Sunday, 17 February 2013

UltrAspire Molecular Belt System Review

Those who know me will know I am not one to be that interested in technical intricacies or specification of kit - one of the things I love about ultra running is its simplicity. But over the past 3 years of running ultras I have trialled and errored and learnt the hard way how important the practical parts of racing are. If you have an ill-fitting race belt or hydration pack you will be travelling a long way with the niggles.

Box of goodies
On talking to the European distributor of ultra gear company UltrAspire about the Western States, they kindly sent me a box of gear goodies to see me through training and racing with a view to doing a few reviews along the way. I'd been admiring their lightweight race packs for a while, some of which are co-designed by Krissy Moehl, eilte American ultra runner and one-time UTMB champion. Started by Bryce Thatcher, who also started Ultimate Direction before designing for Nathan, it is a relatively new company which, as the name indicates, is targeted specifically at the ultra running community.

I tried the Molecular Belt System (MBS) out on recent training runs and during the Thames Trot 50 ultra earlier this month. Its such a personal preference but lightweight race belts have always been my gear comfort zone and having always run with belts rather than packs the MBS would have been my natural first choice of all UltrAspire's products.

The main design concept of the MBS is interesting: that you can choose any one of a possible eight 'core' pieces and attach it to one of a possible five belt connectors. These are all interchangeable, so you can decide which combinations of the two components fit your running and racing best. The core pieces mainly consist of bottle options, designed to sit around the back of the waist. They include the Fusion (two small 0.24 litre bottles), the Synapse (one larger 0.6 litre bottle, in a bottle pocket with a large capacity zipper for gels etc) or the Nerve (large 0.6 litre bottle in a more lightweight bottle pocket). There are also other core pieces which act like additional connctors for minimalism or extra pocket space, I guess for those who are running shorter or have have lots of support.

The connector options are essentially the waist belt parts, designed to fit around the front of the waist. They include the Atom (waist belt with small mesh pouch), the Cell (with larger mesh pouch), the Peptide (minimalist belt with just a elastic cord for holding gels and a tiny mesh pocket for electrolyte pills or other small essentials) and the Neutron (pouch designed specifically for a gel bottle).

See the full range of core and connector pieces here or watch the intro video on the MBS.

I chose the Nerve as my core and the Cell as my connecter:
The Nerve

The Cell

With Western States training/long runs in mind I need a belt that will hold a decent volume of water (for the UK not in the US where you'd probably need to run with two large bottles in the summer) as well as nutrition and essentials like phone, keys, money etc.

What I like is the sheer number of options the different components give, depending on your need for nutrition capacity, water, extra pockets etc. The Cell pouch is a lot larger than the standard pouches on race belts, and I could get my iPhone, keys and a couple of gels in there. If you weren't carrying a huge phone then you'd most likely be able to squeeze 9 or 10 gel packs in. There is a handy inner pocket inside the pouch, offering security for cash cards, keys etc.

Or the Fusion core

Other options: the Electron connector

I ordered a small and at first thought this was going to be too tight, but the belt actually naturally fits higher around the waist than other belts I am used to, and in this position I've found it extremely comfortable - almost barely there. In the Thames Trot I found that I had to be careful when refilling/replacing the bottle and re-stocking the pouch at aid stations, as its important to get the bottle/belt back into the correct position - when replaced correctly it almost moulds to your shape but incorrectly it can jar.

I don't really like the weight of carrying a full bottle - something I am trying to get used to for Western States - so at the Thames Trot I just half filled my bottle and drank a lot at each check point. This probably added to my feeling of the belt being barely there. Thankfully wasn't any chaffage either - in my experience this can surprise you out of the blue at races even when wearing gear you haven't chaffed with in the past (after the West Highland Way last year I ended up with quite severe belly button issues!).

The bottle top was pretty easy to screw on and off and there doesn't seem to be any leakage when running with a full bottle, as I've found with so many other bottles (Nathan being an example). There's a handy wee finger loop on the side of the bottle too, and with the Nerve core there is also an elastic cord on the side of the bottle pocket which you could fasten a waterproof or other clothing item into if need be.

So my verdict on the MBS is entirely positive when worn for the right type of run or race. Though I have to say after spouting my preference for race belts this last few days I've been trying out the 'Surge' hydration vest. I think I am a convert! But I'll leave that to another post to avoid being disloyal to the MBS...

Tuesday, 5 February 2013

The Thames Trot 50

Much like the Country to Capital, the race ended up being comprised of two distinct halves - a strong, positive start then a bit of a muddy, blurry slog to the end.

