One of the most alluring aspects of running is its simplicity. It can be as easy as slipping on a pair of shoes and putting one foot in front of the other. Most of us, however, choose to complicate the process a little or a lot. Given the modern media barrage aimed at getting us to empty our wallets by purchasing the latest update of "can't live without" gear, (Even the most spendthrift and simplistic ultra icons hawk gear) it is easy to get caught up in the gear race.
While ultra marathoners are relatively new at this game, multisport athletes have been playing it for over two decades. I have made a habit out of researching, building, and riding high tech bicycles. I have also made a habit out of keeping them simple and riding each of them for years. (Faith has over 34K miles) I don't collect wheel sets for every weather/course condition. I ride in a ten year old pair of cycling shoes. Only recently did I invest in an aero helmet. Many gadgets have hit the market that I haven't even batted an eye over (bento box = jersey pocket). So, the fact that I am hesitant to write a piece about gear is understandable. That is why this post has been slowly evolving over several months.
Consider something else about me. While it is easy to load up a backpack with enough gadgets to carry a mini home on your back, I choose to carry a pack weighing 16 pounds on four night walks. Food, water, sleeping bag, camera, and a light are all I need to enjoy the trail.
My part-time addiction to running trail ultras evolved out of hiking and climbing. In trying to keep ultra running simple, I have decided that I "need" adequate shoes, a hydration system, and a watch with a HR monitor. And some clothes, of course! And sunscreen - duh! Below is my perspective on these types of gear. Write to me if you disagree or if you can further educate me.
For me, the proper shoe is the only essential piece of gear for running. Though I have tried many times to ween myself from my dependency on orthotics, I still need a shoe to properly accommodate them. Unfortunately, not many will do the trick. I have run on the roads in Nike Triax and Lunar Elites for many years because of how well they hold my orthotics in place. Those shoes are not stable enough for the trails, especially root or rock covered trails. Last summer I tried to run on the Silver Rush course in the Elites, but I stopped after turning my ankles several times within a mile.
In a pinch, I bought a pair of La Sportiva Skylites from Sawatch Backcountry in Leadville a few days before the SR50. Because the only pair they had was a half size too small, I wore ultra-thin Smart Wool cycling socks. What a shoe! It fit like a snug slipper, giving me adequate protection from the rocks while not giving me a single blister (which I know is also because of those awesome socks - enough said). The only drawback to the shoe is its lack of cushioning. Through my own experiences and by watching what is going on in ultras, I believe that there is some merit to running in a cushioned shoe to limit the micro muscle tears incurred by hard foot strikes. A road marathon is much harder on my body and takes more time to fully recover from than a trail ultra. Unfortunately, the Skylite is currently between models and the Skylite 2.0 is not due to be released until July 1.
So, I am looking into several shoes that claim to have relatively good cushioning. Those shoes include the new La Sportiva Electron, the Montrail Rogue Racer, and the Hoka One One Mafate. Getting my feet into these shoes without paying for shipping is the problem.
I tried on the Electron (338 g) in Chicago recently. The left orthotic did not sit well and I was not prepared to test shoes, so I didn't have my bag-o-tricks with me. Like the Skylites, these shoes are snug and low profile. They have a new pliable sole material that absorbs rocks and roots (and merchandise I threw on the floor at the shop). The result is a softer ride that maintains a high level of stability. The Electron is a departure from the typical hard and heavy trail shoe. This shoe certainly meets my trail needs, so I need to try to get my hands on a pair and see if I can make the orthotic work.
The Rogue Racer is soft and stable. It is very light - 248 g. The Rogue Racer is my current go-to shoe because I feel comfortable going up and down Stru Hill in it. The low weight is noticeable while ascending and the stable cushioning is the best I've had while descending that rocky, rutted farm road. The Rogue Racer is a bit wide, though, so it allows my orthotic to side around. I am working on this.
I would like to try the Hoka, but I will wait until I get out west where I can walk into a shop and try one on. This shoe is freaky! Super tall and wide, it is built to be stable and soft. Those who wear it swear by its protective powers. Given these racers' ability to quickly return to racing, there could be some truth behind the hype. I certainly plan to check this one out.
