Diagonale des Fous


Back in 2018 my wife asked me what I’d like to do for my 50th. A repeat of my 40th with a gathering of friends and family would be nothing new, but an interesting race, well that would be something to get excited about. She agreed it was a good idea, so suddenly I had carte blanche to look look much further afield than the usual UK races.  A browse of ultras at  http://www.ultramarathonrunning.com/races/ didn’t reveal anything appealing in November but there was the Grand Raid in October, which was close enough to my birthday. I’d also been to Reunion for a fortnight of hiking some 30 years previously and so knew it was a lovely island with huge mountains. Now I just needed to figure out how to secure a place and then plan a holiday around it.

Looking at the details of the race it turned out that the Grand Raid was a banner for 4 races of differing lengths. The longest solo race was “Diagonale des Fous” at just over 100 miles with almost 10,000m of ascent – way more climbing than anything I’d done before but there was no way I was going for one of the shorter options. How on earth was I going to train for this? Box Hill and Leith Hill obviously weren’t anything close but there was no way I’d be able to get regular training in the Alps or anywhere like that so they would just have to do. Ultimately I embarked on a repeat of my previous Lakeland 100 training plan adding in as many ups-and-downs as I could to the usual Surrey Hills training routes. That plus building in two leg weight sessions each week was about all I could fit in. The plan started in in December 2018, so about 10 months of training.  

Entries only opened in late 2018 and I wasn’t certain I’d get in. I therefore booked Lakeland 100 as another “A race” for 2019 thinking that I could either cancel that or use it as a training run if I did manage to get in. I did get a place and ended up doing both but couldn’t possibly treat the Lakes as a training run trying hard to beat my previous time. In the three months between them I worried that I’d blown it as recovery was slow leaving me knackered and sore after a 15 mile run. Three months was just about enough though, as by the end I was feeling back at peak fitness.

Getting to Reunion ended up being a bit more stressful than I’d bargained for. There are no direct flights so you either need to fly via Mauritius or Paris. I opted for the latter, so Heathrow to Paris CDG and then Paris ORY to Reunion. That’s two different Paris airports with a 90 minute bus trip between them – something I’d not spotted when making the booking but fortunately had plenty of time (to worry about being stuck in traffic on the peripherique!).

The day of arrival at Reunion I had to get to race registration before noon. Registration was at the southern side of the island, in St Pierre, with the airport and my hotel at the northern side. Cue another couple of hours on a bus. There were however some good views inland to the mountains.

First view of the mountains

Arriving in St Pierre I didn’t really know where to go but simply followed the sound of music blaring and made it to registration at the town hall before noon. Registration took about two hours with a rather long queue. Chatted to a few runners who had run it before and learned that some difficult sections of the course were not where I’d expected them to be – a 15km downhill dropping over 2000m had looked like an easy part but it sounded like it was going to be a quad killer – more stuff to worry about! It also sounded like my 45 hour target was a bit optimistic and that 50 hours was perhaps more realistic.

The queue for registration

Next back on the bus to St Denis to find the hotel and hopefully get a good night’s sleep as the following two nights (hopefully not three) were going to be spent running.

Amazingly I did sleep well that night, almost unheard of for me the night before a race. Now I just needed to while away a few hours before catching the race bus at 4pm back down to St Pierre. Somehow I managed to relax by the pool and then set off on a local bus to Roland Garros to catch the race bus. This was my first big mistake: Roland Garros is both the name of the airport as well as a street in town. I assumed the former but the bus left from the latter. Shit! Now what? Hasty enquiries and I found the next scheduled bus to St Pierre was in 90 minutes. That still gave me enough time to get to the race start but didn’t leave me with much time to relax before the race started. Not much else to do beyond wait and hope that the bus wasn’t delayed.

Three hours later and I’m back in St Pierre walking to the town hall to find the start. Get there and it’s dead. What’s going on?!? Second big mistake: not finding out where the race start was. In my defence that wouldn’t have been an issue if I hadn’t missed the race bus. Fortunately the town was buzzing near the sea front – all you needed to do was head towards the music. It was a long walk though – about two miles along a road lined with bands, dancers and crowds. The race is big news here!

