UTMB 2012 – Race Gear Review

Ah yes… gear! One of the joys of running is the simplicity of the sport. You just put on a pair of shorts (the minimalists wouldn’t even bother with shoes) and run. No expensive list of gear that you need to get started. No gear arms race where better gear provides a huge competitive advantage. All in all a complete contrast to most other sports (One of my favourite sports, cycling, being a huge obvious contrast).

Well, that’s the theory anyway. But for an event like the UTMB it doesn’t quite hold true. For a start there is a long (for a running race) list of mandatory gear that everyone must have at all times in race (For an adventure racer this looks like a trivially short list though :)). Secondly the UTMB takes place over a long period of time in a high alpine environment, so it is possible to encounter extreme ranges of weather and conditions. So gear choice becomes much more critical for both comfort and safety. And given that a long ultra race will find any weaknesses in a runner, the race gear can have a huge effect on not just your competitiveness, but also on the simple ability to stay in the race.

As a result of these facts races such as the UTMB are pretty much the ultimate practical test of trail running gear and how it performs under extreme conditions. This year’s race was more extreme again, since it was hit by the worst weather of the entire Chamonix summer season. Feedback on gear performance in these conditions is particularly valuable.

I had brought far more gear with me than I needed. The idea was that I could my choice of gear for the weather the race was likely to get. The choice was made easy this year since the weather became so bad. The shortening of the race also meant that it was unlikely we would need to worry about running too much in post-storm rising temperatures. So on every choice I had, bar one (leggings) I went with the gnarlier weather gear.

Columbia have been very kind in giving me a lot of gear in the last few years. I’m also on their Beta team, so occasionally get to test new technologies and give feedback on their performance. However I won’t just use Columbia’s gear because of that. I value my competitive performance (and in extreme alpine conditions, my health and life!) too much to use anything less than the best gear I can get hold of. Ultrarunning tests gear to the limits, so bad gear can have a huge impact on performance.

Paul, Dan and Myself ready to race, before lining up for the UTMB start, 2012

Rain Jacket (outer shell)

There wasn’t really a choice to be made here. For me this is a complete no-brainer! I brought my yellow Columbia Omni-Dry Shell Jacket (the outer shell layer from the Ultrachange Parka) as it’s probably the single best item of gear I have. Compared to a normal goretex jacket it is lighter, more waterproof and far more breathable. It’s also less stiff and more cloth like than the feel of a standard goretex jacket. For me it’s a game changer. It functions so well that I can wear it in comfort on training runs if there is even a hint of rain. Goretex jackets aren’t breathable enough to manage that. I wore this jacket for the entire race from start to finish, and yet again it was excellent. Every detail of this jacket is top notch.

Rain Pants (outer shell)

I brought my Inov8 rainshell pants. They’re designed for fellrunning, so they work particularly well on a race like the UTMB. They err on the side of being lightweight at the cost of ruggedness. They also pack down into their own pocket in a very small size. They will only stay waterproof for so long before they soak out, but even then they still work effectively as an extra layer of shielding against the elements. For this race, much to my surprise, I never needed to put them on, so their weight (or more accurately, their lack of weight) in the bag was their main advantage.

Base layer(s)

This is where I gave myself the most choices. The bad weather narrowed it down to the two more extreme weather performers, an Ice Breaker mid-weight merino wool base layer and a Columbia Omni-heat base layer, both size small and skin-tight. I went for the Columbia Omni-heat as it such a good performer in dynamic conditions. The omni-heat lining works in a similar way to an emergency (foil) blanket…it reflects the bodies own heat back, so it is a very effective warming layer. But unlike a foil blanket it is still wicks moisture away, as you would expect from a base layer.

The Ice Breaker Marino wool top came along for the ride in my bag to be used as a mid-layer if I started cooling down too much.  It’s a top quality piece of gear. However my combination of shell jacket and base layer worked so effectively, even in blizzard conditions at the highest point in the race, that I didn’t ever feel the need to add another layer (And this despite the race organisers warning us repeatedly that we would need a minimum of 4 layers).

Paul, Dan and myself were doing some gear comparisons before the race, and they very much liked the Omni-Heat base layer. So much so in fact that they both went to the Columbia shop in Chamonix and bought one for the race.

Leggings

Unlike Dan and Paul, I was definitely going to be wearing leggings of some sort. In the 2011 race I had worn a pair the whole way without any issues. Given that the weather was looking like it would be consistently worse than then for the whole of this year’s race it was a no-brainer to simply wear them from the off.

