Sunday, 22 February 2009

Kit for the Namibian Ultra Marathon

By Darren Roberts

I've been listening to the people who raced the 2008 Namibian Ultramarathon and reading what ultra-runners experience, and I think I've made my mind up about kit. Although we are doing this as a team, the component parts have to be functioning as efficiently as possible and this means ensuring our personal strategy and kit is sound. Here's some thoughts and links:-


Last years competitors all bashed their toes on rocks and suffered bruising and deep blisters under their feet due to the terrain. It is generally accepted that normal road trainers just don't provide the extra layer of protection that your feet need. Yes, they are light and comfy but they don't have a hard enough upper toe box to ward off the inevitable toe punts on rocks. Also, road trainers don't provide you with a hard enough sole to stop the rocks from punishing the forward half of your foot.

Overall, the consensus is: run with off-road shoes. They should have enough sole to withstand nobbly rocks. Ideally, the sole should have an integrated plate and the toe needs harder material or has a tough rubber rand.

I've had a scoot around and have a reasonably good list to choose from. Here are a top selection with links to reviews and places to buy.
*Big caveat - this is a list generated by me, not an uber experienced ultra-runner, but a mere beginner in the search for ultra-bliss. Having said that, I've been running long distances for years so have experienced every foot hot spot imaginable.*

Inov8 Roclite

Roclite 315 (top left)

Click here for a review

New Roclite 320 (top right)
Click here for a review
Click here for a RunJunkie review

New Balance - 1100 MdS Trail. Made specifically with the Marathon Des Sables in mind, these trainers suit most types of trail running and should be ideal for the Namibian Ultra.

Montrail Hardrock

Click here for a good Montrail Hardrock review from 4 different people

Click here for a Runner's World review on all off-road shoes


Crikey - you wouldn't believe the conversations around this bit of kit. As soon as the distances are increased and there is a need to carry water and food, life gets complicated. It doesn't have to of course, people have been walking the globe for years with very simple devises for carrying supplies. Hell, you could probably carry everything in a Sainsburys Bag For Life if you really had to. Having said that, it would be mega annoying and there is no point ignoring the advances that have been made in ultra-light rucksacks.

In comparison to their trainers, Berghaus have provided us with an absolutely cracking trail running ruck sack (see picture below). I'm not one for stuff hanging off all over the place, so this bag is great. It holds 12 litres with a zipper that expands the body to create 4 more litres of space. Another great feature is an elasticated waistband that velcros together. No clips and no chunky waist pads that don't form to the body. The band really brings the sack close to the body so that no movement is experienced during the run.

Click here for a Trail Gear review

On the pre-Namibian training weekend, I watched a couple of lads use the Raidlight sacks with the optional clip on front sack. At first the idea interested me because bottles and food are easily accessible. Then I watched them in practice; they bounced around a lot whilst running and looked hot to deal with. A comment from one of the lads was 'I've just bought this, and it's annoying the f*ck out of me already'.

Andy McMenemy, runner-up last year, uses one but had to fix a carabiner system to it to stop the excessive movement. I've come to the conclusion that the front attachment is a sledgehammer to crack a nut and not worth the hassle.

Having said all that, its a personal thing of course. Two blokes who raced last year certainly would disagree with me - half way through the race, they moved their sack from the back to the front and ran the rest of the race like that. It clearly works for some people.

That said, take the front-attachment off, and the actual Raidlight sacks are good bits of kit and praised by those people I've met. See Likeys for some examples

Sleeping bag (mandatory item)
The smaller the better. You have to carry one for emergencies. The likelihood is you wont use it, but the desert at night is not a warm place and if someone goes down, you'll need to wrap them up in one asap.

PHD (Pete Hutchinson Designs) are extremely small and lightweight.

Steve Clark, the Across The Divide Race Director, owned a Minim Ultra Down and at 345g, packed into a fist-sized bag, it was a nice bit of kit. At £170 it's not a light decision (excuse pun).

First Aid Kit (mandatory item)
Across The Divide carry nothing short of a miniature hospital and in my opinion take nothing for granted. Their safety record is well-established and they take their own doctor, so you'll be well looked after. You will need to take a small med kit with you though. Amy, the ATD doc, advises nothing more than pain killers and stuff like imodium. I'll get an exact list and post it in a separate entry.

