Yes, it’s been a while. The sabbatical in Italy put a dent in testing, sure. Then came a disc bulge which took any decent running load out of the picture. On the upside I took the time out to brush up on my geospatial-data-dorking skills in R and PostGIS and rebuilt the process entirely in R script. Yes, it’s nerd. The result is a complete re-analysis of collected data to give better insight into the capabilities of the GPS models tested.
In short, the updated methodology is leaning more towards quantified GPS performance bench-marking rather than a subjective review. Plus the future collection and analysis workflow is super easy which equal less typing and more running. Or beer, or whatever.
We can make pretty pictures like this track point cloud that shows GPS positional accuracy over a large number of runs (hint – this is a recent model GPS).
Having powered up the analysis we can now see the impact of tree-cover, bendy paths, running speed, sampling rate, satellite availability, and even how much the satellite data is actually filtered out from the recorded distance (ie. does the watch work like a glorified activity tracker). The results give some great insights on which watches work best in actual trail conditions. With a couple of statistical tests we can formally identify which comes out as the better, or worse, performers. And the data can be modeled to show which factors effect watch accuracy.
As a teaser, the chart below shows the accuracy of all models across easy, mixed, and difficult conditions as recorded by the watch (ie. as you see it) in purple and as recorded by the raw GPX data (ie. buried underneath what you see) in yellow. The brown is the overlap of the two. The dashed lines are means, and grey is the true distance. We can see here the accuracy deteriorating between the conditions nicely. At the individual watch level there are huge difference in performance between these categories. Given we normally spend a lot of time running in the mixed to difficult conditions (when we are not testing) this analysis gives a great view on which watch will give us the good trail running numbers.
Plus, we’ve sold a kidney and promised a first born child to get hold of a Suunto Spartan Ultra for testing. The first round of formal surveyed trail testing is done, though sadly the +20hr endurance run test is off the cards for now (back prognosis points to a Spring running recovery). At the same time we tested a Sony Xperia Z5c using the SportTracker app. The results are interesting… our advice would be hold off any purchase till you read the review.
We’ll be writing up the Sunnto Spartan Ultra and Sony Xperia Z5c and updating existing reviews over the coming weeks. And data collection is in progress for the TomTom Adventurer.
Ok, after a year and a bit we’ve finally exhausted the MEC’s pool of GPS trail running watches. This has included Garmin’s FR310XT, FR910XT, fēnix 2, and fēnix 3, Suunto’s Ambit2, and Ambit3 Peak, and Polar’s V800. Having put all these through extensive and objective real world trail testing we learnt a few things.
How to test
The context of testing is critical, just because it performs in a suburban park doesn’t mean much in the trail conditions you are likely to encounter in NZ. And sample size matters, some issues just don’t present after a weekend’s worth of fun. You need to repeat the test again, and again. And again. All the time controlling for conditions. Finally you need to test against some actual known truth, ie. a properly surveyed course.
Who to believe
Watch marketing is obviously heavily pitched towards the feature list and the vast majority of review sites do little more than extend the marketing reach of the brands. ‘Good’ reviews close to release date may shift product, but are ultimately meaningless if they don’t test what is important to you. And explaining features is not really testing, it’s like counting the tyres and calling it a race car. So ask yourself, honestly, is your review site of choice really testing or just teasing with a bunch of nice pics and gadget jargon.
We get it, it’s difficult and time consuming undertaking quantitative real world reviews with so many factors in play. But we care a lot about accuracy. We also are rather keen on reliability and the practical implementation of features (aka functionality). And true battery life in real trail running situations, we really do absolutely need to know if a watch can last more than 12hrs. Bottom line for us, performance equates to authenticity at this price point.
And you know what, it turns out you can’t take accuracy, performance, or reliability for granted. Even models from the same brand can fare very differently. We are reviewing these GPS watches simply because we want to see great trail watches from a variety of brands. That’s it. No sales agenda, no brand preference.