I had a choice of Berghouse powerstretch fleece leggings or a combination of Low Alpine thermal leggings and Golite running shorts (which is what I wore last year). I went for the thermals/shorts combinations on the basis that the powerstretch fleece might be overkill, especially given that I could add waterproof leggings if I started to get too cold, and that the pockets in the shorts made for a handy place to stash supplies that were easily accessible on the run. On the off-chance that things got too warm I could also put the thermals into my bag and run with just the shorts. It’s a combination I have used several times successfully. I was actually surprised at how well it all worked. I was very much expecting to have to put on my waterproof leggings but I never felt cold or soaked, despite hours of continuous precipitation.

Shoes

For an ultrarun running shoes are one of the most critical pieces of gear. Indeed there were quite a few long discussions in “Team Ireland HQ” about various shoe trends and technologies before the race. For a an ultra-trail race like the UTMB I like to use trail shoes (as opposed to the more specialised fellrunning/mountain running shoes exemplified by Inov8’s range). I’ve found Columbia’s Ravenous shoe to be a good combination of cushioning, grip, and comfort for long distance trail running.

I still had left my self a choice though. I brought along my normal “racing” set of standard Ravenous as well as the Outdry waterproof version of the same shoe. I had taken the Outdry shoes for a few test runs through the mud and puddles of my training routes up in the Dublin mountains. I had found the waterproof membrane worked as promised, and kept the shoes, my socks, and my feet remarkably dry even when deliberately choosing to run through puddles.

I normally wouldn’t wear waterproof shoes for a number of reasons, the main one being that if I’m going to get wet, chances are I’ll get immersed in water, way beyond the point of usefulness for waterproof shoes. However I reckoned that “the stars had aligned” and this year’s UTMB was going to have the conditions were waterproof shoes would be optimal. My thinking was that it was unlikely that there would be anywhere where the puddles would be deeper than the height of the shoes, or if such puddles existed that it would be easier to run around them, waterproof shoes or not! Also, with the possibility of running in snow on the higher ground, having dry feet would be hugely advantageous for staying comfortable in such extreme conditions for running. The waterproof layer would also help keep the snow from directly freezing my feet.

I had a range of socks to choose from, and elected to wear a new pair of Bridgedale lightweight hiking socks, to maximise the protection for my feet. Possibly overkill, but I was definitely erring on the side of warmth.

The combination worked to perfection. It really says something that in 13 hours+ of running in extreme alpine conditions I didn’t have even a trace of a foot problem. At no point did any part of my feet feel either cold or damp in the race. There were a few places in the muddiest section of the race where the my shoes weren’t able to grip the ground, and I went for a few slides. I suspect the mud was so deep that it would have defeated most grips though. I’d still reckon that this was well worth the trade-off for the less harsh performance on harder trails and roads.

Backpack

No choice here. I used an OMM Ultra-15L running sack. OMM are a small English company who made the original KIMM-sack, for years the gold standard of lightweight running/adventure backpacks. The Ultra-15L is a bit like a smaller version of this classic design. I had been lucky enough to win it as a prize at the first Causeway Coast Marathon a few years ago. The useful features of this bag for the UTMB are that it comfortably carries the mandatory gear without being too big, and it has big hip-belt pockets to get store food etc that can easily accessed on the run. It’s also fully adjustable, so its fit is easily optimised.

A lot of runners (including Dan and Paul) were wearing using a Salomon running backpack. I’d be curios it give one a go, as their weight distribution looks good. However I’m skeptical about their lack of hip-belt, as all the weight will be taken on the shoulders. I’d have to give it a good long test run under load to see how it works in practice.

Poles

Finally, the one thing I most definitely got wrong! The lads in Basecamp had given me a pair of Leki poles to try out. However when the race was cut back I reckoned it had crossed the point where carry them around between using them would be more trouble than it was worth. How wrong I was. As outlined in an earlier post, I was clearly at a disadvantage to competitors with poles on steeper climbs.

I now think that poles are an item of gear that help runners, such as myself, who can’t train on hills with the extremely long and steep slopes you encounter in the alps to compensate to some extent for our lack of specific training. Dan was telling me that Lizzy Hawker (who lives in the alps) was running even the steepest slopes, something beyond us (relative) low-landers.

On the Sunday after the race I went for a hike with Helen up to the Planpraz ski station from Chamonix, where I tested out the poles properly in alpine conditions. I was definitely able to improve my climbing speed on steep slopes once I got a good pole-walking rhythm going.

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One Response to UTMB 2012 – Race Gear Review

  1. Jeff Fitzsimons says:

    I have one of those Salamon bags, if you want to try it out some weekend you’re welcome to.

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