The taxi drive from my hotel in Chamonix to Les Praz was short and expensive. Not sure if it was because I am English or because I was travelling closer to Switzerland, anyway, the price was worth every penny. My arrival at three impressive chalets was awe-inspiring. Nestled in a secluded cul-de-sac, our vista was the Mont Blanc Mountain range. Despite the fading light and the arrival of darkness I had immediately decided this was a place I could live.
My welcome was a little like a new kid arriving at school a week after school starts. Everyone had settled in and felt really comfortable. However, I had no awkwardness. The inov-8 team made introductions and within minutes we were all best mates. In reality, I knew many of the people either from interviews for Talk Ultra or from previous races. Alex Nichols from the US I had met in Zegama along with Anna Lupton (and Keith), Florian Reichert, Sarah Ridgeway and Natalie White (and Dave). Aussies Shona Stephenson and Brendan Davies (and Nadine) I had spoken to and interviewed multiple times, to meet them both face-to-face was a real pleasure. Dave MacFarlane was working on video, Lee Procter and I had FB’d, emailed and tweeted for months so it was great to put a face to the name. Matt Brown (and Rosamond), arguably the brains behind much of the new apparel, packs and accessories that we would be testing in the coming days fulfilled my ‘geek’ side. Robbie Simpson and Ben Abdelnoor, both names I was extremely familiar with but runners I had not met before. Scott Dunlap from the US, Megan Hess from IMG and journalist Andy Blow would all leave us early on either Monday or Tuesday and Florian Schopf concluded the introductions. Florian was from inov-8 Germany and as I would find out, was somewhat an expert on ‘Pose’ running. The party was complete.
I love the dawn of a new day and no more so than when I can see a blue sky, white fluffy clouds and possibly one of the most impressive mountain ranges in the world. I was up early, I needed to get at least three hours work under my belt before heading out on the trails with the ‘crew’.
The ‘crew’ is my affectionate term for the athletes, staff, videographer and myself as photographer. Our days had a relatively simple format; we hike up to altitude, find beautiful vistas, create some great imagery of the athletes running in new apparel and then finish off with some training… And of course some fun!
The snow has really lingered in the Mont Blanc Mountain range. As the locals say, spring has arrived late! This does provide some benefits. Clear mountain trails are currently interspersed with snow and some sections offer great potential for long snow runs. I tell everyone about the American runner Jared Campbell who has this great technique for running, or should I say sliding in the snow. You start running but if the snow is soft and the gradient steep you can basically use your shoes as skis. The look of doubt across all faces of course meant only one thing, I was going to have to do it.
Nervous faces looked as I headed down a steep slope. I could hear the minds behind me think this guy is crazy. However, when they saw me bounce down the snow and start to slide, ski and then comfortably come to a controlled stop the realization and glee was clear. Suddenly the whole team followed. Laughter, screams and pure fun were the recipe on the trail menu card. The odd tumble was shrugged off with laughter and to draw a line under proceedings everyone lined up for an ensemble run down the slope. We may all be grown up adults but it’s days or should I say impromptu moments like this that make you fully understand and appreciate why we do what we do. Children again, our love for the outdoors was like a birth of new life. We each found something in those moments together that hadn’t been there before.
‘That’s a beautiful trail and the vista behind is superb’, I said. It was decided, we would do a whole series of images of the different athletes wearing different combinations of apparel and accessories. First of was Ben, Megan from IMG needed a front cover shot for a magazine. Ben sprinted down single track moving from left foot to right foot spending incredible floating moments in the air. I love my job! Nothing like looking in the viewfinder and getting that buzz when you know you have captured a moment.
Brendan was next, I asked him to run at me and jump over me. My intention to capture him in flight. These shots are tricky. You need everything to come together. Arms need to be balanced, legs dynamic and face composed and committed. Unbelievably we nailed it on the first run. YES. I looked in the camera and with excited glee as I passed the camera around and a unanimous acceptance of a special moment was confirmed.
Shona and I moved up the trail to a technical section that would demand some serious concentration from both runner and photographer. Lying flat on a ridge with a wide-angle lens I would shout ‘go’! The Aussie downhill demon would take the break off and throw her self down the trail. ‘How was it Ian’, Shona would shout, ‘It was good but we didn’t get the one, can you go again’ I would reply. It’s the nature of the beast, some times you nail it, others you need to work on it but patience is rewarded and eventually the shots come.
inov-8 really has nailed the new product range. I’m very fortunate to do what I do, I feel as though I have the boxes ticked, not only do I write, photograph and podcast about what I love but I also do the sport. Maybe not at the level I have done in the past but I am we’ll aware of the pluses and minuses of great product. I may be working on this project but I was also wearing and testing everything the athletes had to test. From functional T’s to long sleeve warm layers, wind shells and waterproof layers. Matt and the team have started with a blank canvas and didn’t start with paint but started with a pencil outline, like any great painting they have built up the layers over time only adding what needed to be added. Ultimately they have finished with some wonderful masterpieces of lightweight and minimalist running apparel. It’s an exciting and innovative line that will make competitors look and question.