And the envelope please…
So our pick of trail GPS watches for NZ conditions? If accuracy, reliability, and endurance are your thing Suunto’s Ambit3 Peak is well clear of the rest. It tops all the accuracy tests we measure, and won the battery endurance test to boot. It’s not all roses though, the screen is a bit limited, there’s no vibrate alert, buttons are rather non-responsive, course navigation is basic (though still beats the competition with waypoint alerts on the breadcrumb course), and the battery savings modes aren’t very ultra friendly, and that charging clip! Also the Android mobile app is still not up to standard with daily re-pairing required (July 7 update – Ambit3 FW version 2.2.16 with app version 1.3.1 has survived a couple of days without losing connection).
If you don’t want to splash out big bucks and still value accuracy and endurance if you can find a Suunto Ambit2 or Garmin FR910XT you’d be well served (note the 910XT not the 920XT – which we haven’t tested).
And if you absolutely must have all the gazzilion features of the fēnix 3, or simply wish to support Garmin for their excellent openness towards data, you’ll be ceding a fair amount of accuracy and endurance (without a battery I.V. hookup). That said the fēnix 3’s screen, vibrate, and positive feel buttons make the user experience better than the rest.
So what now?
So now we’ve finished with the pool of available watches now what? Sure there are some more recent models, Garmin’s FT920XT, the fēnix 3 HR, and FR735XT. Yet I can’t see anyone in MEC ditching their current watches as none of those really add anything to the trail, and all have reduced battery life. Suunto’s pending Spartan Ultra looks intriguing, though with the touch screen and lack of detailed specs we’ll be waiting to see how that pans out before leaping in (especially at that price point).
In the interim we are reviewing Sony’s waterproof Xperia Z5 Compact with the Sports Tracker app (another Finn) as the combo gives barometric altitude and manual lapping capabilities. At present it’s beating about half the GPS watches in terms of accuracy. Looking forward to seeing if we can outrun it in the battery endurance test.
Also our lead tester, Ron, is about to go on a 6 month sabbatical in Italy so lots of running but not so much testing.
Starting at 0600 Saturday and finishing a little before 1400 Sunday. That’s just under 32hrs of action. Incredibly the 32hrs passed (almost) without incident. So at the finish line I told Terry “that’s the easiest 100 miler I’ve ever run”. He looked perturbed. I then added it was my only 100 miler setting him at ease.
The scene was set well the evening before with Terry’s (race director) briefing. He gave great insights like – “The course is a giant hazard bomb waiting to go off”. “Any plant higher than grass will draw blood if you get too close”. “The weather up there is serious, you will need your compulsory gear as a minimum”. “It’s barren up there, bleak, there are no trees, nothing”. “Past editions have been a bit easy, and the course has been adjusted to induce anguish rather than joy among finishers”.
The Death Climb, The Loop of Deception, and The Loop of Despair were outlined. The idea of Northburn is to test limits, accordingly not everyone will finish. These dire warnings were delivered in such a way that excited rather than intimidated. Weirdly I came out of the briefing more confident. Partly I guess because the organisers were so supportive, humorous, and warm in their challenge to each of us.
It seems the prep and planning outlined in a previous post (Preparing for Northburn as a 100 mile virgin) were up to task. Perhaps more than anything the switch from pre-event readiness anxiety to absolute belief and resolve on race-day cleared the way for a truly enjoyable adventure. Once we got underway I had no doubt I’d finish, and this belief only increased over the coming hours. The race strategy was simplified to lap 1 hold back, lap 2 maintain, lap 3 suck it up.
I didn’t fully manage to keep a complete lid on the first lap, especially near The Top checkpoint where I was running a bit harder to stay warm and minimise time up there (was cold, and rather windy). Ended up coming in just over an hour quicker than my estimate. Not sure if that was a good thing.
Lap 1 itself was scenic (when you weren’t in the cloud), with a lot of off-trail running and really pretty even if you were running through sections of the stabby plants. And the stream sections were like running on a sponge mattress (mossy grass). The lap itself was simple, a short ‘Home Loop’ back to the start for the supporters, then an ~18km climb followed by a ~15km downhill, then the Loop of Deception. You get to within a few hundred meters of base only to endure a ~12km tough hill loop. Brilliant.
