Tuesday, 1 March 2016

The need for Speed


I emerge from the warmth of my house, a bright winter sun greeting me with open arms. The first few steps expose the tightness in my achilles, but it soon works loose as I descend out of our picturesque, rural hamlet onto the side of the reservoir. A cooling breeze funnels down the valley, hemmed in by high and steep hillsides. I reach the base of the dam and begin climbing towards the upper reservoir. It’s merely a warm up to the main event, todays vertical hill repetitions. A necessary evil when trying to replicate the profile of a mountain ultra. I prepare myself for the brutal gradient that beckons. As it kicks up through the woodland my stride shortens, my cadence remains fast. I concentrate on form, upright back, light on my toes. The mud is thick from weeks of incessant British rain. The path weaves up through the trees creating some short switchbacks allowing temporary respite from the impossibly steep incline. My legs begin to feel the strain, lactic acid builds first in my calves, then seeping up into my quadriceps. My chest heaves to suck in enough oxygen to sustain the pace, barely able to keep up the effort required to summit the hill. All the while my shoes grip into the mud which threatens to give and rob me of the power my body works so hard to generate. The soles, with shark like teeth bite deep with every step, eating up the countryside like an enraged predator. My feet locked into place so they are at one with the shoe, giving me the confidence to push ever upwards to my goal. A short, damp rocky section offers a change in the terrain that gives a much-enhanced return from the effort, allowing me to push harder and faster transmitting my power into the hard ground – right when my mind is telling me I need to ease off, I shrug off negative thoughts, my only focus on my defined destination. Finally I can see the top, I emerge from the vertical woodland environment into the sunshine. Fields of sheep surround me, a stunning vista below with a view across the entire valley floor, yet I don’t take the time to admire the view as my designated finishing stile awaits. The last 20 metres ease off in gradient, allowing me to up the pace into what now feels like a sprint to tag the end, mission completed. I double over momentarily trying to catch my breath. The lactic draining rapidly from my legs leaving only a satisfying burning sensation as I recover. I look down into the valley below, 400 feet of ascent gained in a short but harsh climb. I ease back down the hill, allowing my legs and body to gain momentum, before I start the barrelling, uncontrolled joy of a fast, well-earned descent. One repetition done, nine more to go…

This sort of session has become a staple of my workout repertoire since participating in mountain ultras. The confidence gained from this sort of training session is unparalleled, especially late in a race when fatigue seems all consuming, just knowing you can keep pushing upwards. This particular session was the first time I had tested the new Salomon Speed ‘in anger’. The terrain seemed best suited to push all aspects of the shoe; steep, wet and slick. All the types of conditions that this shoe is designed for.

The Salomon Speed is a continuation of sorts from the Salomon Fellcross range. Less an evolution though and more a revolution this time around. The theme of the shoe remains the same - to tackle the typical challenges presented by the muddy English countryside with our rather damp weather system. And in that respect it still champions the same relentless grip when the ground is soft and wet – utilising deep, arrow shaped lugs that cut into the ground to create a solid base to transfer power.  But, (and for me it’s a big ‘but’) this time around two key features have been vastly improved on;

  1. Grip on wet rock is always a trade off when shoes are heavily lugged. However the compound used in the Salomon Speed are completely new in order to address this issue. And I’m pleased to report excellent results in my tests. I’ve tried them on some of the notoriously - slippy when wet - flagged paths in the Peak District, specifically where they feature on any descents. On this terrain I’m yet to feel them lose grip even when charging downhill. This is a game changer for me because it’s in this area I feel I need the confidence from a shoe to allow me to push on.

  1. The second area of improvement, and I accept it’s a personal preference this one, is in respect of fit. The Fellcross was a, deliberately narrow racing shoe with a toe box that allowed little room for wiggle. Again, I reiterate this isn’t a criticism of the old shoe, just an observation from someone who likes a little space to splay my toes. This time around, the upper is less stiff and roomier. I’d liken it to the Salomon S-Lab Sense Ultra range in this respect, which I feel is a similar fit and feel. I just feel it’s a little more forgiving now and I’d be happy to do ultra-distances in the Speed with no concern over comfort issues.

The Speed demonstrates how Salomon respond to user feedback and constantly work to improve their products for the end user. But equally the best features are retained as you’d expect. The much-lauded Endofit technology keeps the foot locked into the shoe. The seamless tongue is more substantial than the Sense range, presumably to help keep dirt out. And much in the same vein, the upper is manufactured to keep the foot protected from the sort of elements you’re likely to throw at the Speed. The drop of the shoe is a nice 4mm, which enhances proprioception for when technical terrain demands it.

Durability is, as always with the Salomon range at a premium. I've put a pair of Speeds through the mill throughout the winter months. With many hours spent ankle deep in the Peak Districts notoriously acidic peat, some level of erosion in the shoe materials is to be expected. Yet a quick spin in a cold wash cycle and they are still coming out looking brand new, with no signs of wear in the upper. Equally, although I try and avoid it where possible, I've probably got around 50 or so road miles accumulated in the Speeds, and the outsole is showing no obvious signs of wear. Which is fairly remarkable considering the new grippier and likely softer compound.

I like to think of my running shoes as a butcher would his tools, where they have a specialist knife for different tasks. In this guise, the Speed is a very sharp knife for a specific task where in my opinion it excels. If you are running in the fells then look no further than the Salomon Speeds, they will not let you down.

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