Adventures, Races, Kit and Life
The detailed research and preparation that goes into your kit selection is really important and can make a huge difference in an ultra-marathon. The nature of the event means that you spend a long, long time shuffling along the rugged trail, and you need the right footwear to get you through both the 250km race and also the intense training before it even starts. A self supported race means that you will be lugging 8-14kg in your backpack, and this pack will be bouncing up and down, potentially bugging you with every single stride. If you are lucky a bad fit simply means discomfort and if unlucky series blisters or even back pain. The pack capacity also dictates how much kit and food you can actually carry. The bigger the capacity the more you are tempted to throw in…. danger ! The heaviest item in your pack is your calories ( food ) and after this your sleeping kit. It’s amazing how much time the delicate art of perfecting for right formula for both kit and nutrition right can consume. Finally there is the safety factor and all your kit will be inspected pre the race to make sure you have the mandatory items and enough food to get you though. Failure to have your kit means time unpleasant penalties !
Having now completed my second 250km race, my packing experience has definitely evolved. There were also many new learnings during the Atacama Crossing too, that I have bagged and tagged for next time….. Here’s a quick overview of what I packed, what worked well, and some hints on what I’d do better next time. Obviously it’s personal to me, a 90kg runner with ambitious race aspirations, to trying to keep weight to a minimum. This needs to be tweaked for your own needs… My Pack weighed in at 8kg.
What are you wearing your feet and how you care for your feet is essential to success in the race and many people have pulled out because of bad foot care / management which has resulted in torturous blisters. I also saw a number of cases where running shoes had been overused and basically fallen apart during the race. Two pairs of HOKA’s didn’t survive the Atacama….
In 2007 I ran the Gobi in Asics and they were fantastic, but 6 years on the new model no longer seems to fit me comfortably. For the Atacama, after trying a number of shoes I switched to Montrail Badrock Trail shoes, costing about US$110. These had enough cushioning for my weight, especially in the heel support, as I was worried about my Achilles. The shoes performed well overall and they did a great job of battling it through the treacherous salt flats and jagged desert rocks.
Knowing that I would be shuffling along like an old lady, as opposed to my normal gazelle like stride, I went for one half sizes larger than normal. I wore an Injuji liner socks, with a Nike overstock and had two pairs of each, which were rotated.
I made a special effort to get my feet tidied up and all the hard skin removed by a Shanghai pedicurist ( luckily there are plenty in Hong Kong ) before I left to ensure that if I got blisters they would not be under hard skin ( and far worse to treat ).
Finally to try and reduce the amount of sand getting into my shoes I used Salamon clip on gaiters. They worked okay, yet weren’t really up to the very sandy days and I still found myself having to regularly remove my shoes and empty sand out, but this was manageable. Next time I would take the extra time to get velcro properly sewn onto my trainers ( as many competitors had ), so that they provided a proper seal from the sand. I suffered just one tiny blister during the Atacama, so I think the formula worked.
Sleep like a baby
My big learning from the Gobi was that Sleep really matters ! My tent mate, the race leader in the Gobi took pity on me and kindly shared his “Imovane” sleeping tablets. They were a godsend as they knock you out for about four hours and you wake up completely refreshed. They work well with a decent set of earplugs ( to drown out the harmonious snoring ) and I used my buff as an eye mask. Both essential when you are trying to drop off in a noisy tent.
I purchased a Mamot Hydrogen sleeping bag for the Gobi ( US$300 and 800g ) and also used this in the Atacama ( as I already had it ). It was more than enough to combat the cold Chile nights and no sleeping bag liner was needed. On the first night in the Atacama, which is at altitude, one team-mate also used a bin liner as extra insulation, and then left it. He did have a very minimalist sleeping bag though.
In the Gobi I used a space saver sleeping mat which was a disaster and therefore invested in a decent one for the Atacama. It was expensive at US$150 but I went for the light weight ( 350g ) Therm-a-rest Neo Air Xlite. It was excellent and I slept like a baby through out.
Some of the competitors had a torch which has both a white light and red light. This red light was great for use in the tent at night time so that you didn’t disturb your fellow tent-mates, if you needed to nip out for a look at the stars…
Your back pack system
I took a gamble and invested in, the newly released “Raidlight Ultra light Olmo 20L”, weighing 570 g and costing US$155. It looked like a very sexy pack. It is an incredibly well designed with all sorts of pockets, elastic and adjusting straps to help it fit more comfortably. On reflection it wasn’t the perfect pack for me though.
The positions of the main zip make it very easy to load and unload and it was easily possible to fit everything into the 20 L backpack and 4 L front pack.
It’s lightweight construction means that it’s not particularly tough, and during my limited training runs with the laden rucksack, certain areas had already broken. I had to mend these prior to the actual race ( other races had the same problem ).