Eventually I make it to the start and there is a huge “queue” for kit check. This isn’t a polite British queue but just a mass of people pushing to get through a gate. Two hours in the crush and I finally make it into the starting area. I’m relieved but also stressed out – it’s only half an hour until the race starts. I’m hungry (haven’t eaten since lunch time) and need to find water to fill up the bladder in my race vest. The food tables are empty and I can’t find water. I can’t seem to find anyone that speaks English. This is not the way to start a race! Eventually I find a half empty water bottle next to a bin. It smells OK so it’ll have to do – should be enough to get to the first aid station. Now try and relax.

Ready to start

Soon enough the crowd starts inching forward so the race must be about to start. I’m right at the back but really don’t feel like pushing my way into another crowd. The crowd starts walking so I guess the race started (no idea what’s being said over the PA). Start the watch going and soon start jogging along the seafront. The crowd is even bigger than before, filled with bands and dancers and it goes on for miles. There are fireworks going off too. This is an amazing atmosphere but my head isn’t in the right place to enjoy it – I’m still stressed-out, sick of crowds and just want to run. I try and talk myself round – “this is it, this is the race you’ve trained all year for, enjoy it! Soak up the atmosphere!” but I just can’t switch moods.

After a few miles we leave town and start ascending through the cane fields. The crowd is thinning out a bit now so I can run at a nice easy pace. We pass through villages, each lined with people shouting “allez! allez!”, fortunately I’m starting to enjoy things – all the stress of the start has faded and I’m looking forward to getting up into the mountains and seeing the dawn.

Nine miles in and suddenly we stop, and not just briefly but for minutes. We are now on single-track and I’m towards the back of a queue of 2700 runners (at this point I was around 2000). 6 miles of stop-start follow but I try not to let it bother me – try to think of it as enforced rest that will help later. That kind of works and soon enough I reach Aire du Nez de Boeuf, which is the top of the first long climb.

Around then dawn breaks illuminating the 3000m peak of Piton de Neiges. There is frost on the ground so it really was close to freezing overnight. I can spot the mountain hut where we spent the night on the way to the summit 30 years ago. It’s a shame the race doesn’t take you over the top but then again this is going to be tough enough without an extra climb.

The next section is relatively flat and runnable and I’m enjoying it. Definitely passing plenty of runners and even some who sleeping at the side of the trail. I don’t feel the slightest bit tired and plan to keep going well into the second night before thinking about sleeping. I do wonder if they know something I don’t. though

Next up is the really steep descent down to Cilaos complete with chains, ropes and ladders. One of the blogs I’d read spoke about needing gloves to protect your hands and of people falling and ending their race here so I was a little worried about just how difficult it was going to be. Ultimately it was a long steep descent but not overly technical. You could spot the local runners though as they just flew down.

Reaching Cilaos was a major milestone. Huge crows cheering you in. Here was where you got your first drop bag so that meant fresh clothes, new shoes, proper food. I spent at least half an hour here freshening up and getting ready for the next section through Cirque de Mafate, which was going to be the hardest with two major 1000m+ climbs and another night before heading down to the coast.

Out of Cilaos in the midday sun with the big climb up Col du Taibit (2142m) ahead . Some of my running buddies reckon I’ve got a “diesel engine” when it comes to long climbs so I try to invoke that now and manage to stay feeling strong with a steady pace all the way up and then over into Marla. I gain 300 places over that section so it must be true.

Ready for Cirque de Mafate

Leaving Marla the trail descends into Cirque de Mafate, the most remote part of the route. There are no roads here and the aid stations are all supplied by helicopter. I’d heard you couldn’t drop out at any of the aid stations here and had to make it out to Maido. That could have been intimidating but I didn’t feel that there was any real danger of me not making it another 30 miles. Descending into forest it suddenly went dark and started to rain. Looking at my watch it wasn’t even 6pm so the next 11 hours or so would need a head torch – it was going to be a long night.

At this point I’d not had a conversation with any other runners. That’s very unusual for me as I almost always get chatting to someone on the trail, which is a great distraction that can get you through a few hours without noticing. Almost everyone in this race is French and I barely know enough to order a beer so conversations just weren’t happening. At one of the aid stations though another runner asked “are you English?” – he must have heard me trying to communicate with the staff. We quickly struck up a conversation – I was certainly glad to have someone to chat to, which helped a lot getting through the second night. Ultimately we stuck together right to the end of the race so I expect he was glad to have the company too.

