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Attending an inaugural running event can be a dangerous thing, the route may not be fully tested, the organisation might not be quite as slick as when the event has been running a while and the atmosphere may be dampened by the attracting of fewer runners than a more established event…

Thankfully we then have the Hockley Trail Challenge which was blighted by none of the above, in fact I think it’s fair to say that this looped course deserves nothing but high praise and return visits! But let me rewind to 10 days before the race and recount another sorry tale from my personal pantheon of running tales.

I was recounting the story of the week before the Green Man Ultra in 2016 and how I’d been pushed into the road on New Bond Street and been hit by a car mere days before the Bristolian 45 miles. I joked that I hoped that didn’t happen again, it seemed however, that fate is a cruel mistress and as I was bounding along New Bond Street a plethora of tourists refused to get out of my way and I was forced into the road, pulling a muscle in my calf as I landed awkwardly.

Boom! Lightning can strike twice.

I hobbled home and almost immediately cancelled my 49 mile Milton Keynes to London run and sat for hours with the TENS machine and the bastard rumble roller I own – there was Hockley Woods to get ready for! I decided rest was the order of the week and reduced my running to the bare minimum did nothing over the weekend and managed to see my physiotherapist the day before the event (never ideal). Anyway patched up and rested I rolled up to Hockley Woods in good spirits and a desire to have an amble round a new location.

By the time I arrived at 8.30 a few runners had congregated round the registration but many were hiding in their cars avoiding a pre-race soaking. Number collection was swift and smooth and I ran into Cherie and her husband who I met at the Ridgeway last year and we exchanged banter about our various abilities to do directions!

I soon returned to the family who had decided to join me so that the hound and the GingaNinja could get a few miles round the woods in before departing for a morning of trampolining pre-race UltraBaby and I bounded round on the Unirider chasing ThunderPad and the GingaNinja. However runners were soon called over for a short but useful race briefing and we all lined up for six hours of trail shenanigans!

I took up my customary position at the back of the course but as the start was called I quickly made my way forward through the other eventers, quickly catching the front four or five runners and settling into a very pleasant stride.

As I often do on looped events I look for markers and note conditions underfoot so as to try and see where problems, challenges or faster sections will occur later in the race and this one the course was replete with challenging conditions, grinding up hills, gnarly trail and the odd speedy downhill.

I quickly realised that the use of the word challenge in the title was very appropriate.
Regardless I pressed onwards, enjoying the spray of mud that had erupted all over my legs and I thundered through the first lap in under 30 minutes despite the reasonably heavy rain. The second lap went in an even faster time despite a stop to speak to UltraBaby who had been chasing round the woods after runners and our Spaniel, when lap three dropped at a similar pace my thoughts turned to a sub 4 hour marathon time for the first time in ages and a little over 4 hours for the eight laps I had targeted.

I took a few minutes at the checkpoint to gather myself for another lap and then set out again, still making good time and looking at a little over 2hrs for the first four laps.

I was about halfway round lap 4 when I came across a horse riding teen, I’ll assume parent and dogs. Having been kicked by a horse in the past I know instinctively to give them a wide berth and I’d noted that the Collie looked nervous and I felt best I give it some space too. Sadly the dog decided to run between my legs and, in my efforts to avoid giving it a thoroughly good kicking, upended me – forcing me down badly and heavily on my groin.
I managed to hobble away, there was no word from the owner, an acknowledgement or even apology might have been nice but still. I knew I’d pulled something quite painfully and so felt around to see what was tense but it was just sore. I pressed in some thumbs and then moved on gingerly.

At this point I hoped I could run it off but all running was doing was aggravating it. I stopped periodically to stretch my leg out which would give a minute or two of relief but the Hockley Trail Challenge as a race, for me, was over.

I moved into the fifth lap looking grim faced and eventually telephoned the GingaNinja asking for advice, however, having already decided that I wasn’t going to give up I pushed on despite her wise words. I found myself now being overtaken and in some cases lapped which simply irritated me but there was nothing for it I had made my decision and you don’t DNF the marathon distance when you’re so close to home.

Thankfully I was still managing to run some sections of each loop which kept both my sanity intact and my timings reasonable given the pain I was in and I was fortunate to meet some lovely people as I ambled along (most notably Joe, a lovely, hardcore ultra running chap from Tipperary!) who provided excellent distractions.

Reaching the eighth lap I stopped at the checkpoint for a few minutes and ate some chocolate raisins, looking longingly at the medals, thinking ‘I should have had one of those hours ago’. But with these thoughts put out of mind I pushed on for one last go round Hockley Woods. With the rain long behind us, the sun out and the knowledge that I was less than 6km from finishing I continued to run/walk these last few steps.

