We have escaped the heat! That’s a laughable concept when we were living in the UK (where summer begrudgingly arrives for a week or two at best), but Florida is bloody hot and the humidity is strangling. Running an ultramarathon in Iceland was a wonderful way to cool off but it wasn’t long before we were drowning in pools of sweat again.

Evidence that on occasion, we don't wear lycra.

Evidence that on occasion, we don’t wear lycra.

So what did we do, but get in the minivan, loaded up with two TT bikes, a windsurfing board, 2 wetsuits, a duffel bag filled with water bottles, cycling helmets and shoes, and lycra galore, and most importantly of all – our whippet, Haile. And we drove 24 hours north to Canada. The drive really wasn’t that bad. Haile slept in my lap the whole way there, and we listened to Laura Hillenbrand’s biography of Olympic runner Louis Zamperini, Unbroken (it was excellent).

imageThe premise for the trip was to attend an old friend’s wedding in Toronto (hey Alan and Amy, you looked amazing, thanks for having us!). The morning after the nuptials we headed up to my parents’ place on Georgian Bay, namely, The Cottage, otherwise known as Paradise.

The Cottage is where I grew up cross-country skiing in the winter, swimming in the summer; where our first dog is buried; where Tom and I got engaged; where we honeymooned with 20 friends and family after our wedding.  The Cottage is nothing but good memories both in the past and future.

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Normally at this time of year, The Cottage should be hot and sunny, but at the moment Georgian Bay is having a little autumnal practice session. We don’t mind. It’s been around 16°C (60°F) during the day and much colder at night, but really that is absolutely ideal running weather. I did my first intervals session of the year yesterday where I was actually able to get to my real 5K pace (something I haven’t seen in a long, long time). I jumped in the lake afterwards and that sweet fresh water felt amazing (and yes, I screamed as I dived in. It’s cold).

Ironman training continues. Thanks to the wonderful invention of wetsuits, we’ve also been able to do some proper open water swimming, and the newly resurfaced Twelve Mile Bay road is perfect for cycling intervals – even if we have to hike out to the paved road before we can get going!

It’s supposed to get warmer over the next few days, but it doesn’t really matter if it does. The Cottage is perfect no matter the weather.

Fifteen years ago, I spent a summer teaching horse riding to girls at a camp in Maine. A lifetime ago.

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Those few months were my only experience of living in the USA up until now, and although I was riding horses daily, I recall I didn’t own a single sports bra.  I remember this because the other riding instructors made fun of me.  In a good way, of course.

Anyone who looks into my closet now will know that is astounding.  Because now I have…maybe…(don’t tell Tom…)… 22? That’s after I gave away a bunch.

I wasn’t a runner back then, and I certainly wasn’t a triathlete. But part of the fun and the pain in this sport is the kit.  The fun part is wearing quality kit that feels good and looks good.  The pain is when you can’t manage to find anything that ticks that box.

Sports bras for me have been both a pleasure and a pain.  I love that they come in so many different colours and shapes.  I hate that nearly every bra chafes me when I run.  Hence my ongoing search.

One of the fabulous (and expensive) things about being a triathlete is that you need kit for 3 sports!  Oh, and we usually do at least 2 out of 3 sports every day.  That works out to needing a lot of clothes (and doing a LOT of washing).  When I used to cycle commute to work everyday in London and training for an Ironman, I worked out that I was wearing up to 4 sports bra a day.

From L-R: bras 1-3, 5 - Lululemon; bra 4 - Oiselle; bra 6 - Onzie; bra 7 - Sweaty Betty

From L-R: bras 1-3, 5 – Lululemon; bra 4 – Oiselle; bra 6 – Onzie; bra 7 – Sweaty Betty

At the risk of too much information:

  1. a bra for my early morning indoor bike trainer ride;
  2. dry bra for the brick run, because otherwise I’d freeze wearing the wet one outside in winter;
  3. same again, to cycle to and from work; and
  4. clean bra for yoga during my lunch break.

Now, within that, I classify bras as 3 different types:

  1. Running bra:  the most important.  This bra is the one that has to not chafe on a sweaty 4 hour run.  Or on a 13 hour ultra.  You get the idea. And it has to be supportive.  These are the ones that are so hard to find.  Especially because I still want them to be pretty.  I know, tough customer.
  2. Cycling bra:  I’ve never had any chafing issues from bras while cycling, thankfully, nor do they have to be as supportive.  But still, a bouncy road, a waterfall of sweat on a hard long ride – still have to choose wisely.
  3. Yoga bra:  the oh-so cool barely there strappy beautiful funky ones.  Most could double as bikinis, they’re so pretty.