Stopping at base to greet Supporter-in-Chief Victoria, resupply, use the portaloo, swap out shirt for an MEC singlet, and reapply lots of lube everything was good to go heading out for The Death Climb on lap 2. No sign of doubt after the first 50km, still felt like everything was easy. I never really took notice of the comings and goings of the first lap, but I was passing a good number of runners/hikers up The Death Climb. This climb was the real deal with big sections of solid gradient, and it went on and on, and on. And on. And on. Etc.
On the steeper sections I had my left achilles start to protest – tight, hot, tender. I compensated by picking footing to flatten it out, using poles more, and loading the right leg a bit. It didn’t seem too dangerous, and discomfort rapidly subsided when the gradient eased up. Something to manage but not an event killer.
The second lap was a little more involved than the first, both navigationally, and climbing-wise. Though most of it was on 4×4 tracks or service roads. After The Death Climb I had my first moment of course confusion as we unexpectedly came upon TW, the high mountain aid-station/shelter. I’d pretty much had the first two laps committed to memory and we weren’t supposed to see TW till after we’d looped back from Leaning Rock (the high point of lap 2).
Turned out there’d be a late change in course, the reason for which would soon be evident. The ridge up to Leaning Rock was high and exposed, and runners coming back down warned us to brace ourselves. The wind up there was Beaufort scale 9 (severe gale), leaning into it often wasn’t enough and you’d find yourself thrown from one side of the road to the other. Hunching over helped. The change in course was to give us a slight bit of protection as the original course would have been somewhat worse.
From the high point of lap 2, the descent back to base had a solid 1500m of climbing in it. This was actually a good thing, I found the continuous descent of lap 1 a bit tough. My descending sucked a big kumara, I was taking it really slow and all the people I’d overtake on the climbs would wizz by on the descents (though admittedly by now there weren’t too many people around. I might see one or two max at any given time).
In hindsight I may have been holding back a little too much on the downs, perhaps I should have been freewheeling instead of being constantly on the brakes. Though by the end, I had a deep right quad tenderness that may have proved more problematic had I let go on the downhills. Who knows?
The descent towards Brewery Creek also coincided with nightfall. At this point of the course there was only a bit of broken cloud and a decent moon which made it a lovely time/place to be running. I took the opportunity to call the kids and say goodnight. For some reason I was really looking forward to running into the night and I was still feeling rock solid. Everything was happy-good. Though in getting closer to base the mind kept projecting forward to lap 3, the monster. I really saw no point dwelling on it at this time so constantly brought it back to the ‘now’. Now being a good current mental/physical state, the next marker, a tasty treat, some cool water.
Entering base after 100km (~15hrs?), I was tired sure, but that was all. Still positive, still nothing approaching the suffering I’d feared by this point. Victoria was there again at a commandeered table with all my stuff dumped on it. I opted to change socks and re-vas the feet. Fistfulls of lube again applied elsewhere. Then wetwipe freshen up, and down to eating. The pumpkin soup and boiled potatoes with butter and salt were divine and I was evidently hungry as I had a few servings. Brushing the teeth was a great final activity before restarting (thanks Mike) was refreshing plus.
I’d often anticipated the mental difficulty in leaving base in the middle of the night after having already done 100km. What I actually felt was excitement in heading into the ‘mile’ bit of the hundred miler. The extra 60km, the running through till dawn, the night time solitude, the sense of wonder that I was still good to go. I was evidently a bit fatigued though initially heading out of the tent without poles or headlamp.
The first climb of lap 3 was death-climb-solid, though I felt surprisingly strong. The climbing legs fade-rate was minimal (thanks endless hill rep training). At this point I was thinking that maybe a sub 30hr finish was a possibility. Don’t get me wrong, the #1 objective was to complete the event in as good a state as I could manage. But a sub 30hr looked very achievable without risking anything.
About this time I figured I’d taken a bad turn and was ‘lost’. Not lost, ‘lost’, as I was still on the course as the markers attested. Only there was a junction with arrows pointing the wrong way and there appeared to be solid downhill when I still should have been climbing to Mt Horn. It would have been about 1am and I was definitely fatigued and was having trouble processing the situation. I could see headlamps on the parallel ridge to the North of me and way up high to the East of me.