Conversation kept us moving well until the big climb out of Mafate up to Maido. This was a monster climb of 1300m that we started at about 2am. Sleep deprivation was now becoming an issue and I wasn’t as sure-footed as usual. The trail was a zig-zag carved into the near vertical side of the mountain so there wasn’t anywhere to sleep. It was time to get that diesel engine chugging away again, although by this time it was spluttering quite a bit.

Three hours later we crested the summit and I was now struggling to stay awake but couldn’t stop to rest as I’d run out of water half an hour before. Fortunately it was an easy ridge run to the aid station – a place to get water, food and hopefully a nap. There was no place to sleep inside and it was pretty cold and windy outside. Continuing to the next aid station wasn’t an option so I just put on all my layers and curled up on a stretcher outside with a countdown alarm set for 20 minutes. Having never before slept during a race I had no idea if I’d be able to nod off but the alarm woke me so I must have. I was bloody freezing though! There was frost on the ground again so it was time to get running to warm up. Next was the long descent to Ilet Savannah that I’d heard about. I hoped my quads were up to the task.

The descent was indeed long: 1875m over 15km but really not that difficult. I did trip up once on the way down though (my only fall of the race) and by some miracle landed in a soft bush – right next to a nasty spiky one. The descent ended at Ilet Savannah, a town near the coast, which was the next big aid station with the second drop bag. There were showers here too, so even though I had no soap or towel I took the opportunity to freshen up, change clothes and give my feet some attention. A quick hot meal and it was time to tackle the last 25 miles with two 800m climbs. That really didn’t sound like a lot, although it was getting hot already.

Two little climbs to go

The first of the climbs felt easy enough and the terrain for the descent was some interesting scrambling over boulders filling a ravine, which ultimately took us down to La Possession at the coast. Only one more similarly sized climb left now – this should be easy.

Ha! I wish! I’d read about Chemin Anglais being this horrible track that destroyed you but didn’t think things could be that bad with just the one climb left. It was bad, really bad. Thinking back it’s hard to say just why. The track itself was in distinct sections of entirely different character, almost as if it had been constructed by different people. It started off as a paved jeep-sized track made of flattish rocks fairly evenly put together. It didn’t look that bad but somehow the surface made each step a little different so that took away any rhythm. A sudden change in character and it was now as if builder #2 had decided not to bother laying any of the stones and had just scattered them willy-nilly. Somehow that seemed worse than no trail at all. A few more changes of character, all sudden and distinct but never making the going any better. The climb seemed to go on for ever and sapped every last bit of physical and mental energy. I swore at lot and can’t have been much fun to be around, but somehow made it to the top of the climb where there was a beautiful grassy meadow and the final aid station before the descent to the finish.

Chemin Anglais

Only three miles left now, all downhill and I can hear the music from the stadium at the finish. My watch says 43:30 – surely we can managed to sneak it in in under 44 hours? I ask Antti if he’s up for a final challenge. He doesn’t seem that keen but agrees to give it a try. At this point we have to put the official t-shirt on as you have to cross the finish line in it; there’s a time penalty if you don’t (the French have some weird rules).

With the end so near my legs feel brilliant and I’m flying down, overtaking loads of runners who all seem to be struggling. Sub-44 is slipping away but I don’t want to stop trying and keep on pushing. Eventually the trail comes out at a road and the stadium is there. Crowds of people lining the entrance clapping and cheering but no sign of Antti. He can’t be that far behind can he? After having stuck together for half the race we can’t not finish together so I stop and wait for what feels like an age. It seems that everyone I overtook on that last section is now passing me again. I’m starting to worry that he’s fallen and injured himself but he does turn up and we finish it together.