The amazing thing about chafing is that sometimes you can find the dream bra that doesn’t chafe for 49 runs, and then on the 50th it chafes until you bleed.  I can’t figure it out.

At any rate, below are my top rated picks for the moment.  In the interest of full disclosure, I generally wear a 34B or a 32C.  If you know me in real life, please pretend you didn’t read that.

FIVE OF THE BEST BRAS OUT THERE… after much trying and testing!

1. For running: Sweaty Betty Stamina Bra – $55

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This is a bold comment for me to make, but…. so far this is the best running bra I have ever come across.  It is the only one that doesn’t chafe me.  The only one. Now, I am conscious that Sweaty Betty sells it as a medium-impact sports bra, not a running bra.  Perhaps it wouldn’t be good for larger cup sizes, but for the smaller chested ladies, I think of this one as the holy grail of running bras.  No bounce, no chafe, easy on and off.  Normally it comes in a range of fun colours. At the moment it seems to be just in black and white. I hope the colour returns.

What I love: this bra has never chafed me.  Fun bright colours (normally).

The cons:  really, this is my best bra for sport.  But I’m concerned they might be phasing it out.  Sweaty Betty, if you’re reading this, don’t!

Sizing:  I take a size S.

*Want to try Sweaty Betty? At checkout, click on “been referred by a friend” on the right side of the page, and enter “Julia Kelk” for a $20 gift certificate.  Alternatively, you can enter your email here to receive a $20 coupon.

2.  For running or cycling:  Oiselle Verrazano Bra – $48 or $42

Screen Shot 2015-08-16 at 16.11.20 Screen Shot 2015-08-16 at 16.10.00Oiselle is a running clothes company first and foremost, and is fronted by some fantastic and fierce female runners.  I really like their kit and have a fair bit of it, but over time I have realised I keep turning to my 2 Verrazano bras for cycling rather than running.  The double strap system feels nice and secure when I’m lying low on the aerobars and the bras are a bit easier to get on than the average super tight running bra.  I do run in them too, but sadly chafing has been an issue for me on longer runs.  For cycling – 5 stars.

What I love: Very comfortable, easy to get on and off, some cool colours and patterns now.

The cons:  the removable pads come out in the washing machine (not a big deal). Have had mild chafing when running.

Sizing:  I take a size 4.

3.  For running or cycling: Lululemon Stuff Your Bra – $52

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Lululemon’s specialty is coming up with a huge range of colours and patterns.  It’s fun, it’s playful, and every year they reincarnate many of their standard models with new patterns, craftily ensuring that we will all lust after the same bra in that new shade of dusty rose or speckled hen. Lululemon was my first sports bra brand and I’ve tried a lot of their bras.  The Stuff Your Bra is my pick of the lot for any sort of real sport, although I’ve yet to actually try carrying something in it like they suggest in the middle “pocket”.  I have had mild chafing from this bra on the run, but it’s generally decent, and it’s good for cycling too.

What I love: Easy to get on and off, frequent introduction of new fun colours, criss-cross straps aren’t sewn together so you can adjust for the most comfortable fit.

The cons:  Lululemon seems to phase this bra in and out.  It’s in right now.  Have had mild chafing issues when running.

Sizing:  I take a size 4 in this bra (in other Lululemon bras, I’m a 6).

4.  For yoga:  Onzie Sun Ray Bra – $65

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Yoga is about the meditation, the asana, the breath, the removal of thought from material things and the consumer world. So why is there such a huge explosion in the yoga clothes market for the funkiest, most fun, most colourful, strappiest, and most expensive bras out there? I don’t know, but it’s not easy to resist the allure of incredible yogis on Instagram upside-down on one finger in a wisp of a bra held on by 27 straps. I know I can do yoga in just about any type of bra, but do I want to? When there are so many beautiful options out there? While my moral compass grapples with this, I can tell you that I have the crazy flowered Onzie Sun Ray bra pictured above and I do feel pretty damned cool doing yoga on the beach in it. Yeah! Now let me just photoshop out the guy holding me upside down so I too can have that crazy photo on Instagram…..

What I love:  it’s just so fun.  And it’s comfortable.

The cons:  wear it topless and you’re heading for a crazy suntan/sunburn (delete as appropriate).  And it’s expensive.

Sizing:  I take a size S/M

5.  For yoga:  Sweaty Betty Brahma Bamboo Padded Yoga Bra – $65

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I have a couple of the older models of the Sweaty Betty bamboo bras and they are all just gorgeous to wear. When we go trail running in the swamps here in Florida and I’m a disgusting pulsing mass of sweat at the end, when I peel off my sodden running bra, these bamboo bras are the only thing I can bear to put back on. They’re light but supportive (for casual wear, I mean, or yoga) and seamless. I never have enough of them because I end up wearing them day to day…by the time I’m heading to the yoga studio, they’re usually all in the laundry bin.