As I mentioned earlier I had only really committed the first two laps to memory. I’d actually made a map for such an eventuality but misplaced in in the panic of packing on Thursday night when I discovered we had a morning flight rather than a midday flight (also resulting in a poor 4hr sleep that night – plus another poor Friday night sleep meant I was already well sleep deprived going into the event).
So I walked a bit of the three directions I could have taken. The only direction I had confidence in was backtracking down the hill (sigh, 1.5hr climb wasted). So I started back the way I came, then thought of calling Terry. Despite a rather poor description of my surroundings we concurred I’d missed a junction on the climb and was on another part of the course on the way to the finish. Rather than descending to the bottom of the climb he said if I just kept going up I’d be back on course.
So here I was, having wasted an hour dicking round, but still feeling physically and mentally strong. Though navigationally I was a bit shakey, double checking, second guessing every change in direction, no matter the course marking. Much like Tarawera, any thought of finish time disappeared and I went back to the finish the course ‘safely and confidently’ objective. While this killed any time related motivation, it probably made for a way more enjoyable experience. I ran when I felt like it, was still capable on the uphill, but almost felt like a lazy 60km. “I could run this bit, sure, but meh”.
Reaching TW again in the dark, they set me off on The Loop of Despair. Even in my casual state, it was aptly named. You backtrack and drop down a fair way then redo the 2nd half of The Death Climb. As it was early morning by now I kept looking up at Venus in the sky only to discover it was my next reflective course marker. This pattern kept going for an eternity. Luckily Snizzle the sock puppet was good company at this point, though she wasn’t saying very nice things about Terry.
After The Loop of Despair came The Water Race, but don’t be fooled by the innocent name. Runners I’d encounter on their way back from it said it was way worse than The Loop of Despair. But before we dropped down we had to re-climb the windy ridge to Leaning Rock. By now under a pre-dawn sky the wind had actually picked up. I’d be hunched over putting a big effort into moving in the right direction and then it’d be like a wave would break over your throwing you rather violently round. That’s gotta be at least 11 on the Beaufort scale (violent storm). On the way back down the headlamp finally needed a battery swap (after about 13.5hrs of burn time). Though there was precious little shelter up here, my hat had already been blown away and race number half blown off. I ended up lying in a ditch using my body to shelter everything changing battery. Choice adventuretime for sure!!
It was proper light by the time I got back from The Water Race to TW (it really wasn’t so bad). I had so much food I’d been sharing it with anyone around runners, volunteers, anyone. My calculation was on the much higher calorie burn rate of a 100km run. Going slower on a 100miler meant I was eating less. Otherwise my nutrition strategy was spot on, a mix of gels, peanut brownies, krispies, real gingernuts, and water on the fly. Nuts, muesli bars, chips, seaweed, chocolate milk, mini Whitakers peppermint chocolate bars, potatoes, pumpkin soup, R-Line electrolytes, and whatever else I could snaffle at the aid stations. Had crystalized ginger just in case of gastro issues, but nothing arose. Possibly my body stress level was low enough to prevent any gastro distress or maybe I was just lucky? I did rehearse nutrition a lot on the build up though.
The return back down to base was pretty uneventful, even the last hill, a nifty +500m climb 5km before the finish was comfortably knocked off. Unbelievably I was still climbing well after 32hrs. Saw Mal and Sal at the summit of the last climb too which was a boost. Then Victoria was waiting about 2km out from the finish to ‘run’ me in. Before I could get to her, there was the small matter of the last fence to cross. This one took a couple of attempts. I lost count of the number of fences we had to cross, there were a lot and they only got more difficult as the hours passed.
Sadly I didn’t give Victoria much of a run in, lots of walking, though running felt comfortable enough I just wasn’t sufficiently motivated. We did run the last 500m though. And that was it. Done. I was completely amazed to have done it without feeling like I was suffering for hours. I enjoyed it so much that I told Terry I want to do it again at the finish! Of course I was completely wacked, but not painfully so, more drained. I felt so, so much worse at the end of my first Tarawera 100km.I guess that was down to the training, mental preparation, and race strategy. But I didn’t even dream of completing it this well.