Last week I'd been good. I'd studied the maps of the original course from Oxford to Henley-on-Thames along the Thames Path, asked the organisers for info I couldn't find and generally tried to swot up, knowing Go Beyond Ultra's tactics of giving PDF maps out beforehand but not providing any signage or marshalls along the way (bar a couple at each check point). Then on Thursday night all but 9 miles of the route was changed due to extensive flooding along the Path. New maps were sent out in part, then in full on Friday before I flew south. The new route was complex and so I knew it'd be a challenge, not just for me but even for those who'd run the race before.

My lovely Auntie & Uncle looked after me, driving me out to Iffley from Wycombe to be greeted by a registration queue that snaked out of the pub and around the car park. With over 250 runners and 20 minutes to go to the start, it was tight, and we ended up being delayed by 20 minutes or so. Setting off eventually, the stream of high viz runners immediately bottle necked to single file over a narrow footbridge, and we then all at once we were faced with flood water on the first stretch of Thames Path before diverting out to the roads. Even wading through freezing shin-deep water and knowing this would mean foot issues later on didn't deter me - the sun was shining beautifully and it was brilliant to be outdoors and on the move.

I felt powerful and full of energy but ran steady over the first 20 miles, which were mostly on road with a few extremely muddy fields thrown in, making me reflect on just how many mudbath races I have run over the last year. We passed through a number of quaint little thatched Oxfordshire villages and I was filled with nostalgia remembering visits to this part of the world as a small child with Mum, who grew up nearby. I thought of her strength and decided to try and channel this into the next 25 miles.

The Thames Path in Henley (completely under water)
The first half had us running through Abingdon, Appleford, Goring and on to Reading, with checkpoints every 8 miles or so. Reading was the scene of the first navigational crime. After running with a few friendly chaps for miles I'd lost them by running straight through the last CP, and ended up following a distant runner bobbing way ahead of me in a high viz vest. We were supposed to run through Reading for a few miles - definitely the least scenic of the race, featuring a seemingly never ending drag of retail warehouses - and then turn left down to pick up the Thames Path again for the one section that could still be run along the river. But I must have missed the turn by following this runner straight on, and couldn't work out why we hadn't come to CP 4 yet. A detour down an industrial estate and a few questions to pedestrians later I saw a sign for boating tours and headed down left to meet the river. I was relieved to see another runner and asked him how far we were from CP 4 - he shook his head and said I'd missed it, 3 miles back along the path. Timing chip or not, I wasn't about to add 6 miles on to my race so carried on regardless that I was out of water and the next CP wouldn't be with us for 6 miles. Due to the mishap, I was beginning to feel a bit low on morale which only seemed to enhance the emerging physical aches and pains. I'd developed a raging thirst that had me contemplating the Thames, so a mile or so later when I spotted a Tesco to the right I dashed in to purchase water. One occasion where I could definitely  have done without the self-service checkout and its helpful advice to place item in bagging area.

Found the finish.
On to the final CP, manned by a couple of marshalls and the usual stand of fruit cake and gels - the cake had served me well but I could stomach no more so ran right through, being told the finish was 4.5 miles away. I was on my own again so map in hand I navigated up a few pretty busy roads with one too many 4x4's beeping their annoyance at having to wait for runners. Confusion came again 3 miles later when the map route appeared to veer off into fields which seemed to go on and on. A short, sharp hill greeted us on the other side before a junction of small B roads which was absolutely impossible to cross reference on our maps, which only had a few of the major roads named. Two guys had appeared behind me and we asked some walkers who pointed us up to another busy main road which led stright into Henley. This again went on for 2 miles and can't have been right but we gritted it out and soon enough the town appeared. A few turns had us at the finish in a heap. I 'fessed up to the Race Director about my CP 3 bypass, explaining where I'd gone wrong and that I'd added a few miles on to the race's shortened 44 mile distance. My chip time ended up being 6.44.

Afterwards, I was a muddy mess and predictably my feet felt like toast. My blood pressure must have been low as the rest of the day brought quite a few episodes of dizzyness and seeing stars. But by Monday I was feeling almost fully back to normal, bar slight remaining stiffness in the quads - healthy servings of venison, greens and protein shakes have truly sorted me out! Reassuringly I feel like my recovery from every ultra now is getting swifter and easier.

So, whilst the Race Directors did brilliantly to perservere and ensure the race went ahead I am not sure I will run either again. Yes, ultras do involve a bit of navigation and all runners should be do their homework but these two ended up being so close to orienteering that I didn't feel I could run consistently and to the best of my standard due to the need to stop/check/start continually. But every experience is a valuable one and onwards now to the next few months of Western States training before the Fling at the end of April...

The North Face Endurance Challenge: a shortlived high and many lows

4am in a freezing park in Sausalito, Marin County, 12 hours after stepping off a plane in San Francisco, two days after running a work event...