The end

Before this race I’d decided it would be my last 100 miler. 2020 was going to be all about Mountain Marathons; 100s were just silly really. Chatting to Antti it turned out that I now had enough points to apply for a place at UTMB. That’s never happened before and is unlikely to happen ever again. I don’t have much choice really, just one more then…

Checkpoint stats

St PierreThu. 22:0100:00:00
Domaine Vidot6682066Fri. 00:0202:01:31
Notre Dame de la Paix10401816Fri. 02:4504:44:18
Aire du Nez de Boeuf7561514Fri. 05:3907:38:10
Mare à Boue641322Fri. 07:1209:11:17
Cilaos (Stade)1091252Fri. 11:5213:51:22
Sentier Taïbit (début)4541048Fri. 14:1316:12:13
Marla842937Fri. 16:1718:16:54
Plaine des Merles507820Fri. 18:1420:13:26
Sentier Scout40781Fri. 18:5220:51:12
Ilet à Bourse107778Fri. 21:0123:00:15
Grand Place438744Fri. 21:5523:54:57
Roche Plate679667Sat. 01:0727:06:37
Maïdo Tête dure790598Sat. 04:0230:01:09
Ilet Savannah90556Sat. 07:3933:38:39
Chemin Ratinaud640557Sat. 10:2736:26:21
La Possession176560Sat. 12:1938:18:04
Grande Chaloupe339544Sat. 14:3440:33:16
Le Colorado821550Sat. 17:0343:02:43
St Denis Le Redoute28552Sat. 18:0844:07:22

Photo Album

Garmin ConnectIQ Data Field showing race checkpoints

I’ve recently built a ConnectIQ watch data field that shows information about checkpoints during an activity. It is built for the Fenix 3 for use on a single field screen of an activity and shows the name of the next checkpoint, distance to go, time until cut-off and average pace required to get there within that time.

Here’s a screen grab from the simulator:

This came about after experiencing that in the middle of the night, many hours into a race, it’s quite easy to get mixed up, especially if you’ve been lost previously so you need to keep a delta in your head of distance on watch versus distance on course to compare with the checkpoint distances you have written down.

The operation is very basic. It holds the lat/lon of every checkpoint, distance between them and their cut-off times. It has no idea of the course you are following, just the expected distance to the next checkpoint. It checks if you are within 200m of the checkpoint, and if you are then switches to the following one, resetting the accumulated distance to zero and comparing this against the distance to the next CP. Additionally it looks one checkpoint further in case you happen to miss one. Also, as it’s not aware of the actual course it can go wrong, e.g. if you get lost and add on a few extra miles then it’ll misreport the distance to the next CP until you get there, after which it’ll get back in sync.

The other major problem is that I currently have no way of setting up the checkpoints other than by modifying the code and loading the updated data field to the watch. I’m yet to find a way of getting this kind of data onto the watch in a user-friendly way. Of course this is fine for me as I’m the only user but clearly means that the data field is of no use to anyone else unless they are comfortable with Eclipse and the ConnectIQ SDK.

The source is available on GitHub if you wish to customise this field for your own race:

The code is based on a very useful article on MCBadger’s blog about the Haversine formula, which was what got me thinking about it in the first place.

Getting the most out of your Garmin

I was asked recently to help out someone with a few features on their Garmin training watch and it made me realise that a lot of the features that I regularly use on my watch aren’t that obvious meaning that people often don’t get the most of a very capable device. Here are a few things that your watch is really good at.


Workouts allow your watch to direct you such that you are achieving your goals during a training session. By goals we mean things such a speed, pace or heart rate over a time or distance. For example you can have your watch warn you if you are not staying within a pace goal of 7:00 – 8:00 min/mile over a distance of 800 metres, warning you if you are going too fast or too slow, similarly you can set goals for your heart rate to be within a range of 70% to 80% for 10 minutes. Workouts can be structured meaning that they are a series of goals that you follow one after the other, a classic example is an interval session with a warm-up and cool down:

Screen Shot 2016-04-28 at 21.50.19


  • When you complete a workout the watch plays a little tune and then stops the activity. That’s fine if you are on a treadmill but chances are you’ve still got a way to go before you are really done. It’s possible to continue the workout but you will lose a few seconds; instead add an extra “no target” step to the end of every workout and just stop the watch normally when you have reached the end.
  • The watch can get pretty annoying with pace alerts if you’ve set a fairly narrow desired range, especially if GPS accuracy isn’t great. It’s therefore better to have a wider range and treat it is a “always go faster than” (have a really fast upper bound) or “always go slower than” (have a really slow lower bound)

Training plans

A training plan is a calendar where you define particular workouts that you should complete on a given date. This is a great benefit when you head out first thing in the morning and can just fire up your watch and say “do today’s run”. The watch will then tell you when to speed up, slow down, work harder, ease off, etc.