A final note on the gear, like nutrition, I’d rehearsed this plenty. I’d packed so food and drink were always easily available on the fly. Similarly clothing was selected for gearing up and down to the conditions mostly without have to take a pack off – beanie, buff, gloves, arm-warmers accessible on the fly too. I’d opted for a slightly smaller pack for compulsory gear with a voluminous race belt for food supplies and on/off layers. It was very warm down at base and cool up top, cold in the wind so I was forever adjusting layers.
The headlamp Petzl Nao even nearly when the whole distance on one battery. Also glad I’d taken clear glasses to keep wind/grit out of my eyes, they were magic. The shoe-gaiter (Altra Lone Peak 1.5) combo kept everything out, and rocks/stabby plants at bay. As expected the Black Diamond poles were fantastic on the climbs. Unfortunately I’d set the Ambit3 at max battery saving meaning it dropped about 10% of distance (I figure with the off track stuff I’d done about 165km?) though it gave a credible looking 11,300m climbing. I’d applied moisturiser the night before on any area I though chafing could be an issue, and reapplied lube every lap (including feet). The outcome was zero damage, no chafing, no blisters. So happy with the gear selection, made for an unbelievably comfortable 32hrs.
Felt better than Round Ruapehu for sure (esp. the not running out of food bit). So I expect good MEC representation at Northburn in coming years.
I entered the Northburn100 (miler) a couple of years back. Unfortunately they had an incident with a fire on the build-up to the 2015 edition and didn’t offer the 100 that year so I’ve had an extra year of terror just thinking about the thing. As a bonus, they’ve put that year to good use by adding a couple of thousand metres of vertical and an extra kilometre to the course.
So the mental state over the last couple of months has constantly alternated between excited anticipation, and the why? Why? Why did I enter? Part of the why is the trail-100-miler? Tick, aspect. Honestly if there were an easier trail 100 mile event in NZ I’d have entered it. At this point I’d actually feel pretty secure, happy even, going into an ‘ordinary’ 100 miler. But then Northburn isn’t very ordinary. I’ve stopped reading the race reports because they are a bit disturbing.
Breaking Northburn down there are some pretty clear requirements with respect to training and preparation. As far as I can tell the specifics of the event are: hills, endurance, hills, fatigue, hills, darkness, hills, rocky/stabby/uneven-terrain, hills, varied-climatic conditions, hills, nutrition/hydration, hills, load-carrying, hills, personal care, hills, and mental state. In the build-up I tried to cover off these as best I could within a 6 month average of 10hrs running a week (supplemented with fixie commuting and family hikes).
Hills: keeping a low-carbon family-friendly programme I largely resorted to local neighbourhood hills (lots of repeats of steep 40m and 80m climbs). Have managed just over a 2000m per week average since the start of October. The most vert I managed in a week was 5000m. Ideally I’d have hiked some big long climbs with a silly heavy pack but it never happened. Quite a lot of the hill work was power hiking between 500-1000 metres/hr, that’s gotta be good for me right? 10,000m of vert scares me, have no idea if I’ve done enough.
Endurance: Biggest run I managed was 15.5hrs on a +140km week. Took that big day really slow, carried full gear/water load, and felt like I had a fair few hours still in me at the end (though was only around 3000m of vert). Got in a good number of +8hr runs, and some 100km weeks. Recovery after these big runs has been great, even managed some solid sessions in the week following them. Pretty happy with endurance then.
Fatigue/Darkness: A Rangitoto Island Dusk till Dawn hill set tested my night ops. I actually rather like being out and about in the dark, often wish sunrise was a bit delayed on early morning sessions. Plus I’ve got a headlamp that’s plenty powerful and good for +10:30hrs without having to change batteries (almost feels like cheating). Also tried out a 40min power nap on Rangi after 7hrs on the feet, while I didn’t actually sleep, and restarting was an unpleasant experience I felt great once I warmed up again. I’m also getting the kids to throw a couple of totems in the TW (half lap) drop bag as a bit of lift if/when things go psych-dark. No fear here, psych/electromagnetic darkness spectrum covered.
