Before I ran the North Downs Way 100 for the first time in 2015 I think I spent just as much, if not more, time researching shoes and equipment as I did training for the event. Now that I am coaching other aspiring 100 mile runners I also seem to spend just as much time giving advice about socks, underwear and hydration packs as I do making training plans for my clients. When I meet up with other ultrarunners we also tend to spend a lot of time talking about shoes and gps watches, and I love it when race organisers polls their participants about shoes and equipment so I can find out what other runners are using (like the WSER do). So here it is, a race report from the NDW100 2017 dedicated to the gear I was using, starting with what was on my feet and working my way up to the top of my head.
The North Downs Way 100
Official distance: 100 miles
Actual distance: 103 miles
My finishing time: 19.35.52 (1st female and 8th overall)
For the first half I used New Balance Fresh Foam 980 Women’s Trail. I absolutely love this shoe for 100 mile races. It’s cushioned, which I need as flat transverse arches means I get metatarsalgia if my running shoes are not cushioned enough in the forefoot. I also have huge bunions on both feet due to hallux valgus, which makes it difficult to find shoes that are wide enough (thank goodness the trend now is toward bigger and rounder toe boxes). With the NB 980 WT I can run 100 miles without any issues from either of these biomechanical problems. They work especially well on hard and dry trails and roads. On very wet, technical or muddy surfaces their grip is ok, but not great. Last weekend we had some very heavy showers, and I did slip a little bit in some places when it started to get muddy.
My main issue with this shoe is that it is not very durable, tending to last only 200-250 miles. On trails with very steep downhills they tend to wear out even sooner, as I learnt on a trip to Gran Canaria. It’s the mesh upper that is the weakest part, it starts to rip after 100 miles, and those rips soon develop into big holes in the material. This could be in part due to my bunions straining the fabric, but I have also heard the same complaint from other bunion-free runners. The other issue I have with this shoe is that New Balance don’t make it any more. I found a web site with a few pairs left in my size, but my stock is now dwindling and I know I need to find a new favourite 100 mile shoe. I therefore also brought a pair of Hoka Challenger ATR3 and used them for the second half. This was probably a wise decision, because they have slightly more grip than the 980s and therefore worked better when the trail became soggy and slippery, but they still had plenty of cushioning for the road sections. Immediatly after starting to run from Knockholt the soles of my feet became very painful, but this only lasted a few minutes, so it was probably just my feet adjusting to a different pair of shoes. These shoes are also cushioned enough for my transverse arches and wide enough for my bunions. I have used them a lot for training runs this summer, and they show no signs of wear yet, so they seem more durable than the 980s. However, this is not a shoe you can take straight from the box and run a 100 miler in. During the first couple of runs I did in these the top of my big toe felt like it was being squished, and the cuticle became very swollen and painful. I eventually realised that despite being roomy length- and width-wise there was not enough room top to bottom for a thicker trail sock, with these shoes I have to wear really thin socks.
For the first 50 miles I used Drymax Lite Trail Mini Crew. I used to love Injinji Trail, but have now used Drymax for all my 100 mile races this year, and they seem to work equally well. For the second half I used a pair of Nike socks, and they also did the job. I got blisters on the second toes of both my feet, but I get blisters here no matter which socks I use as these toes stick further forward than my crooked big toes.
Sock tip: After running on muddy trails all winter all my socks were full of dirt and grit, and no matter how many times I washed them there would still be grains of sand embedded in the fabric. Before the Thames Path 100 I therefore ordered a couple of pairs in the Centurion store, and picked them up at the registration with my start number. Running in completely clean, soft new socks was bliss, I’m going to do this every time from now on.
I left my calves bare for maximal heat exchange since I struggled with the heat on the SDW, and since I knew it can get very hot on the NDW in August. Big mistake! Rain + heat had resulted in the trail being very overgrown with nettles. Wear knee socks or calf sleeves!
I love compression tights, as my hamstrings and glutes tend to become a little tight and achy during long runs. When it’s warm I usually wear Skins A400 3/4 or half tights, but on the SDW in June even the half tights felt like way too much clothing. I therefore opted for Skins DNAmic Superpose shorts on the North Downs Way, a booty shorts sewn into a loose shorts. This meant I only had a little bit of compression on my glutes, but I did not miss the compression on my hamstrings, and temperaturewise these shorts were perfect. I felt comfortable all day.