It was my first time with the front, stomach pack and overall it worked okay. On the positive side, it was great to have really easy access to gels, powders, sweets, beef jerky, suntan lotion, salt tablets and so on, right in front of you. On the negative side the positioning of the front pack means that more straps are needed to secure this and this partially restricts breathing. This was particularly a problem in the high altitude at the Atacama where there was only 80% the normal levels of oxygen and most runners were already gasping. That being said many good runners do favour this option.
The main design error on this pack is that the water bottle holders are fixed and cannot be adjusted up or down to give a little breathing space. For some reason, despite trying to adjust it, the ergonomics of the pack means that it settled quite low down my back ( visible in the photos above ). I would have preferred it to rest 8 inches higher up on my shoulders, as opposed to my waist. This caused the water bottles to pulled upwards and basically thrust up into my face ( photo to the left ). This was uncomfortable and really quite irritating, especially when tired and grumpy at the end of a long day sweating it out in the blazing hot sun! The older version of the Olmo allowed you to attach your own water bottle holders, and therefore adjust the position, which would have been much more flexible.
Overall I struggled to get the pack to fit my frame properly. I would conclude that it’s best to go with a more basic pack. The OMM 20L, allows you to add adjustable bottle holders and possibly the front pouch looks like a far better option.
Food glorious food
I carried just over 2400 cal per day, which is a little tight for someone of my size, and probably why I lost about 7kg over the duration of the event. That being said I wasn’t particularly hungry and didn’t feel short of food. Its amazing how much geeky time you can spend looking at the calories of different foods and trying to calculate the calories per gram to get the best weight to energy ratio !!
BREAKFAST – 150g of Quaker instant porridge for breakfast, premixed with some powdered milk, sugar and currents. Admittedly I did get bored of this after 7 days !
RACE NUTRITION – During the Atacama race I used “Perpeteum”, 4 scoops or about 500 calories per day. In the Gobi I used “Accelerade”, which was actually much better as it also contains electrolytes as well. This means that if you have two water bottles you can keep one with just water in, which sometimes you need when you get really dehydrated or even nauseous.
Each day I had a packet of gel shots, which are like sweets and don’t need to be washed down with water, and then an energy gel to get me through the last 5km.
RECOVERY – Upon finishing I also had two scoops of “Endurox” recovery powder ( chocolate ) at each stage running. This was great.
LUNCH – Then within an hour of finishing, instant noodles, with all of the flavours added, straight after the race, to top up the blood sugar levels. This was probably my favourite meal of the day.
DINNER – consisted of one of the expedition series freeze-dried foods, with their particularly high calories ( 800 ). I repacked these into plastic bags to reduce weight a little and more importantly their size. It’s best to take a variety of different dishes so that you don’t get bored of them, although some of them do have a bit of a reputation the tasting terrible !! You need to do your research in advance here. I had a expedition dessert every other day to help top up the calories.
DRINKS – Finally I had a mixture of powdered soups, herbal teas, hot chocolate and a couple of sachets of coffee, to help keep hydrated whilst chatting around the camp fire in the evenings.
The magic ingredient was a daily ration of beef jerky, just because it’s so salty and satisfyingly chewy, closely followed by my trusty trail mix.
Other little things that generally went well, or to do next time
– Suntan lotion was transferred to a small plastic bags to remove the packaging
– Sachets of glide lubrication
– Voltarin painkiller and anti-inflammatory Gel for aches and pains ( known niggles before the race )
– My Celebrex anti inflammatory ( only to be used post running ) was not needed.
– My 2XU Compression shorts and compression socks combination worked well, and there was no need for running tights.
– The Gel shots were great, as you don’t need to wash them down straightaway, and can suck on them for a while.
– I was lucky to be given a Cliff bar – “white chocolate and macadamia nut”, which was delicious and is on my packing list the next time
– Trail mix and beef jerky at just about any point in time
– A few boiled sweets on the tough days, to take your mind off things… Also great to share with your tent mates ( then they give you stuff back too )
– No mug was needed, use the water bottles like everyone else ( check if you have 1.5 L water bottles before the race )
– Coffee sachets
– Head torch with a red light as well for using at night in the tent
– If based on Hong Kong, order salt tablets in from abroad.
– Montane Slipstream light weight ( 65g ) windproof cost US120
– For next time – A few sachets of rehydration salts can give you a great boost in the evenings.
What did not go so well
– The raid like running top ( performance Ultra light short sleeve ) was poor quality and not tough enough for the race. It ripped on day three. The Salamon top I used in the Gobi was far better
– “Perpeteum” does not include electrolytes, therefore “Accelerade” is easier to use.
– “Nuuns” would not be needed if accelerate had been used.
– The gaiters did not stay attached to the shoes. A more robust option was needed.
– I got very bored of porridge for breakfast.
Good racing !