Rocky/Stabby/Uneven-Terrain: Mostly past experience and gear selection here. With most of the recent running occurring in confines of Auckland city, Rangitoto and Tarawera were main forays on the trail. My first choice shoe-gaiter combo was taken on the family hike around Lake Waikaremoana in January and they worked out great (same combo as Rangitoto and Tarawera). In summary, confident with the terrain
Nutrition/Hydration: Have paid a bit more attention to eating/drinking during the build-up, especially on long runs. Seems to have worked pretty well and have been able to eat solidly on the long low and slow outings using a combination of sports nutrition and normal food. Planning on carrying mainly gels and Farmbake Peanut Brownies, plus a few other solid (savoury) snacks. Drop bags will have a various other treats in them. I’m calling it the Brent 30hr gel chow down.
Varied-Climatic Conditions: Been a bit tricky this one, as the summer has been hot, humid, and rather wet at times. Tell the truth I’m not at my best in the midday heat when I’m fully loaded. Doesn’t look like it’ll be as hot and humid down there though – overnight lows of between 6-8C at base, who knows what’ll be on the tops in the middle of the night. At this point it’s looking like rain is threatening. Was looking forward to a gorgeous Central Otago sunset/sunrise but prefer rain to baking heat.
Load Carrying: Done all of my long runs and a fair number of hill sets fully loaded. The compulsory gear list means carrying a couple of kg of water and quite a bit of bulk. I’ve played with packing options a bit and current setup seems to work well for the kind of running (walking) I’ll be doing at Northburn. Been running with wizard sticks for the past few months, they are great on the combo of climbing with a load. Got options here, no real cause for concern.
Personal Care: Look after the feet, tend to any chafing early, carry sunscreen and toilet paper. Changes of clothes and shoes at base. Common issues covered then, though keeping on top of chafing is a nagging concern.
Mental state: +30hrs in trying conditions? How do you prepare for that? I’m going with the ‘what would DKR do?’ approach. Three runners that often come to mind when I need a bit of inspiration or fortitude are Dawn Tuffery, Ruby Muir, and Kim Allen (DRK listed, of course, in no particular order). At which point you say, wow, that’s enlightened, and not weird at all for a man in his mid 40’s. Yeah, yeah, I could throw in Mal Law but his inspiration membership is already fully subscribed. I think I can work through any issues of resolve or inner darkness, and have a powernap on hand for hallucinations.
Finally, to put it all together on the day(s) I’ve got a plan. The plan being designed to get me to the finish, hopefully only experiencing one sunset.
Race, ahem, event-survival plan: This is pretty straight forward four point plan.
Limit running to the easy terrain on the first lap (ie. cap effort)
Don’t stop unless you’ve got a task that requires stopping (a nap is technically a task)
Keep on top of nutrition/hydration.
Mantra: belief, resolve, endure, entry-fee
Prediction: I’ll finish. I’ll cry at some point. I’ll want to withdraw soon after. Those gels are going to get nasty. But I think I’ve done enough to finish.
2012, the first crack at the TUM100 came in at 12:07hrs from a desired time of 11hrs. On the fifth attempt it ended in 12:15hrs from a desired 10:45hrs. Not only was it the slowest of the standard 100km course attempts, but it also saw the greatest gap between expectations and reality.
The thing is, I had thought I was coming into the event better prepared than ever and I was only 7mins off my 10:50hrs target time last year.
So what gives? It appears it wasn’t a decrease in effort, my TRIMP score (think a conservative Strava Suffer Score) was near identical to last year 1105 vs 1107. These were the highest of any of my past TUM, including the extended distance/climb 2013 Fire Edition. Nor was it cracking and running in a state of exhaustion, I didn’t feel like death during or after the event. In fact recovery was excellent, and somewhat quicker than previous years. Nutrition and hydration was also better than previous years, ate and drank well, no gastro issues.