It’s quite a lot of effort to set all this up in Garmin Connect but once it’s done it can be a great motivator – you just do what the watch is telling you with no deciding what you feel like at the crack of dawn!


The easy way

Plot a route on Garmin Connect, clicking your way round the map.

In Garmin Connect go to Courses and click the plus button to create a new course. Next:

  • Type in a place name close to the start to centre the map on that and zoom in until you find the right spot
  • Click once on the start point and this will drop a green marker
  • For a road route leave the “stay on roads” option checked as this will allow you to click infrequently with Connect figuring out the route between two points; for trail you are better off switching this off and clicking points more frequently (Connect will just draw a straight line between each point)
  •  Type in a speed or pace on the right hand side – this govern the speed of a “virtual partner” you can compare yourself when following the course.
  • Give the course and name and hit Save.
  • Click “send to device” and connect your watch
  • On the watch go to Navigation | Courses and find the newly uploaded course and hit Start and Do Course.
  • Select the type of workout (run, bike, etc), wait for a GPS lock and then his start
  • You’ll now have a map screen as one of the screens you can scroll to where you can see the path ahead and a track of where you’ve been. the watch will give you alerts if you deviate from the course and again when you rejoin it.

Screen Shot 2016-04-28 at 21.16.40A better way

Garmin Connect’s interface is quite limiting and there are better alternatives for creating routes (RideWithGps, Mapometer, Ordnance Survey, etc). Connect also doesn’t have a way to import routes from other sites or sources, which often will allow you to download a route as a GPX file, for example from a race website or in an email from a friend. In these cases you need a way to transfer a route that is saved in a GPX file onto your watch and this can be tricky; it also differs depending on the model of Garmin you have.

With the newer Garmin watches after connecting the watch it should appear as a folder on your desktop. Open this folder, inside there should be a Garmin folder and in there a NEWFILES folder; this is where we need to copy the GPX file. By default the NEWFILES folder is hidden so you’ll need to enable display of hidden files and folders to see it.

Copy the GPX file from your PC to the NEWFILES folder above and then “eject” the watch. After doing this the watch should display “Updating” for a few seconds and then return to the regular screen. The new route should now be visible in the list of courses in the Navigation menu.

NOTE: For this to work you need a “GPX track” as opposed to a “GPX route” the wrong type of GPX file results in the watch ignoring the new file,so look for an option for a track rather than route when downloading.

If your GPX file doesn’t work then use the as GPSies converter to change it.

Screen Shot 2016-05-03 at 22.00.42

Turn-by-turn navigation

The more recent Garmin devices also offer turn-by-turn navigation. This is very much like a car satnav that alerts you shortly before a junction that a turn is coming up and displays information about the new direction and a description, such as a street name.

MCBadger’s Conversion Tool


  • Auto-zoom automatically zooms the map display on the watch in or out such that you can see the track even if you’ve moved some distance away from it. This sounds good in principle but in practice when briefly looking at the display you can’t see how far the next feature is without scrutinising the scale. I therefore recommend leaving this off and zooming manually when required.
  • Circular routes can sometimes confuse the watch as it thinks you’ve already reached the end before you’ve even started. Onesolution here is to start the watch a little way after the start.
  • The watch can alert you that you’ve left the course even when you haven’t, this can be as a result of poor GPS accuracy (see under thick tree cover or in a city) or from inaccuracies in the route loaded onto the watch from either an inaccurate set of route points or points taken from poor map data.There isn’t an infallible solution here beyond building up experience of how much to trust the watch.
  • Very long routes can also be problematic and take a long time for the watch to load. One solution here is to split a very long route into a number of smaller segments, switching from one to the next during the activity. This is a bit of a faff both in creation and during the activity so I’d recommend putting both the long route and the shorter ones onto the watch and using the shorter ones as a backup if you encounter problems.

Charging on the go

For very long workouts the battery life of your watch might not be sufficient for the duration of the workout. In such cases you have a few choices:

  1. Switch off all unnecessary features on the watch, such as smartphone integration, to save power
  2. Change to “ultratrac” mode
  3. Charge the watch whilst using it

I prefer the latter as I like the watch to be accurate and full-featured during a race. To charge the watch you need a portable power pack such as the Anker PowerCore mini, which has sufficient power to change the watch multiple times. Note however that not all power packs work, some I’ve tried don’t recognise the very small current draw of the watch and switch off rather than continue charging. In addition to this you also need to switch the watch’s USB mode to “Garmin” so that it can continue with the workout when a charger is connected.