Since I was already a booty shorts with a loose shorts over I did not feel the need for a third layer – so no pants!
I had planned on wearing a tank top from Sweaty Betty, however the night before the race I got a technical Vegan Runners vest from my friend Flavien, who sells them on his website funisher-running.com. It was light, the almost mesh-like fabric looked as it would wick sweat efficiently and dry quickly, and the design was cool. I therefore could not resist using it, and I did not regret it. It was very comfortable. At Detling, with 20 miles to go, I changed to a tank top with «Courir est mon super pouvoir» printed on it, as I thought it would look cool in the finisher pictures. (Another design from Funisher. I really regret not getting my pacer the t-shirt that says «all this effort for a free banana». Next time…) I did not dare to start in this top in case I had a really bad day, but when I was in the lead and quite sure I would manage a sub 20 hour finish I decided to go for it. My finisher pictures looked really cool.
I used my trusty Suunto Ambit 2. Well, it has been trusty until now. This time it failed me after 15 hours, when the battery ran out. I was sure I had set it to the second best GPS setting, which should have given me up to 24 hours of battery life, but started thinking that maybe I had accidentally changed it to the best GPS accuracy, giving me only 16 hours of battery life. However, I checked the settings afterwards, and it was indeed set to 24 hours. I have heard stories from other runners that their watches and head torches mysteriously ran out of batteries around the same point as well. In the case of my Suunto it probably wasn’t so mysterious, I have had the watch for over 3,5 years and used it A LOT, so maybe the battery just isn’t charging properly anymore. This meant I had to rely on my pacer’s Garmin Phenix 2, a watch that she has had a lot of problems with as it tends to wildly overestimate distances and suddenly switch itself off when used in ultramode.
The only problem I have had with my Ambit 2, until now, is that the software you had to download in order to upload data and manage settings was very buggy in the beginning, so my Norton antivirus kept uninstalling it. This meant that it took me 3 months just to get the watch to synchronise with my computer and allow me to do basic things such as changing the GPS accuracy. Since I am not really an tech geek I had no time or patience left to learn useful stuff such as how to use the navigation features. I only use my Suunto to track distance, pace, heart rate, elevation and calories. When I race my navigation method is to double back and look for markers whenever I am in doubt, or ask other runners (who has the route on their watch), or anyone out walking their dog. Just the thought of maybe having to get a new watch and learn how to use it is making my blood pressure rise. Guess I’ll just have to run really fast at the A100 so that I’ finish before the battery runs out.
For the last year and a half I have used the Salomon Advanced Skin 12-set on all my long runs and races and been really happy with it. The only thing that has annoyed me is that there is no front pocket big enough for my phone (I think there is such a pocket on newer versions). I have put my phone (a fairly small Fairphone) in a zipped side pocket that is just a tad too small for it, which has sometimes led to my phone switching itself on while I’m running and weird things happening. The zipper on said pocket broke on my very last long training run before the NDW, therefore I borrowed my sister’s identical vest for this race.
Apart from the comfortable fit I think what I love most about this vest is the kangaroo pocket at the back. It’s a genius construction that means the stuff you are definitely going to need during the race, such as food and your waterproof jacket, is very easily accessible on the move, yet everything stays where it should. I have never experienced anything falling out of this pocket.
I am now contemplating learning how to pack my vest with one less pocket, trying to find someone who can put a new zipper on it, keep borrowing my sister’s for races, or buy a new one. (I do quite fancy a Salomon S-lab Sense Ultra.)
I have swapped the soft flasks that came with the Salomon Advanced Skin vest for Salomon 500 ml Speed Flasks. The difference is that the opening is wider, making it easier to put powders in when topping it up (and it’s big enough for ice cubes too), and the top unscrews and closes much quicker than the standard soft flasks.