What I love:  super soft, super light material

The cons:  these bras aren’t made to sweat in.  Bamboo does not dry quickly. And again, price.  The less support there is, the more you pay in the world of yoga bras!

Sizing:  I take a size XS

*see above for a $20 gift certificate if you want to buy this bra or any other Sweaty Betty gear.

Any others your recommend?  Let me know in the comments below or contact me!

I couldn’t stop smiling.

A beautiful summer’s day in the mountains in Iceland.  The snow crunched under our feet as we ran, and the sun warmed our faces as the wind blew across the mountains.  The footing wasn’t easy, so I was looking down a lot.  Every time I looked up around me, my joy was palpable.  The views of the lava fields, the multi-hued mountains, the steam rising from the hot springs, the drapings of snow and ice.  Every look in every direction was just spectacular.

I had found Nirvana in the Laugavegur Trail running the Laugavegur Ultra Marathon.  Trail runners’ paradise.

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Midnight Sun

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Not yet 4 in the morning!

Race day started with a 3:45 am alarm clock in order to catch the 4:30 am bus from Laugardalur in Reykjavik. But hey, it’s really not hard to get up that early when it’s nearly full daylight outside!

21-IMG_4217With a breakfast stop en-route to Landmannalaugar, we arrived at around 8:20, with our wave scheduled to start at 9:05. This meant a very cold 45 minutes of waiting at the start, marvelling at the hundreds of tents containing runners who opted for an icy night but a leisurely race morning.

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Some pre-race acrobatics in the vain hope of warming up

 

Did I mention it was cold?

The Laugavegur Trail starts in Landmannalaugar, going directly up into the mountains with around 600m of climbing to the top at Hrafntinnusker.  It then sharply descends down to Álftavatn, then up again to Emstrur and finally down to Húsadalur in Þórsmörk.  Hikers normally take 4 days to cross the 55km, camping along the way near the mountain huts.  The perfect setting for an ultra marathon!  This year there was the added challenge of unusual amounts of snow for this time of year.

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Going by the allocated race numbers, there were around 430 runners divided into three waves.  After the usual shuffling and shivering at the start line, our wave was called, and up we went!

Landmannalaugar to Hrafntinnusker ~ 10km with 600m climbing, around 1:40

There was good reason for the wave start – we immediately headed up a single track mountain path, nose to tail.  We had been warned several times by the race organisers to take the whole of the first section very easy, not only because it was steep, but as we climbed higher into the mountains, the snow took over.

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The start of the race – photo thanks to marathon.is (all other photos are ours unless specified)

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Landmannalaugur – photo by Mattias Klum

In retrospect, I think they perhaps overly emphasised the need to take the first section of the race easy, because it meant that 1/6th of the runners had the devastating consequence of not meeting the cut-offs imposed in the later stages of the race.  Our goal from the beginning was to enjoy the race and to get around it comfortably, without actually racing it.

And enjoy we did.  Tom took a few short videos of me running through the snow, complete with questionable commentary:

I’m originally from Canada so I grew up with snow as an integral part of my life, but I left the country when I was 19 and haven’t lived there since.  I didn’t get into running properly until I was in my 30s, so…. I am most certainly not used to running in snow.  The occasional light dusting in London never meant more than a bit of slippery footing and wet feet, and it never lasted long.  So Iceland was my first real time running, and racing, in the snow.  I loved it.  That crunch!  The bit of slip, the slide!  The views!

No surprise then that this first section was my favourite of the whole race.  As we neared Hrafntinnusker, we crossed around 8km of continuous snow.

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The depth of the snow is made evident as some nearby hot springs melt a cavern underneath! (me in black waving at the camera)

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After nearly an hour and a half, the mountain huts at Hrafntinnusker came into view – the very first aid station.  A quick loo break and we refilled our water, ate a banana and set off sliding down the snow.

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Hrafntinnusker to Álftavatn ~ 12 km, with 180m climbing, 600m descending, 1:35

We continued to climb up into the snow, then slowly down the other side only to find the very best views yet. On one side we had dark mountains with a glacier in the background.

53-IMG_4334On the other side, spectacular sandy mountains with hues of red, orange, and brown and lacings of snow so beautiful and almost so unreal as to look like a painting.

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Further along, we could see the lake near Álftavatn, our next aid station and the first checkpoint.  We had to get there within 4 hours in order to be permitted to continue the race.  We began the sharp descent, and the air grew warmer until I was sweating heavily in my waterproof jacket.