The Centurion North Downs Way 100

The Centurion NDW100 was my second 100 mile race, having successfully finished SDW100 just a few months earlier. That first hundred had gone remarkably well so I was confident that I could repeat this on the North Downs. Aware that the NDW typically took an hour or two longer to complete I naively thought that I could push a bit harder than I had on my first hundred and so a sub-25 should be achievable and maybe even another sub-24, also this time I wasn’t going solo the whole way but had a pacer (my brother) to keep me motivated for the last 25 miles (the night section). A lot of the route is also familiar territory for me as the majority of my long training runs take place in the Box Hill area leading to more overconfidence.

As the SDW had been so successful I tried to keep everything the same: fuelling, hydration and kit. I did however have a new watch, a Garmin Fenix 3. I’d been training with the watch for about a month and was sure that I had it setup just right for navigation and pacing, but disaster struck just a mile into the race: the watch kept locking up so I wasn’t getting any info or notifications. After a lot of messing about it seemed that course navigation was the issue. With nav disabled the watch was back to giving me useful data again bar guidance for the route, which was only really a concern after Knockholt Pound as I didn’t know the second half. I just hoped that Centurion had done a good job of marking the course.

With that problem out of the way I could start running at relaxed pace and enjoy the course. It was a beautiful sunny day and fortunately I don’t suffer in the heat so I was making steady progress, sending regular updates to my family who were going to be at the top of Box Hill to cheer me on. I was really looking forward to seeing them 25 miles in and those 5 hours just flew by, reaching Box Hill about 10 minutes ahead of schedule and feeling great. A few minutes at the top chatting and then it was time to get going again so I departed shouting “see you in 50 miles!” to my brother. Not long after that my mood took a turn for the worse. This was down to me fixating on just how far that next 50 miles was. Reaching the aid station at Reigate was a big lift and suddenly the race didn’t seem quite so intimidating and I was once again able to break the race down and focus on getting to the next aid station.

The section from Reigate to Knockholt is a bit of a blur but I remember reaching Knockholt feeling good and appreciating fresh clothes from the drop bag and some hot food. The volunteers there were brilliant, taking care of your every need so I set off on the second half of the race feeling refreshed and strong. Things were still going well until darkness fell at around the 65 mile mark. At this point I was on a wide straight track so I took the opportunity to send a quick text message to my brother to tell him I was about 10 miles away from Bluebell Hill so he could start making his way to meet me there. Five minutes later I’m still on the same track but can’t remember the last time I saw any marker tape. Yep, I’d missed a turn, most likely whilst sending the text. Backtrack and eventually find my way up to the aid station on Holly Hill. Cue another downer – 10 miles in the dark until I saw my brother suddenly felt like a very long way. It was at this point that I started to struggle mentally – my pace was slowing and every time I calculated how long until Bluebell Hill it seemed it was even more time to go. Eventually the ETA did start getting closer and before long I was hiking up Bluebell Hill reaching the top a little after midnight.

I expected the final section to be quite straightforward, a pacer to keep me motivated, a course that looked easier – this was meant to be a doddle! Once we’d got past the climb out of Detling I was expecting a nice flat trail to the end but instead it felt like we were doing repeats up and down the stairs at Box Hill, so once again I was struggling as things were so much harder than expected. We battled on and finally made it to Lenham. By now the sky was starting to brighten and my mood lifted – not long to go now! The last 10 miles or so passed without incident and being flat I found it easy to have my brother to set a pace and just focus on following his heels. The final miles ticked away, so no walk breaks now, we’d almost done it. Into Wye and superb efficiency from the volunteers at the end supplying drop bags and bacon rolls made for a happy finish.

The race was so much harder than I’d expected and left me questioning whether I wanted to do any further races of this length. Just a couple of weeks later and I’m already planning the calendar for 2016 and naturally it’s got an even tougher 100 in it. This ultra lark is addictive, isn’t it?