On our first day, the sun was shining and we could utilize the lighter products in the new inov-8 range, T shirts, shorts, windshell layers and of course hats and rags as accessories. The Race Elite Windshell layer in particular is a great product, weighing in at just 70g for men this is a product that you can take on every run. Once stuffed into its storage pocket (provided) it can be carried in the rear of your shorts, waist belt or pack. You can even carry it in your hand if need be. A perfect wind proof layer with 1/2 zip and small front napoleon pocket.
Photography over it was time to run. Joining the Mont Blanc marathon course we made our way back to our chalet. The pace relaxed, at least for some (not me) we twisted and rock hopped on the trails to Les Praz. As the sun beat through the foliage, the ground beneath us tested our ability to adapt to the terrain. I was using inov-8 Roclite 245’s a relatively minimalist shoe for me but I loved the secure grip and contact with the ground. Brendan and Matt were using F-lites, the most minimalist shoe in the inov-8 range. Not a shoe for me but in the right hands, or should I say on the right feet they were a pleasure to watch as light steps, high cadence and forefoot running of the highest order confirmed why Brendan has that incredible turn of speed.
A stream gushed with increased water flow from the melting snow up high and as we made a final turn to our chalet day one on the trails came to a close. It was time to chill, eat and drink a beer or three. Does it get any better?
In short, the answer is yes! Day two we took a drive into Switzerland for a full day in the mountains. Snow was in abundance and the trails interspersed the white like a pencil line on a blank page. I asked Alex to do some shots on a rock cluster with a wide and expansive mountain backdrop. It only took us fifteen minutes but when completed we were alone.
Heading up the trails we followed footprints and then ran across fields and mountainsides of snow turning a pinky/ red in places as the flowers and vegetation underneath stained the snow. In the distance we could see Dave setting up his camera, he had found a place to capture some action shots.
A picnic lunch was followed be a series of set up shots. A rocky section with a waterfall offered the perfect combination of options to capture the runners jump, splash and rock hop. ‘Shona, will you run through the icy cold water and create some splashing?’ I asked, ‘Of course’ came the reply! To be honest, I already knew what the reply would be. Shona just loved her first European experience, the mountains; the trails the company was making her feel alive.
Repeatedly she ran at my request and then the boys turned up. I asked them to stand on a ridge and look down. Four silhouettes and Shona splashing in the trail. It was a great image.
Standing on high I asked four of the them to run down the trail and cross as stream as though on a group training run and then finally I found a ridge that allowed Brendan and Anna to open up the the throttle and capture them flying along the trail.
Ok it’s a wrap and with those words excitement built at the peak in front of us. Someone coined the phrase ‘The Mini Matterhorn’ and so the quest began. Climbing upwards on technical trails an ascent of the Mini Matterhorn was begun. It become somewhat interesting as trails turned to snow.
Ever tried running up steep snow? No? Neither had I or probably anybody else until this second day. It soon became apparent that slow was best and that you had to ‘toe’ the snow. Basically kick the snow with your toe, make a hole for your toe to sit in and then do the same and repeat. It was hard! Although nobody was in any danger the potential to loose grip was high and basically a pretty fast and cold high-speed return to the bottom was guaranteed. Yes, you got it. I made that trip!
The peak conquered our return to our vehicles was interesting. Blue skies and high temperatures were replaced with cloud and showers. In the distance thunder could be heard. It was absolute confirmation of the fragility and danger that mountains offer. I can’t stress this enough, never go unprepared. Race Elite Windshells offered a breathable and lightweight option to the wind and light drizzle but a prolonged wait back at the car park saw me reach for my Race Elite Stormshield 150 as the rain started to fall at a more considerable pace. A coke in one hand and an energy bar in the other I was satisfied with a safe and stunning day in the mountains.
Do you get a buzz when you pick up a product and think, wow, that’s light? Imagine a fully waterproof seam sealed jacket that fits in a storage pocket the size of your hand that weighs only 150g and ticks all the boxes for the TNFUTMB. The Race Elite Stormshield 150 does this and no corners are cut. It is a pullover style product to reduce weight from a full-length zip and of course have fewer seams to reduce possible leaking. The hood has a reinforced brim so that you can adjust it for your needs and also it has several toggle cords so that you can obtain the correct tension. A waist drawstring, thumb loops and front pocket completes the package. It’s an incredible jacket and one that will set a benchmark.
Day three was wet! Very wet. The close to day two of cloud and light drizzle had escalated during the night and we had a wash out! Perfect Dave and I smiled; we can now test the Stormshield and Thermoshell products and capture some images. You already know the answer to this… ‘Shona, do you want to run along the trail next to the river in the cold, hard, rain?’ I asked, ‘Of course’ came the reply.
Brendan, Alex and Florian felt penned in and went out for a couple of hours to loosen legs and tag a summit. ‘Back by two’ Natalie confirmed with them and good to their promise at two we were in vehicles heading out for some cold, wet and misty imagery.
