Friday, 24 March 2017

Equipment - what works for me

This blog post is mostly technical, look away now if you're easily bored.

As much as I love Dan Piper's minimalist approach to running ultras, some of us mortals still require carrying drinks, food, emergency kit, sink, jet-pack - the list can be endless.  Some races require a packing list that is strictly adhered to while others just have suggested items, all the same, after many years in green I carry enough equipment for my own peace of mind. 

Dan (in yellow) leading the pack at the start of the Imber Ultra

Cross country running is very different to road running and ultra running is very different again.  You need to be comfortable with your equipment as often you will be wearing it for long periods with little chance to swap it, dump it or make major adjustments.  Talking to other distance runners is the best way to learn about what kit works and what kit doesn't, there is only personal bias and no promotional blurb to blind you from any issues.

This is equipment I use, I don't profess it to be better than brand x or even suggest it will work for you, but it works for me and I give the reasons why - mostly budget!  Most of the clothing I wear is normally generic branded double layered shorts, buff and prized race shirts. 

I've tried various shoes for trail running but have settled on Altra shoes.  Although these shoes are designed with the American trails in mind the size and shape of the shoe lend themselves to long distance running.  I ran my first long distance race with Altra Lone Peak 1.5's, a grippy thin based shoe, and found the lack of cushioning hard on my feet after about 30 miles, but my toes were able to spread and I suffered no black toenails or blisters.  The 1.5's lasted me over a year and I finally destroyed them by running two days in mud and water on the Pilgrim's Challenge.  They had served me proud.

The Friday before the Imber Ultra I popped into Deka in Frome looking to purchase a replacement.  I fell in love with the Altra Lone Peak 3.0's and wore them out of the box for the race on the Sunday. The shoes just worked, as had all the pairs of Altra's I have used.  33 miles later and no blisters or aching feet.  On drier trails, I tend to stick to the Altra Olympus 2.0 with less grip and more cushioning.

All Altra shoes are zero dro and although this may be an issue for some I have never really had any problems.  For a detailed review of the Lone Peak 3.0's watch the Ginger Runners video here.

I have tried a few pairs of gaiters and for the races, I compete in have found the Dirty Girl gaiters work a treat in the UK during the drier months.  I found during running trails that the small stones and dirt can easily become a problem over a long distance so for the Ridgeway 40 I invested in a pair of these gaiters.  They hook over the bottom shoelace and can be attached via a (supplied) velcro strip at the heel of the shoe.  Altra shoes have these velcro traps already.  They have no weight and do not hook under the shoe so the strap will not wear or snag.

Again these can be purchased at Deka or other good online running shops.  Worth the investment for trail running and summer ultras.


I normally stick to injinji toe socks because they separate my toes and stop  lessen blistering.  My little toes seem to get tucked under and blister easily unless I take some preventative measures, the toe socks fix this.  They also allow my toes to spread in the Altra shoes over longer distances.  Fitting is made easier with an application of anti-chaffing/Vaseline to the toes.  A little expensive and go through in the big toe quickly if you don't keep your nails trimmed all the time but they work for me.  Again, check in Deka.

During the winter months, I purchased some Ascis Winter Running Socks that seriously kept my toes warm over long training runs and races over the colder months.  These conventional socks are only let down by there mid-calf height.

A recent addition to my collection was a pair of Sealskinz waterproof socks.  These paid for themselves on the Pilgrim's Challange in cold, wet and muddy trails.  There is a big "HOWEVER", someone had warned me that if water goes over the top of the sock they have problems draining - this is true!  During the Imber Ultra I slipped into a very deep rutted track full of water and took a face-planted the bank of the trail, water went over the top of the sock.  The sock slowly drained but it was very evident that it retained water.  I still got away without blisters or blackened toenails.

Sometimes no amount of waterproofing will work

There used to be a saying in the army "any idiot can get wet".  Running long distances has added risks and if you don't go trained and equipped for the task then don't be surprised when you fail.  The last thing you want to do as an ultra runner is either carry too much or wear too many layers (unless it's proper brass monkeys).  Most long races insist on at least a waterproof top and it's a sensible suggestion, if you have to pull out then it's a bonus layer.

Earlier last year I picked up a wonderful lightweight waterproof from Inov8.  The Race Ultra Shell has fully tapered seams, pacts into the hood and weighs next to nothing.  Brilliant summer shell for keeping in the race vest and dragging out in times of need, but like most waterproofs it has limited breath-ability and can quickly turn into a "boil-in-a-bag" top if warm.  The vest is see-thru so you can wear over the top of race numbers and your best technical tops but it can wear quickly if worn with a belt or race vest - wear over the equipment!

For the winter I purchased a slightly heavier duty waterproof from Decathlon.  This jacket is harder wearing, fully tapered, breathable with zips under the arms for extra ventilation.  I have run complete ultras in this jacket without discomfort or overheating and for the price is outstanding.

Decathlon waterproof  & Ultimate Direction vest

I was given my first race vest, an Ultimate Direction SJ v2.  The 7-litre vest has two front bottle pockets with smaller pouch pockets for gels and snacks.  Two larger zipped side pockets and then two compartments at the rear.  It has two adjustable chest straps, one with an attached whistle.

The vest is ideal for summer runs and races with low kit requirements, however, lacks the space required when waterproofs, extra clothes and other equipment it "required".

Prior to the Pilgrim's Challenge, I purchased a 17 litre Hoka Evo Race.  The pack has plenty of front and side pockets, but the back compartments are exceptional with plenty of good sized pockets and space for a hydration bladder.  The sides fasten with Velcro which does not seem remarkable until you are wearing it on a race when you can unfasten it and swing the back container round to the front and access your kit without actually removing it from your back.

The back is well ventilated but my one niggle is with the upper chest strap that keeps loosening, nothing a safety pin won't sort through.

Hoka Evo R pack

A great video here on packing for an ultra

Honourable mentions
Other equipment I have started to rely upon are as follows:

Garmin Fenix 3 watch - I quickly found a standard GPS watch was not going to survive an ultra marathon, let alone a multi-day event, and the Fenix 3 still has had a charge after 6 hours.  The watch has the ability to use Live Track to allow people to follow me and multiple modes for trail, road, indoor, triathlon, etc.   It has changeable watch faces and the ability to change and manipulate the data fields. The watch also is capable to be charged while tracking for "longer" races.

Salomon Soft Flasks 500ml - I tend to prefer the soft flasks as they weigh less and as you use the fluid the flask shrink, both reducing bulk and reminding you how much fluid is remaining.  The earlier versions had narrow necks and can be a pain to refill with Tailwind powder when at an aid station.  I still use a bladder for anything over 30 miles to reduce stopping and refilling.  The bottles can be purchased with a wrist strap as a hand-held.  There are other makes and cheaper alternatives but these work for me.

Salomon Soft Flasks
Deka, Frome

Feel happy to post any questions/comments below

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