Garmin vs Suunto

Discussions around Garmin versus Suunto as training aids often seem to highlight very little other than folks saying “I’ve bought X and it’s the best” with very little to back up the statements. Having used devices from both manufacturers I consider myself to have a fairly unbiased view of the strengths and weaknesses of each and was asked recently which one I’d recommend, which led to a conversation about the particular needs of this runner and me thinking more broadly about who is best served by each device.

I’ll start with a bit of history about the watches I’ve used and the strengths and weaknesses of each.

My first running watch was a very basicPolar HRM that was little more than a stopwatch with heart rate display. It did the job but only because I was unaware of just what a watch could really do as a training aid. Buying a Garmin Forerunner 305 changed all that!

Since then I’ve become somewhat reliant on a watch as a training aid, navigational aid and motivator. This is generally good but can also be a problem if the watch lets you down and you are too dependent upon it.

Garmin Forerunner 305

The FR305 was my first proper training watch. I bought it in 2007 it revolutionised my training. At the time I was training for half marathons and training runs were transformed from what was often a chore into something much more challenging. For the first time I was able to have instant feedback on pace and distance and have a watch that could give alerts when outside the desired parameters.

Garmin Forerunner 310XT

I didn’t actually own this watch, I bought one for my wife as she was getting into triathlons but did on occasion use it if I needed more battery life. It was really a very small step up from the 305 with longer battery life and some triathlon features. It also used ANT to communicate with the PC rather than a wired connection but this was quite flakey. That combined with the fact that you still needed to plug it in to charge it meant that there really wasn’t that much benefit to being wireless. It certainly didn’t offer me any new features versus the 305 and had some bugs when displaying routes on the map screen (sometimes you saw nothing). I preferred the 305 apart from the fact that the battery wasn’t up to the duration required for the kinds of events I was now entering.

Suunto Ambit 2

Eventually the 305 started to become unreliable. It had stopped being waterproof a while back and now flooded if I was out in the rain. I think that eventually got to it so it needed replacing and the Ambit 2 looked to fit the bill.

The Suunto was a big change for me coming from Garmin but not terribly difficult to understand. The device itself was much smaller than the brick-like Garmins such that it could be worn as a regular day-to-day watch, albeit a somewhat bulky one. I was also attracted to the ability to create your own apps and very quickly knocked-up a run-walk app that gave me alerts such that I could stick to a 5:1 cycle in ultras; later on I added further alerts for eating and electrolytes.

I was however disappointed by a number of things. First off navigation. The “map” display was really very basic with just the planned route and your current location. Missing were a breadcrumb trail of where you’ve been, display of any saved locations nearby (only waypoints created as part of the route are shown) and no ability to zoom manually. There were also no alerts if you went off track. The Garmins had had all of these features so I had expected this or something similar. What this meant for me was that I could head off track without realising, look down at the watch and potentially not know which part of the visible track I should head for. In one race I managed to get lost in woods, lose my sense of direction and use the watch to navigate back to the route only to find this was a place I’d been a couple of miles earlier. The lack of zoom and breadcrumb trail was the problem here. Admittedly a paper map would have been a better option but I’d got used to the Garmin giving me enough to not really ever need a map.

The other big disappointment was the lack of training features. The “revolution” in my training mentioned above in part came about because I could plan my training months in advance with all kinds of different workouts with different pace goals. On the day I would just head out and ask the watch for today’s workout and get going. The Suunto seemed to have nothing. Intervals were ridiculously basic – just a single one where you set the durations but no goal pace or limits that could be set. Gone were the days where one day I’d run 8x400m and another day 4x1600m with different pace goals. I ended up just running mile intervals week in, week out and without the watch “moaning” that I was going too slow I just couldn’t keep focused enough to put out enough effort for a full mile. I definitely got slower in the year or two that I trained with the Suunto.

Another minor issue was the lack of alerts for low battery. There is a tiny indicator at the bottom of the screen but it was hard to distinguish if it was on 20% or 2%. In one race I let it get too low before connecting the charger and got an alert which gave a few seconds before switching off. Very annoying as once the charger was connected and the watch got going again the activity was logged as a brand new one. At least the old one was saved though.