I carried water in one flask, as I prefer washing down gels and sweet stuff with plain water. In the other flask I had Torq energy drink, which comes in handy little sachets and a variety of great tastes. I find that Torq tastes less sweet than other energy drinks, the lemon flavoured one just tastes like someone squeezed a lemon into your water bottle. However, I have used Torq during both the SDW100 and the NDW100, and in both races I started throwing up at mile 70-75. During the first race in the series, the Thames Path 100, I used the Tailwind provided at the aid stations. In that race I had no stomach issues, at least not until after crossing the finish line. When I started throwing up at the NDW I therefore switched from Torq to Tailwind, hoping that it would help settle my stomach. Maybe my stomach issues has nothing to do with the type of energy drink I use, maybe I made the switch too late, it did not seem to help. I don’t really like the flavour of Tailwind, I find the caffeinated ones have an unpleasant aftertaste, and the other flavours I just find too bland and slightly salty, but I am considering using just Tailwind in the A100 in case it can help me avoid further stomach issues.
I firmly belong in the camp that thinks that any calorie that makes in into your stomach during an ultra is a good calorie, and therefore tend to use a mix of sports nutrition products, sweets and other pure junk, and real food. (BTW, there are now several products that qualify both as sports nutrition products and real food.) For the NDW100 I used:
GU gels – I brought some of my own and took some at aid stations, so I have no idea how many I had in total. My favourite flavours are Espresso, Caramel Macchiato, Salted Caramel and Roctane Sea Salt Chocolate. I actually find these less sweet and easier to eat than the fruit flavoured ones, but that may also be due to my brain expecting something tangy and being shocked by the sweet flavour. When it says chocolate on the wrapper it’s not exactly a surprise when it tastes sweet.
Powerbar Performance Smoothie – fruit puree with added sugar and electrolytes. These are a little too sweet for my liking, but they go down very easily and also contributes toward hydration and takes the edge of hunger.
Baby food – I have tried baby food in the form of fruit purees before, and although I like the convenience of the pouches and that it doesn’t taste too sweet they simply do not pack enough calories. Maybe not strange, since they are meant for toddlers and not for fuelling a grown up burning thousands of calories during a 100 mile run. This summer I found some slightly bigger pouches with fruit smoothies with added rice, which contained more than 100 Kcal and about 30g of carbs. Perfect! Due to their weight (120g per pouch) I did not want to carry very many of them with me, but I ate one just before the start and one just after as a second breakfast, and then had another one instead of my usual bowl of pasta half way.
Nakd energy bars – 35g energy bars made with nuts and dried fruit. Small enough that you manage to eat a whole bar in a couple of bites, big enough to satisfy if you are feeling hungry. I only had two of these in total, but I carry them mainly for when I get hungry.
Goody good stuff koalas – vegan jelly sweets for when I need a treat.
Kendal mint cakes – even though this is pure sugar I find the mintiness masks the sweetness. Maybe I just love mint flavoured sweets? I eat these when I get sick of everything else. The drawback is that everything you eat and drink for the next hour tastes like toothpaste, so when you arrive at an aid station very few foods are taste compatible.
Smoothie – my pacer has a standing order for smoothies. I tend to crave fresh fruit and smoothies toward the end of races, and usually during the end of a race smoothies (and coke) is the only thing I can get down. I don’t have a pacer, I have a smoothie mule.
In addition to what I carried I also had coke, crisps, banana, water melon and mango at some of the aid stations. I probably had less of this than usual, as I was trying to eat something every half hour in the beginning. This meant that I had often just eaten something when I arrived at an aid station, so I would just top up my bottles and continue. After half way I only managed to eat once an hour, and then during the last few hours when I was struggling with stomach issues I drank Tailwind, smoothies and coke.
Black Diamond Spot (200 lm). I started using this last winter, and was very happy with the amount of light it gives. It’s also got a very good burn time (50-200 hours, depending on settings), it’s lightweight (88g with batteries) and not very expensive. This time I was not so happy with it, I didn’t think it gave me enough light, and it kept sliding down my forehead. Both those things were probably user faults, my pacer and I kept running a little too close to each other so that my shadow blocked the beam from my head light, and I couldn’t be bothered to stop to adjust the strap.
Backup light source
Petzl E-Lite. Not needed this time, but there have been several occasions when I have been very grateful that Centurion has included a back up light source in the mandatory kit. This mini head torch is so light and small I have started carrying it in my jacket pocket on nearly every run during the winter, just in case I don’t make it back before dark or suddenly find myself in an area without streetlights.
I thought this was going to be a short post with a few lines about each item. I guess it just goes to prove what I said in the introduction – ultra runners love to go on about shoes and running gear.