It would be wrong for me not to mention the New Balance Mountain 101. This minimalist shoe is super light (212 g) and snug fitting. Though it has a thin sole, it does have a rock plate that I have found most helpful on the rocky Stru Hill. The Mtn101 is a great shoe, but I would not wear it for an ultra simply because of its lack of cushioning. Still, I just may wear it during the early miles of the SJS50 where it will shed water and quickly dry after the numerous stream crossings and because there are no long, steep descents in the early miles.
I have run more than a thousand miles carrying bottles during my short ultra life. I have only used handhelds during my previous ultras, despite owning a light hydration pack I use for day hikes and a Nathan Magda 1.5L vest. Handhelds are simple enough. They can be traded or refilled in seconds at an aid station. Those handhelds with velcro hand straps suit me best due to the fact that I get easily annoyed and distracted by straps that loosen over time. Handhelds offer great hand protection during falls. Sigh.
I have used the hydration packs during training runs, most notably during Smoky Mountain and 14er climbs. The packs are a bit more difficult to refill, but more practice will probably help. I intend to use the Nathan during both of my 50's this summer. Whether I will use it for all or a portion of theses races is yet to be determined. With no crewing, I will need to think in terms of efficiency and volume.
This is my delve into gadgetry. If you follow this blog you know that I am a firm believer in the use of a HR monitor to bring the highest level of specificity into my training. While I rarely look at the HR during training or an event, I regularly analyze trending in the HR data. So, I wear a monitor whenever I am in motion. While I have used Polar since 1992, I used a Garmin 310XT for a short time due to the fact that I went to Apple's operating system.
Polar is the world leader in HR technology. The RS800CX I have has many bells and whistles on it. I don/t use all of them, but that is because I am old school. My HR days precede the current training software advances, so I have learned to analyze the data myself through a simple and quick process.
While Polar is the HR king, Garmin has the boss when it comes to GPS technology. Many ultra runners wear Garmin watches because of the distance traveled and mapping features, despite the fact that the error in distance traveled is significant. While I would like to have more and/or different HR information, I am drawn to the Garmin (310XT) for one reason - I don't have to wear a bulky arm unit to get the mapping I desire. Again, I am fortunate to have an understanding of HR data that allows me to use the limited HR information from the Garmin.
The Polar is easier to use and provides great HR data. The Garmin has a built-in GPS unit - which significantly limits battery life! Two different worlds to choose from. And they are, due to competition, merging worlds. Polar is about to release a new line of HR monitors that will use an internet-based software system (like Garmin) and a smaller, but still separate, GPS unit. Garmin is using its on-line data collection to diversify its HR analyzing abilities. I am looking forward to owning the latest Polar heart rate computer and utilizing software, GPS, and online features.
Due to the fact that I have had several cancerous tumors removed during the last two years, I must include sunscreen in my "gear" list. I recently found myself researching the usage of sunscreen again. There are so many choices out there. And they use a variety of chemicals to attempt to protect our skin from the sun. What I am trying to learn is: What actual good are the chemicals doing? What harm can come from using these chemicals? If a sunscreen actually protects while not causing damage, how long will it stay on?
What I have learned is that the information available is mostly conflicting and, to an extent, propagandized by the industry. For example, several studies appear to indicate (carefully worded!) that vitamin A included in sunscreen formulas actually breaks down and that the bi-products are linked to melanoma formation. Yet, many sunscreens still contain vitamin A. Also, many of the organic materials used as active ingredients in sunscreens have been linked to a wide variety of side effects and ailments. The usage of metals, most commonly Zn, is also quite common, but metals also present a multifaceted side effect profile.
The most obvious thing to do is to limit exposure to sunlight. I train at dusk and at dawn. But ultra marathons go on ALL DAMNED DAY. So, I have to decide whether or not to use sunscreen. I choose to use it. And I am currently using the brand kinesys because it doesn't have vitamin A, it disappears when rubbed in, and it "seems" to protect even while I am sweating. This is certainly an on-going study.