That leaves two suspects. The most obvious was the conditions, it was wetter and warmer than the 2013 Lusi Cyclone edition. The course didn’t actually feel terribly slow underfoot, and unlike many I wasn’t wearing clown shoes so felt pretty confident on the climbs/descents (wizard sticks helped). Even though it was wet and grey, it was warm and humid from the get go. Despite a solid effort over the first 60km our pace was well down, so maybe these early exertions were just sucking out energy more rapidly than anticipated?
The other identified suspect was the social approach of the run, as three of us were all targeting a 10:45 finish we started as a pack. And ran as a pack. Each nicely pushing the pace over the first 60km. I guess each aware that we were falling further and further behind schedule. Then at the Tarawera Falls aid station, since a sub-11hr was clearly off the cards it was like an unspoken contract was entered to cruise to the finish. Nobody pushed the pace, nobody parted company to press on alone. Nobody mentioned time or pace.
It was nice running as a bunch, comfortable. It wasn’t like I was trapped in an unwanted social contract. It just stopped being an individual race I guess. Fine by me, I’ll take challenging collaboration over competition given a choice. Unfortunately the dream three-way MEC finish wasn’t to be, though we did finish as two. The others’ stories are sure to come…
After putting a bunch of GPS watches through some robust trail testing and long term experience with them we can do a ‘best fit’ for various runners. The runners described are –
Adventure and ultra-plus: battery endurance, accuracy in difficult conditions, reliability, navigation and back-country functionality.
Fast and furious trail racer: trail accuracy, reliability, and racing functions.
Budget trail runner: trail accuracy, +12hr battery endurance, and anything else we can get
Smartypants trail runner: trail capable, +12hr battery endurance, smartphone features
Roadie with a bit of trail on the side: like the fast and furious, but with less trail features.
The watches in the 2015 test pool were: Garmin’s FR310XT, FR910XT, fēnix 2, and fēnix 3, Polar’s V800, Suunto’s Ambit2, and Ambit3 Peak.
Note: not all these unit’s have full write ups yet but they’ve all done the time. Write ups are on their way.
Adventure and ultra-plus
First pick: Suunto Ambit3 Peak, unrivaled in the category. More accurate with more endurance than anything else tested, combined with absolute reliability and best navigation functionality.
Runner up: Suunto Ambit2, like the newer Ambit3 Peak but with less endurance and a few less features.
Fast and furious trail racer
First pick: Garmin FR910XT, not quite the match of the Ambits in terms of accuracy (is prone to extended track shadowing), but has a more race friendly design and feature set (screen legibility, vibrate alerts, button placement/feel, virtual pacer).
Runner up: Suunto Ambit3 Peak, while a more capable unit in most areas, it just loses out on the specific demands of blurred vision racing.
Budget trail runner (if you can find them)
First pick: Garmin FR910XT, pretty obvious really. Is more accurate with more proven endurance than the fēnix’s. Can’t be used day to day, and is prone to a bit of off-track meandering from time to time.
Runner up: Garmin FR310XT, pretty much like the 910XT without the altimeter. Also is orange and a bit bulkier.
Note: If there were a market for 2nd hand Ambit2’s they’d be worth a look too.
Smartypants trail runner
First pick: Garmin fēnix 3, more features than you can count on both fivefingers. Great looking, user design is excellent, and pretty impressive smartphone integration for a trail beast. Is held back by poor real world battery endurance and middling accuracy in tree cover.
Second pick: Polar V800, solid smartphone notifications, nice screen and easy to use design. Doesn’t quite cut is a full featured trail watch though, pretty accurate outside tree cover but stated distance a bit variable in the trees.
Road with a bit of trail on the side
Too hard to pick.
Suunto’s Ambit3 Peak is super accurate, has some great road running metrics, screen a bit average and lacks vibrate alerts, advanced workouts/interval training dependent on mobile app which still a bit iffy on Android.
The Polar V800 is fantastic on the road and urban trail, save the bulky pods, some proprietary issues, and general lack of trail features. Also often slow to acquire GPS.
And the Garmin FR910XT is still a class act on the trail and road, though can’t be used as a day to day watch and acquisition time is a bit painful in comparison with modern caching GPS.