I'm just not sure about this yet. A lad who is running this year, Jerry, is thinking about Smash.' It's lightweight and loaded with calories' he says.

All a personal taste but you need something with a high calorie count to low weight ratio eg. Nuts salted. The winner last year did it on just 9 bananas!

It really is each to their own on this one. I've been on my feet all night a few times in past endeavours, and all I can tell you is; get something you like eating. It needs to be convenient enough to eat too.

If you want a good race time, you don't want to be boiling water all the time to add to dry food. Minimal hassle factor will keep you focused. All I know is, you have to constantly take a bite. Force yourself to eat and drink. It's too hot in the desert for these but peanut M&M's have kept me going before - burst of sugar with a slower burning complex carb. Magic. They rattle like buggery though :-)

*I'll write a separate entry on food, as its a discussion in it own right.*

Across The Divide medical staff recommend taking on 2 litres at every checkpoint. The method for carrying it is personal but essentially its a decision between a platypus and bottles.

If the decision is bottles, then that introduces the question of bottle placement. On your belt? In your sack? On your shoulder straps? I'm torn at the moment and I think it will come down to 'what method allows me to drink the 2 litres needed between each checkpoint?'.

The normal mistake is that you just don't drink as much as you should, and having run with both bottles and platypus before; if it's constant fluid you need, then there nothing quite as easy as a tube placed next to your face.

One from Raidlight (left). Click here for Likeys product page

Hydration tablets
As Amy, the Across The Divide doctor. pointed out 'Energy powders are suprisingly low in salt. It's not until you really look at the ingredients that you realise its just a trace ingredient in most cases. To avoid Hyponeutremia (too much water in your system) you have to have an additional intake of salt. In the desert environment this equates to approx. 1.6grammes per hour.'

Nuun tablets are perfect and recommended by Across The Divide. From the 2 litres of water provided, I'll probably supplement the 1-litre with Nuun. Its non-sickly and extremely palettable. I've tried the combination of Nuun and 4:1 on numerous occassions and it works very well. I'd go so far as to say that the intake during exercise assists my post-race fatigue.

Energy supplement
What works for me might not work for someone else, so this is an opinion only.

High Five 4:1 powder: I've used this on endurance events before. It's 4 parts carbohydrate and 1 part protein, which they say is the perfect ratio. God knows if that's right but I've sipped it constantly on a 15-hour endurance event before and, it keeps you going for hours. Some people get stomach upset with these supplements but if you mix to the right levels it's normally ok. High Five's 4:1 product page

Across The Divide will give us 2 litres of water for approx every 13 miles. I'll use 1 litre for 4:1. It's energy with relatively low weight. NB. They do sachets too. High Five 4:1 sachet product page or click here for a site which sells up to £4 cheaper.


GPS is mandatory. Across The Divide supply and say that you don't need a mega expensive one. Having said that, here's a links to some nice ones:-

Garmin Colorado T

Garmin Oregon 400 T

Garmin GPSMAP 60CSx

You need some type of lightweight warm top. Apparently it
gets cold at night, as low as 5 degrees. Compare this to 45 degree heat in the day and that's one mighty shift in temperature.

T-shirts and shorts Haven't found the perfect shorts yet. Something that does't give me damn crotch and thigh grazes. I've just bought some Body Glide which helps but still searching for the perfect short. [Please leave a comment if you can recommend any].

These need to be seamless. I'm trying out a pair at the moment called 'More Mile'. They are very comfy and caused no problem on a 20-odd miler. That said I've just been reading the MdS forum and want some of these! Injinjis They look great.

Let's face it, for those who run all the time and muliple terrains, skin level blisters and black toe nails are par for the course.

Dean Karnazes wrote that he thought he had a shell or something in his trainers but when he stopped and took his sock off, he found to his suprise that it was a toe nail. Know how he feels. All part of the process. My missus doesn't find it attractive though. Oh well.

So, I think that Injinis may be the holy grail for each of my toes because it isolates them from one another. I'll update the site when I receive them. Apparently you can only get them from America but you don't get additonal charges other than postage and packing when you order.

Something to cover the head with. A legionnaire hat?
I think I'll opt for a lightweight baseball cap with a flap sewn onto the back for the day and nothing for the night. More research needed on this.

Overall, I think you can easily go OTT on things. Its worth doing the testing up front. I'd like us to go as light as possible without sacrificing safety or health.
The perfect balance remains to be tested.

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