresting, borderline annoying, ultimately frustrating topic. Maybe because good and bad are so subjective? Maybe because it’s a soundly beaten dead horse? …Basically—maybe because the ‘sport’ aspect of mountains, i.e. racing, while important to me, isn’t my primary source of fulfillment—I’m not hugely concerned with the welfare of the sport. I see some people who wring their hands about commercialization, prize money, land-use permitting, etc., etc., and I totally get that, but, for me, at the end of the day, I’ll be out enjoying the mountains, whether there are races or not, whether I’m able to finagle a living from it or not. So I’m just not terribly concerned about it all. I don’t feel this need for some kind of validation from the greater public, or the mainstream sport-watching masses. And, generally speaking, that kind of validation seems to be what is at the core of many of the current developments we’re seeing in the sport.
Several years ago, I was a bit fixated on the idea of the ‘perfect’ race—one with a perfect course and deep competition. Then I realized that that’s not what gets me excited to lace up the shoes every morning. The mountains themselves inspire me, and I can always head out into the hills and challenge myself on whatever inspiring line I choose. I don’t need a race for that. I certainly enjoy racing, and am as guilty as anyone for using it as a means of feeding my ego, but, ultimately, it doesn’t sustain me in the same way that the day-to-day act of getting out in the mountains does.
And what does Anton plan in 2015? Possibly another go at the Nolan’s 14…
FKT efforts/projects are mostly just about another form of competition. But the running spectrum is also changing at its non-competitive side I’ve written plenty about the cross-overs between plain running and otherwise navigating your environment (mostly) using your feet, and having some kinda efficiency goal, but not (by definition) making it all about competition. You may laugh off my weirder corners of the landscape, e.g. those where freeclimbers, and break and other dancers reside, but the fastpackers have certainly made it into the mainstream. Meghan Hicks writing a definitive guide to fastpacking for her iRunfar trailrunning portal being my main piece of evidence. But google the term and you’ll see how many mainstream media have devoted attention to it. When I wrote about fastpacking, just three years ago for trailrunningnepal, the term was one of many for the same activity and didn’t get many hits, let alone the score of ‘how to’ kinda write ups that are now all over the place.
When one talks fastpacking one talks gear. And that may (again partly, everything is always only partly, nothing is mono-causal) explain the swiftness of its ascendancy. Core to this trailrunning-backpacking ‘hybrid’ is going ultra-light. And that is expensive. It is the natural habitat of the outdoor gear brands. As a matter of fact, unless you’re cave person material, any serious distance to be fastpacked requires some real investment. The exception would be areas that can be traversed using a live-of-the-land approach but possibilities for longer routes that are all trails and allow for that are rare. (a lot of the Nepalese Himalaya would qualify which makes it a fastpacking shangrila for the stingy and gear-fobic).
This brings me to gear in general. Trailrunning has become booming business. When I did my first mountainous multi-day in 2008, I couldn’t find trail shoes in The Netherlands. The running shop in my home town had to order something for me. And choice was very limited. Admittedly my country was a late adopter, but the story is not that different for the vanguard. The domain of a limited number of specialized running gear manufacturers has been invaded by all major brands. And former trailrunning specialists have branched out, offering way more accessories, counter-invading in turn. Furthermore, the general outdoorsy brands, through the fastpacking Gaza tunnel have entered the melee big time.
I’m not known for my interest in gear, but that doesn’t mean I’m not fascinated. The iRunfar 2014 review rubriced it under the obscure and humorous, but Doug Meyer’s two-piece series on intercontinental trail running fashion was as observant as it was ironic. And it’s a reality that appearance matters. Every appearance is a fashion statement of sorts, also the half-naked wear-muddy-shoes look common on US trails. The European and the US trailrunning scene may spend cash on different accessories, but cash they’ll spend. I admire gear manufacturers for the way they’re able to come up with stories that appeal, seduce, make us feel good, and make us spend. I honestly admire Patagonia for their front-runner strategy of taking the use of sustainable production as a branding strategy beyond the pretty meaningless limits normal companies stay within.
As y’all know, I’m a glass half empty guy so this doesn’t give me much hope for real change, the strategy would collapse as soon as too many others would come aboard, but it is certainly a big notch up from the normal corporate social responsibility feel good crap.
The shoe people merit special mention. I’ll make use once more of insider Ian Corless experience: we are spoilt for choice these days… 12mm drop, 8mm drop, 6mm drop, 4mm drop, 0 drop and then road grip, road-to-trail, trail, dry trail, wet trail, soft ground, fell and so on. And have we mentioned cushioning, lacing systems, fitting systems, materials for uppers for specific conditions, and the variable combinations of all these inputs that make for shoes weighing more or less? How the hell did we get here so fast? Not that long ago the minimalist rage looked like a pretty lethal fashion for the industry, but within no time all manufacturers adapted, and on top of that the offer for specifics boomed beyond anything imaginable before. With the result that many trailrunners now have an Imelda kinda collection of footwear.
What amazes me is how effortlessly this prominence of gear in the sport meshes with the dirtbag runner persona that is such a favorite prototype of the ‘real’ trailrunner. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to identify any culprit here. I’m just baffled.
Anyways, let’s move back from gear to fastpacking to trailrunning. One big positive of the explicit linking of these pursuits is the increasing attention for the dangers inherent in uninhabited environments, as e.g. exemplified by a piece on What Every Trail Runner Needs To Know About Time In The Wilderness on iRunfar. I addressed this already in an earlier post on trends in trailrunning and won’t repeat myself here, but, people, nature doesn’t care about us.
I warned you at the beginning, my observations would have a geriatric, good old days outlook. Not that I knew for sure, these posts reveal themselves in the writing and I am often surprised by the result, but with gear on my little bullet point list for this one my chances for ending up with the expected were better than average. The least I can do to make it up to you is end with some sounds that invite you into a less melancholic, more energetic mood.