Grey fluffs of broken damp mist moved through the valleys making the Mont Blanc mountain range look as though someone had taken a knife and removed the top of every peak and replaced it with a grey uniform line. Speckled in the monochrome were flashes of silver, it was illuminated by my remote flash. It was cold and we hadn’t headed upwards. It would have been crazy to go too high, as it happened we had no need. Our desire to meet the mist was realized when as a gesture of good will, the mist came to meet us. We were engulfed by dullness and we embraced it.
Natalie, Brendan and Anna line out and I ask them to run in line along a stony path, the contrast of Stormshild jackets in blue and purple illuminated the monochromatic vista. A stony path and up the trail a tree bent over in silhouette as the mist engulfed it. One by one they ran towards me, left to right foot, the inov-8 shoes providing a firm grip on wet and slippery rocks.
The rain slowly began to increase and with it temperatures dropped, ‘are we happy’ I pleaded, ‘a unanimous, YES, came back’. A short run and we were soon back in our vehicles and donning Race Elite Thermoshells to get warm.
The Race Elite Thermoshell is a warm insulating layer for when conditions become very cold or for pre/post runs. It has ‘Revershell’ technology that allows for two insulating options. On one side the stitch-through design offers mapped breathability in key areas whereas on the reverse no stitching is visible offering 10% more warmth. It also provides a different colour option. Boasting permeable Primaloft on one side and wind proof Pertex Quantum on the other side the Thermoshell weighs only 260g for men and 220g for women.
It felt like a Sunday back at the Chalet. Sitting around a large communal table we chatted, worked and nibbled snacks. Music played, ‘Beck’ providing a mellow soundtrack to a busy table. The boys; Brendan, Alex and Florian once again headed out for another run, it was Brendan’s third that day! ‘Don’t worry’ he said, ‘it will just be an easy recovery’.
Replete from a great meal, a few beers lubricated our minds and our tongues. It was time to tell Jokes. Poor Shona, I still think she is trying to work them out!
My final day in the mountains arrived. My pick up would arrive at 1300; however, I was not going to waste time sitting around the chalet. The prospect of some great weather lay ahead with a glimmer of blue amongst the cloud around Mont Blanc. At 0930 we headed out on the trail and the climb up to the summit at the Mer de Glace. I knew I would need to turn back at some point but I was going to delay it as long as possible. We started out nice and easy with a walk. The walk became a power hike as we hit the early slopes to the summit and then those that could, ran. Those that could not run, jogged. And if like me you couldn’t jog, you put your hands on your knees and perfected the art of climbing while doing a walk similar to a scene from Monty Python. I would occasionally break momentum with a shout, ‘guys, this is a great spot, can I get you to run along here for me while I get some shots’.
Upward the trail became increasingly rocky and with it, slippery. Months of snow were disappearing but it was leaving behind a potentially hazardous residue. ‘The trail gets really interesting here Ian’ said Alex, ‘some ropes, some chains and ladders’. Alex was right, double ladders worked up through the rock face providing some really excellent photo potential.
All too quickly it was time for me to say adieu. I needed to leave and make my way back for a rendezvous with a bus back to the airport. As I said goodbye, flashes of blue, black and purple disappeared in the mist and suddenly I was alone.
Chamonix and the Mont Blanc mountain range is a haven for the outdoor enthusiast. Beautiful, dramatic and dangerous, it’s a place that demands respect. I am extremely fortunate to have spent such a great time in such an exciting place. The Skyrunning VK and Marathon over the previous weekend had been a perfect entrée for my time with inov-8.
I want to sincerely thank Natalie, Lee and Matt for providing me with the opportunity to work and run in this idyllic environment. I also want to thank them for the opportunity to test such incredibly versatile new apparel.
Did I mention the new ultra race pack, waist belt and hand bottle?
Well, you are going to have to wait. But believe me, the above products are going to turn heads, create a stir and be seen on trails all over the world. More on that later though…
I used the following items whilst in Chamonix and I will provide a detailed review with images in the coming weeks:
- Race Elite Windshell 70 HERE
- Race Elite 150 Stormshell HERE
- Race Elite 260 Thermoshell HERE
- Race Elite 275 Softshell HERE
- Race Elite 140 Trail Short HERE
- Race Elite 195 3/4 tights HERE
- Baselite 200 long sleeve HERE
- Baselite 140 short sleeve HERE
- Arm warmers
- Hot Peak 60 HERE
- Wrags HERE
- Prosoc HERE
Trail Roc 245 3mm drop HERE
Trail Roc 255 6mm drop HERE
Roc Lite 315 9mm drop HERE
F-Lite 262 6mm drop HERE
Read the inov-8 Press Release HERE
inov-8 is a fast-growing sports performance brand that manufactures innovative, lightweight gear for committed athletes wanting to run super-fast on all terrains and smash hardcore workouts.
Born in the UK in 2003, inov-8 now trades in 60 countries and boasts more than 80 shoes in its range, meeting the needs of athletes who want to push boundaries.
inov-8 sponsors a global team of athletes that represent committed competitors in mountain, trail and road running, functional fitness/CrossFit, as well as obstacle course racing. To learn more, visit our website at www.inov-8.com and blogsite at http://teaminov8.wordpress.com/team/