Auckland traverse, starting at Waharau on the Firth of Thames, finishing on Piha Beach and crossing the three highest peaks in the region. That sounds like a good idea. I could totally knock that off unsupported and in daylight hours.
After 12hrs running I was still convinced it was possible. Obviously I was incoherent and basic maths was beyond me.
No. Not possible.
Sometimes after 13hrs I had the oh cr@p moment realizing not only that I couldn’t possibly make it, but I was also 2hrs minimum from any extract point.
From the beginning…
Dawn on the beach at Waharau, and with company as Evan and Dave joined me for the first 32km leg to Clevedon over the 688m Kohukohunui. The mood was light and carefree. The wizard sticks were out. Seemed pretty easy, Dave and Evan were great pacers. At 32km the leg ended with a fantastic cronut at With Relish. Also started chatting with a guy who seemed had no degree’s of separation from the MEC (he knew Caleb).
Packed up the wizard sticks and said goodbye to Evan and Dave (thanks guys) and headed off to Maungawhau. This was the leg I was dreading – had nightmares about that u-bend bridge without a footpath on Whitford Rd. Cars tend to hit that corner fast and literally given by the piles of vehicular detritus. Ended up waiting for a decent gap and hoofed it safely – max speed of the day was here 3:32min/km.
The drag out across Pakuranga and Pamnure was long, uninteresting and hot with little shade but lots of traffic. Also was constantly on the hunt for water and tasty food options. Found a nice looking, cool, large, apple and cinnamon slice to supplement the dozens of muesli bars I’d been inhaling.
Was really starting to feel it after refilling my water bladder at Remuera library. Nothing catastrophic, just the ‘slow-down’. You know, when any extra impedance drops your pace dramatically even though running in easy conditions is still easy’ish. At 70km (9:50hrs) I dragged my arse up Maungawhau for possibly the slowest ascent of any MEC runner.
I’d anticipated the leg to Titirangi to pass quickly. I was wrong. It took forever. Deep down I think I knew I might not make it with the family pick-up schedule. But after +10hrs of running you are blocking so much out it’s easy to block out sensible thought. I was still delusional and thinking I’d be watching sunset on the beach. [fēnix 3 died on this leg]
It took 2hrs to get the 16km to Titirangi and I was feeling pretty banged up from all the road. Departing the Super Value restocked with smoothies, chips, and muesli bars at 12hrs I headed down Exhibition-Pipeline to the point of no turning back [Polar V800 died around here]. Must have been around the 13.5hr (7:30pm) point where I got the family text saying they were at Piha for fish and chips on the beach, only everything was shut [Ambit2 died shortly after]. Unfed family waiting for me. That’s not good.
Note: too tired to take any pics after Mt Eden.
It finally dawned on me that I had been in la-la land for some time. I was on Hamiltons Saddle 97km/13:45hrs into the run. It was coming up to 8pm and I was 1.5hrs from any exit point. I resolutely killed the thought of attempting Te Toiokawharu (and the triple peak crown) and started looking for the closest exit.
By now anxiety levels were high. I was actually feeling pretty solid (esp since the wizard sticks were back out), had plenty of food/fluid and a decent headlamp. But I was out of reception, night was falling and I had visions of the dark time the family were having.
Decided Upper Huia Damn Track was my best exit option. I managed to put the anxiety to good use and picked up the pace somewhat. Trying to run the Upper Huia at pace in the dark wearing road shoes is an interesting experience. Had never noticed previously but there are no trail markers on the track. Luckily it’s a pretty natural course to follow.
Got out to Piha Rd at 9:22pm (15:25hrs, 106km, 3100m climbing), unfortunately not quite Piha Beach, and no Te Toiokawharu [Ambit3 and FR910XT made it with battery to spare]. A nice finishing touch was the discovery that the support crew were also running on empty. Their petrol light started blinking on way out to Piha. Needless to say the drive back to Titirangi was tense.
So I failed the KMT Traverse. But the run was pretty successful. It’s good to fail sometimes. Think the largely unplanned self supporting aspect was key, hunting down food and water then lugging it slows you down a lot.