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As a very pleasant surprise though my little daughter UltraBaby was waiting for me a couple of hundred feet from the finish line (thanks to the lovely volunteers for the picture). She jumped out to ‘scare’ me as she is prone to do and then joined me for those final metres. We bimbled towards the finish as UltraBaby told me we were racing and we crossed the line to much applause from the amazing volunteers. Sadly for me UltraBaby stole the medal, little sodding monster – thankfully only one of us ended up coated in mud and it wasn’t her!

Key points

  • Distance: 5.5(ish)km loops
  • Profile: Undulating
  • Date: March 2017
  • Location: Hockley Woods, Essex
  • Cost: £30
  • Terrain: Muddy trail
  • Tough Rating: 3/5

Route
The route was much harder than I had imagined, hillier than I was expecting and conditions on the ground and the lapped nature of the course meant it got cut up pretty quickly. That being said once the rain stopped and the runners thinned out the course quickly returned to being more runnable for the most part. In truth despite the hills and mud this was a good running course with more than enough interest to sustain you for as many laps as you can manage. Hockley Woods looks like a really good training ground and if you’re local I’d recommend banging a few miles out.

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Organisation
The organisation was brilliant, the route was well marked, there were photographers and floating volunteers on the route and the checkpoint was well manned, well stocked and well protected for any gear that we had left behind. The volunteers were always on hand to provide the wrist bands to count our laps and there was always a lot of love and cheers as you rocked up to the checkpoint.

Awards
Medal and goody bag. The medal was big, heavy and has a fun feeling to it, the goody bag had Maltesers in (and other stuff) and that’s more than good enough for me. The real award though was the event and I think this was the general feeling from the runners I spoke to during the day.

Value for money
£30 seems like a very fair amount for a race this well organised.

I saw a Facebook post that suggested that £30 was too much but actually look at what you’re getting. A glorious loop on a glorious course with a big bespoke medal, an incredibly well stocked aid station/checkpoint and a really good atmosphere all supported by a wonderful team of volunteers who never stopped smiling. I’ll put it like this, I’ve paid a lot more for a lot less (I’m thinking East London half marathon and even the Royal Parks Half Marathon).

Conclusion
The Ranscombe Challenge (read the review here) has always held a special place in my heart as my favourite ‘laps’ marathon/ultra but the Hockley Trail Challenge has replaced it. I know that my experience was marred by getting injured but that doesn’t detract from the brilliance of this event. I would highly recommend running it’s a great experience and I know that I for one will at some point be back to add an ultra amount of laps to marathon amount of laps!

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I’ve been rather anti-action camera since they first appeared a few years back because I felt they were a waste of money – nothing more than slick advertising campaigns to get us using more and more social media and sharing facilities. However, I did buy a Muvi Action Camera in about 2010 but found this to be somewhat lacking and I do own several Aquapac devices so I can take my cameras and iPhones into places that might otherwise destroy them but they aren’t exactly ‘action-camera’ level.

 

Then I discovered at short notice I was off to (hopefully) see the Northern Lights and I felt as though I needed to upgrade my camera setup with something a little more exciting. After poring over the Internet for several days has eyeballing the various cameras – Garmin, Sony, Polaroid, etc I finally settled on the GoPro, but which one? I finally settled on the GoPro Session, why? Well that’s the big question and equally importantly did I make the correct decision? 

Let’s look at the specifications first and then we’ll look at experience and finally is it any good for runners? 

  • App control: Android, iOS via WiFi
  • Sensor: 1/2.3in CMOS
  • Sensor pixels: 8,000,000
  • LCD screen size: None
  • Video recording format: H.264 MP4
  • Video recording resolutions: 1440p (30/25fps) 1080p (60/50/30/25fps), 960p (60/50/30/25fps) 720p (100/60/50/30/25fps), WVGA (120/100fps)
  • Max recording resolution: 1440p (30fps)
  • Time lapse mode intervals: 0.5, 1, 2, 5, 10, 30, 60s
  • Video recording media: MicroSD
  • Sound: 32kHz mono
  • Maximum still image resolution: 3,264×2,448
  • Memory slot: MicroSD
  • Data connections: Micro USB
  • AV connections: None
  • Battery type: Li-ion
  • Battery life: 2h 04m
  • Size (HxWxD): 35x35x35mm
  • Weight: 74g
  • Price: £160 (Feb 2016)

To break down the specification above you’ll find that most of your photographic action camera requirements are covered. The default setting for video is 1080p/25fps and this is a very happy video quality – capturing an excellent field of view with not too much fish eye lensing at the edge of a shot. I was amazed at the quality of the actual video too when I played it back on a HD TV – it’ll be unlikely to win a BAFTA (either technical or content) but it was more than enough for me to capture high quality memories.