You might get the impression that I didn’t like the Ambit but that’s not true. It was a rock-solid watch with did what it was designed to do very well it just didn’t quite live up to my expectations. At the time I was looking to buy it I also looked at the Garmin Fenix 2 but the reviews made it clear that it also wasn’t the watch for me as it wasn’t really designed as a running watch, it was more like a wrist-mounted Garmin outdoor device and so lacking all training features (or at least that’s how I understood the reviews).

Software Stability

The Ambit is rock-solid but the Suunto website (Movescount) had some extended periods where it was unavailable. This is a big deal with the Ambit as you can’t do route creation or change any of the configuration without using the web-based app.

Garmin Fenix 3

When the Fenix 3 was announced it sounded like exactly the watch I was after. Everything good found in the Ambit 2 plus all the features I’d been missing from the old Forerunners. The only problem was I couldn’t possibly justify spending all that money so soon. There was nothing wrong with the Ambit really, was there?

In the end I decided that I’d use the Fenix as a “carrot” to get me through my first hundred and set it as a reward if I could go sub-24. I succeeded and so ordered one within a couple of weeks of finishing the race. I wasn’t disappointed – this was a big step up: colour screen, smart phone integration, wireless connectivity (that worked), all the bells and whistles.

Returning to a Garmin device was great. Back to proper structured workouts with pace goals and navigation screens that really helped navigation. The colour screen helps here too as the display is really clear. There is also a ridiculous level of configurability of screens shown during workouts, even better these can be changed whilst out running so you can adapt the screens when you realise what you need rather than try and remember just what you wanted when you get home. This really came into it’s own during the night section of a race when I wanted a big single field display that was easy to read – easy, just did it then and there.

The Fenix is also smaller and lighter than the Ambit, not by much but enough that it’s more comfortable to run with for long periods), it also feels more comfortable as a daily watch so I now wear it all the time rather than just when out running.


There’s been a lot of noise in the forums about the Fenix 3’s accuracy. For general trail use it’s spot on, even under tree cover, however in the city surrounded by tall buildings it is quite a lot worse than all previous watches I’ve owned. This can be seen in the tracks from the 3 watches and shown here (taken years apart so not a scientific comparison but representative as this is a route I run frequently and day-on-day each watch performs much the same with very similar errors):

Garmin FR305

Suunto Ambit 2

Garmin Fenix 3

The Fenix 3 looks to be the worst of the lot here and the Ambit is the best. Fortunately for me I’m not too bothered about GPS accuracy in built-up areas and I don’t for example, see problems of this nature when running trail, even under heavy tree cover, so really this is a minor annoyance for me, the only real downside is that I end up with ridiculously fast stats for the final mile of my run to the office.


Uploading routes to the Fenix 3 isn’t terribly easy. You can plan routes on the Garmin Connect site and send them to the watch but I prefer to use other sites for route creation which result in a GPX file that you then want to send to the watch. The watch also supports turn-by-turn navigation (much like you get from a car Sat Nav) although that requires files of a very specific format that need custom tools to create (Running Badger’s converter). In terms of getting a GPX onto the watch there are a number of approaches but the only one I’ve found to work reliably is to import the GPX into Garmin Training Center and then upload to the watch from there. A bit of a faff though. Garmin really need to allow GPX uploads for route creation in Garmin Connect just like you can in Suunto’s Movescount.

Software Stability

The Fenix 3 has had some pretty shoddy software updates over the last year. v4.0 of the firmware was really, really bad and resulted in the watch letting me down during the NDW100. I’m pleased to say that v6.5 and v6.8 have been very good so hopefully those days are behind us.

One big benefit of the Fenix 3 is that you can do pretty much everything on the watch, even reconfigure screens during a workout. You therefore aren’t reliant on Garmin Connect being available to work with the watch.


The Garmin is a more feature-rich watch but is not without its problems. It also requires a bit more technical ability to use all the features. For me it is the stand-out winner. I was recently asked by a runner which one to get, and after a long discussion about their requirements and how comfortable they were with technology in general in ended up recommending the Suunto so it really does depend on what the key features are for you.

Of course the comparison here isn’t really fair as I’m comparing Garmin’s latest offering with the previous Suunto one and should really be looking at the Ambit 3. The Ambit 3 does have smartphone integration but from what I’ve seen it has no real improvements in the navigation and training areas that I found so lacking.