And we eventually hit the valley, complete with a glacier-fed stream that we had to cross – the first of many.

We hit the checkpoint with about 50 minutes to spare, although we didn’t think much about it at the time. We refilled with water, sat down in the sunshine for a few minutes to eat another banana, stripped off a layer and headed off again.

Álftavatn to Emstrur ~ 16km, with 220m climbing, 280 descending, around 2:20

This was the hardest section of the race for me, although the terrain was perhaps the easiest.  I enjoyed crossing a few more glacial streams and rivers, and when we reached Bláfjallakvísl, we were able to change our shoes.  Given the heavy snow on the mountains, both Tom and I had opted for very heavy Salomon trail shoes, which did their job perfectly but were feeling pretty heavy on the feet after nearly 4.5 hours.  Mine were waterproof too, which had been great in the snow, but not so good once we started fording all the rivers (water goes into the shoe, but then doesn’t drain out unlike in a normal shoe).  So it was a very welcome to change to put on our minimalist trail shoes and to feel the trails beneath our feet again.  Although the new shoes didn’t stay dry for long!

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Soon we were heading across a great expanse of lava fields.  We could still see mountains around us, but the terrain was completely different from before.  The ground underneath was fine lava sand.  A moonscape.  I had read that NASA had come to Iceland to have its astronauts do a simulation moon-walk before they landed on the moon, and I could see why.  Were we really just in the snowy mountains the hour before?

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We had spent a good chunk of time at Bláfjallakvísl changing our shoes, and we were stopping frequently for photographs.  When we reached a mini aid station and refilled our water, we heard another runner ask how far it was to the next checkpoint – around 6km, they said.  I looked at my watch and realised that we were cutting it fine.  No more photographs until the checkpoint!  Time to get going!

And so we tried to pick up the pace as we headed across the lava fields, as best we could over 5 hours into a mountain ultra marathon.  We made it with just 15 minutes to spare – and what a huge relief.  I later found out that many runners were forced to retire from the race. I can’t imagine how disappointing that must have been.

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Reaching the mountain huts at Emstrur, so relieved to know that we had made the cut off.

Emstrur to Húsadalur in Þórsmörk ~17km with 380m climbing, 645m descending, 2:30

This last section of the race brought us down out of the mountains properly, although with plenty of uphill on the way down.  The pressure was off now that we knew we had made the cut offs and could just enjoy the rest of the race. Would you believe the terrain changed completely again? Suddenly we were running atop a big canyon with waterfalls and views spreading out before us that looked like a scene from the Lord of the Rings (or, New Zealand). Spectacular in a completely different way from the previous miles we had covered, and very hard to capture on my little camera.

How about this? Mountains, glacier, river, and just beyond, a waterfall…..

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Down begins to hurt as much as up, or even more, after a while.  As we headed down down down the mountains, we welcomed the occasional up as relief to our poor pounded quads.

We certainly hadn’t run this ultra fast by any stretch of the imagination, but our slow and steady approach meant that we overtook a lot of runners in this last section to Þórsmörk.  But first, more river crossings.

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Although not deep, the river had a fierce current and we were holding on for good reason.

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We knew the end was within reach.  We had enjoyed this race so much, but we were most definitely tired and ready to stop running.  Just a few more hills to go.  We grabbed some pieces of Snickers bars and gulped some flat Coke from the last aid station, and headed up the last few hills. Up the hills. Up, up, down, up, down, down. The grass grew red alongside us and we could see down into a valley full of nothing but the same short, fine red grass. Then through another river, then a stream, then a short tunnel of foliage that looked like it was straight out of England.

Then suddenly the path was littered with people cheering us on, shouting, and we could hear the finish line. Without comment, our pace increased. We came down the last hill, and we could see all the tents at the finish line. We ran together, as we had done the whole way, and passed through the finish line. Still smiling.

91-IMG_4879Total time: 8:29:07

Total distance:  55km, ~1900m climbing, 2200m descending

We placed 313th – nothing fancy, but we made it to the end, and we loved it from start to finish.

In fact….this was the best race I’ve done to date.  Most scenic, most beautiful, most enjoyable, most fun, most tremendous. If you’re thinking of running it and want more information (what? My thousands of photos here aren’t enough?) or have any questions, please don’t hesitate to contact me.  I mean that wholeheartedly.

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NB – The 19th edition of the Laugavegur Ultra Marathon took place on July 18, 2015.  The winner, Þorbergur Ingi Jónsson, finished in an unfathomable 3:59:13, setting a new course record!