 
Photography: stills are okay on the move but obviously suffer with camera shake when you’re moving. However, as a static camera or time-lapse device then the Session reminds us why it has a camera capability. The photographs are like a very high quality mobile phone camera – but better and the time-lapse has a good range of time settings to capture long or short periods of time. I’ve been using the 0.5 second setting per shot when running post work and this had given me a mixed bag of results. In a half hour (night time) run you generate 3600 photographs of which a handful might be worth keeping but it offers a different overall creative and I’ll be interested to see how the time-lapse works in both Finland and during daylight hours. 

 
The lack of an LCD screen is sort of made up for by the use of the GoPro app which offers previews of what you’re about to record but ultimately this is a point and click camera that is designed to capture moments quickly and without fuss. The app itself is a little flakey but not without promise – the wifi connection is good, you can manage the media on the card via the phone and the changes you need to make to the setup of the camera are simple enough not to need to read the manual. Truth is I was able to use the app to successfully download clips I wanted – make minor cuts and then drop it into iMovie to make a 4 minute run and cycle movie without leaving the confines of my iPhone – view the footage here. That to me suggests a decent, well integrated product.

 
Battery life is good and in continuous shooting you can expect somewhere between 90 and 124 mins of usage (depending on wifi usage). Perhaps one of the nice things is that the camera when it completes a recording session will simply power down using the one touch button – less chance of recording the inside of your pocket for two hours (unless you like that kind of thing).

Size and weight at 35mm square this has a nice form factor, it’s more discreet than its peers and sits tighter to the body (with the right mounts). It’s small enough to fit in a pocket, a handbag or your race vest. In terms of its weight this wouldn’t too negatively impact your race day need to be as trim as possible, if GoPro decided this was the form factor for all cameras going forward I don’t think there would be much complaint.

Experience? I’ve had the GoPro now for about three weeks and have been testing it extensively – different settings, different mounts, different activities, different times of day – sadly weather conditions have remained consistent but living in the UK means this is guaranteed to change.

As my primary activity is running I’ve been using it for this and it’s fair to say that at night time in a city you get reasonable results with a chest harness and 1080p at 30fps. As you might expect there’s some judder from your jiggle as you run but if the camera footage was smooth I think this would look fake. I improved the overall quality of the footage by upping the frame rate just last night to Superview (super wide basically) 48fps which provides a significantly smoother picture and I expect they moving to 60fps will improve this further again (though at the time of writing I have yet to test this).

Swift turns, leaping over stuff and darting between people and the neon haze of London have proved no problem for the Session and the footage can be quite interesting when viewed as snapshots of what you did rather than an entire run (which would be tiresome). While the video has been excellent as I’ve indicated the time lapse while running is less successful but not without merit and simply requires a little time to separate the wheat from the chaff – examples of time lapse footage are shown below. 

This past weekend also provided me with a daylight testing option and I was able to dip out both on the bike and running trails to give the Session a proper go. For the bike I used the handlebar mount on the way out and the chest mount on the return journey and for running I used the monkey grip tripod for time lapse photography and the chest mount for running. Both systems worked pretty well with the least successful being the chest mount for the bike ride but that was the directors (my) fault. Technically footage was pretty faultless and it captured all the nuances of my run/cycle. Footage at the 30fps was much better in daylight and even managed to capture my gobbing green chest mucus all over the trail as we ran. 

So I had fun and more importantly the GoPro Session is leaving a last impression.

For runners or not? If you’re a bit like me and enjoy a wide range of activities but your main activity is running then the GoPro is a curious one.

Running itself isn’t something you might want to watch back over and over but I’ve found the testing I’ve been doing has been a lot of fun. The footage itself is technically high quality that you’ll enjoy reliving but will you watch your footage like a box set? Unlikely.

The GoPro Session is best suited to other sports but for the socially media-d runner this could be an excellent purchase to help share your awesome experiences and at around £150-160 this is an absolute bargain at the moment. 

 
Hopefully, if as a runner, you too decide to invest in one I think you’ll find extended uses for it – like strapping it to a child or the family dog (I’ve done both).

I’m now just waiting for the real dog harness to arrive so that I can throw ThunderPad into the nearest lake with the camera attached for some properly fun footage. 

Happy shooting.

 

NB. This is a product I purchased and has nothing to do with the manufacturer. No freebie testing here!

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