Last week I wrote about how I’ve recently been focusing on improving my running, with the aim of surviving Marathon Des Sables next April (six marathons in six days in the Sahara Desert). Specifically, I talked about how structured training, pacing and nutrition were starting to make a difference, or so it seemed with my massively improved performance at this year’s Man Vs Horse. This weekend I managed to continue my good run of form, or at least prove it wasn’t a fluke, by getting a PB at the South Downs Trail Marathon (which wasn’t bad, considering there was nearly 1,000m ascent).
I promised that I would return with the other piece of the puzzle that has undoubtedly helped me in the last two weekend’s events - and that’s clothing and equipment.
Choosing the right gear for trial marathons
Gear is something I’m likely to cover a lot on my road to MDS. Not only for the event itself, but also for the training and stepping-stone races along the way. I’m in the fortunate position where brands want me to try their stuff and would love for me to use it at the main event. However, this is too big a deal for me to rely on sponsorship or the promise of free/discounted gear. If equipment isn’t right, my life could get pretty miserable out in the desert, so I clearly need to do a lot of research. Again, I’m out of my comfort zone, and the correct gear choices are likely to be fairly different to what we use at most obstacle races.
With last week’s Man Vs Horse being only 22 miles long (I’m not sure when “22 miles” became an “only” in my mind), my gear choices were not particularly complex, however there were three key items - shoes, shorts and calf compression.
Shoes - inov-8 Race Ultra 290s
The inov-8 Race Ultras are a serious option for MDS itself. David Hellard wore them after all, and he seemed to get on okay! For them to be my final choice though, they’d have to be perfect. The risk of getting your footwear wrong at MDS, or in any other ultra, just isn’t worth considering.
The most important thing with shoes is fit. We all have different shaped feet, which means that, no matter how much you want to wear a pair of shoes, if they aren’t comfortable for your feet, nothing else really matters. I’ve got on really well with inov-8s in the past and have very much enjoyed wearing Mudclaws, Xtalons and Roclites. So, now that I need a little more padding under my feet for longer distance, Race Ultras seem like the obvious choice.
I’ve worn my Race Ultras a lot in training and, to be honest, they’ve taken a fair amount of getting used to. The profile, level of padding and drop have all been fine, but they’ve got a fairly different feel on the inside. I think the best way of describing the feeling is bare bones. They don’t hug your foot with comfort, in fact they have a fairly hard feeling on the inside. I’m sure that just comes down to functionality - keeping weight down, whilst allowing movement around your toes - which may actually lead to comfort in the long run. So, at times, although there are no pressure points or obvious discomforts, I’ve wondered whether these are the right shoes for my feet. However, they came into their own at MvH, and my respect for them massively increased.
In training I’ve found these very versatile. With flattened lugs, they actually perform pretty well on the road, as well as trails. However they haven’t got the depth of lug that Mudclaws or Xtalons have and clearly aren’t built to handle the most slippery mud, so choosing them for Man Vs Horse was a tough decision. However, in the end, I favoured protection underfoot to grip. Not only because of the impact of 22 miles on my limbs, but also for the continual jabbing of rocks underfoot. I definitely chose correctly, as the grip of the Ultras held out for the majority of the terrain and my feet felt comfortable and in really great shape at the end - apart from a tiny blister between toes.
Both Man Vs Horse and South Downs Trail Marathon proved that the Ultras can be comfortable over distance (which I guess is what they’re designed for), so they are now a an even more serious contender for MDS. However, they did take a lot longer than normal for me to wear in and acclimatise to.
Shorts and calf guards
There are a lot of compression choices on the market, but I’ve always got on well with 2xU. With Man Vs Horse being such a calf-destroyingly hilly race, they were the obvious choice for my all-important calf sleeves. However, it’s the shorts that I particularly want to tell you about.
Shorts - 2xU XTRM 7” 2 in 1
These shorts have been one of the best additions to my kit bag in a while. Finding appropriate shorts can be tricky; I’m not a particularly fussy guy but whenever I try shorts on they’re either too long, too short, too baggy, too tight and generally look a bit naff. So, the first thing to tick off the list with these shorts is that they look great (in my opinion).
The important stuff, of course, comes down to the functionality and features, and these have everything I could hope for and more. Being 2 in 1 shorts, they have compression on the inside but regular shorts on the outside, which is great for performance (as well as keeping your bits and pieces in the appropriate place) and makes them super secure and comfortable.
At Man Vs Horse I gained a whole new level of respect for them though. For such a slender fit, they have an array of useful pockets, which allowed me to easily carry the nutrition I mentioned in my previous article. They have a rear zipped pocket (where I kept two large gels), two rear gel sleeves (where I kept three packets of shot blocks and a large gel) and one large zipped side pocket (where I kept a Cliff Bar and another gel). That’s a lot to carry in a pair of shorts, but spreading it around in different locations balanced it nicely with comfort.
There are only two things to take care with, if you choose to use them to carry as much as I did here. The first is to tie the waist cord up fairly tightly to stop any slipping - once I’d done that, they felt fine. Also, full packets of shot blocks (being longer than gels) can hop out of the gel sleeves in bumpy downhills. However, I solved that by eating the tops of each packet first or by folding them over inside the pocket.
Other great training gear
Apart from the aforementioned, a couple of other bits of gear have come in very useful for my increased training regime and I'll definitely be making use of them at future events.
Inov-8 Race Vests
I’m very lucky to have both the inov-8 Race Ultra 10 vest and the Race Elite 16 pack and have taken to wearing one of them on the majority of my training runs. Even if I just want somewhere to carry my phone and some water. Both of them are incredibly well balanced, with the ability to spread the weight of items you carry on your front as well as the back. The best thing about them, outside of the events they’re intended for, is that you can comfortably bring training runs into your everyday life. It may seem like an obvious thing to state, but you can run to and from work, engagements or the shops with a change of clothes or a fair amount of gear, without the discomfort you’d experience with a normal backpack. Their weight, comfort and design keeps everything locked in and close to your body, without any bouncing.
Of course, either or both of these will come into full service at the ultras I have planned later this year, and possibly Man Vs Lakes. It’s exactly what they’re built for and they will, no doubt, excel. However, I’m doubtful whether either will be large enough for Marathon Des Sables (being only 10 litres and 16 litres - I don’t think that’s enough for a week’s worth of supplies!)... for that, the search will go on.
Jaybird X2 Bluetooth Headphones
Last but not least are these AMAZING headphones. I’ve had a turbulent relationship with headphones in the past, especially when using them for running. My ears don’t tend to hold buds very well, the wires are always getting in the way, only some of them connect to your phone properly, etc, etc. These bad boys, however, kick serious butt for many reasons:
- As well as coming with a selection of buds to fit any ear type, they have odd looking ear-fins, which do a great job of securing the buds in place comfortably, no matter how much you jump around.
- They only have one wire that links the two buds, which slips behind your neck, they then connect to your phone via Bluetooth, so there’s no chance that you’ll tug them out of your ears.
- The sound quality is amazing, I really can’t fault it.
- They have a microphone and volume control built into the wire, so you can take and receive voice calls on the run.
Of course these need recharging but, in their new state, they have an impressive 8 hours play time. Unfortunately, the only major downside for me is the price. At £120-£150 they’re more than I’d normally be willing to pay on something like this but, with the amount of miles I’m going to be running over the next year, I figure they’re worth the investment, and they are proving to be the ideal running headphone.
Anyway, that is more than enough kit geekery for one day. I’ll be going into far more detail with kit requirements over the next few months and, if I discover anything that’s worth shouting about, I’ll let you all know.
Cover Photo: Phil O'Connor Photography.