Race to the Stones Kit

In part two of his Race to the Stones report, Roger talks about his kit & nutrition

When I entered Race to the Stones all those months ago, I’d already learnt a huge amount about equipment and nutrition from my Sport Walk New Forest 80k walk.  When I did that challenge, I was still in what I think of as ’expedition mode’. My equipment spec was pretty good on the ‘lightweight’ front, in terms of country or mountain walking but it was still what you might call ‘normal’ walking equipment and attire.

I wore approach shoes which were really comfortable and sturdy but they were heavy in comparison with my current shoes. I also used a lightweight mountain sack with heavy duty waterproofs, an ‘ordinary’ fleece and a load of things I simply didn’t need, just in case!

After that walk I began to shift my attitude beyond ‘lightweight walking’ and into the realms of Ultra Marathons or Mountain Running, searching for the optimum Sport Walking set up.  I also began to pair down what I would carry to the kind of ‘compulsory equipment’ that you find in races like the ‘Ultra Trail Du Mont Blanc’ or the ‘Marathon Des Sables’.

I was still concerned to be safe and also to have options should the weather turn bad but I no longer had a ‘just in case’ mindset. Every piece of kit had to perform a task that potentially might actually be needed and it also had to be the smallest and lightest option.

I did a huge amount of research, looking first at what the choices were for all the key pieces of kit and then reading or watching reviews, observing what the pros were using, looking at what variations were used for different terrain types and so on.  I made a number of ‘test purchases’, some of which I returned when I tried them on, others I kept, knowing they would have a use for a different challenge to Race to the Stones.

I think trial and error plays a huge part in getting exactly the right kit and if you’re doing an Ultra you must have exactly the right kit.  100km is a long way to go with something that begins to hurt, starts to catch on a piece of clothing or has a feature that annoys you!  In order to arrive at your perfect kit spec (and it’s vital that it is YOUR perfect kit spec, not just highly recommended kit) you do have to spend some money and kiss a few frogs but in the end you will find your perfect partners because that’s really what your various pieces of core kit are – they’re your partners in the endeavour.

So, let me take you through all the core kit I took with me for Race to the Stones.

Shoes
It seems right to start at the bottom because your shoes are THE most important thing to get right.  I’m a bit of a La Sportiva man, although I’m not sponsored by them or have any kind of relationship with them. I do have narrow feet though and they seem to fit best in Sportivas.  I have tried a few Salomon models and they also felt really nice and comfortable but by this point I was already the proud owner of Sportiva ‘Bushidos’ which fitted me like a glove and also the ‘Boulder X’ shoes I’d walked New Forest in, so La Sportiva was my first choice.  Bushidos are out and out technical mountain shoes, perfect for Sky running but they are also great for skipping through technical trails of any kind.  The trouble is they weren’t Ultra shoes so almost immediately I wrote them out of the plan, as I did the Boulders – they are approach shoes and heavy by comparison.

I needed some lightweight Ultra shoes with great credentials and La Sportiva had a model that I’d read some superb reviews for – the ‘Akasha’.  Compared to my Bushidos or some other Sportiva models, Akashas are quite demure but they are built for distance and that was enough for me.

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My battle weary ‘Akashas’ after the race

I did go a bit round the houses getting the right size and had there been a half size option available from a stockist in the UK (I could only find half sizes from a Spanish supplier) I think I might have opted for that.  I found the fit to be near perfect length wise but they did feel a teeny bit generous compared to my Bushidos.

On a couple of early training walks with them I found had a problem with my ankles rubbing against the side of the shoe.  Now, I don’t want to put this down as a negative because my wife also has Akashas and has no problem with them and I’m broad minded enough to know that ankle bones come in all different shapes, sizes and, obviously, positions.  This was the only issue I had with them, they were perfect otherwise.  I persisted a bit but quickly realised I needed to find a solution.

Initially that solution was to buy another pair of Sportivas I’d seen in a sale – the ‘Mutant’.  This is a mountain running shoe with a lot of cushioning (good for distance) and quite a decent ‘drop’ (the height of the heel).  These also felt great but I had a similar problem with my ankles on a 40k training session and decided to keep them for mountain raids.

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The ‘Mutant’ – a superb shoe but I’m keeping them for the mountains

The solution I eventually found has now become my default Ultra spec and it’s a very simple one.  I returned to my Akashas but bought some specific padded socks (see socks), wore two pairs of socks (which also helps prevent blisters) and then inserted a simple 2-3mm flat insole under the Ortholite insole of the shoe, to raise my foot up just enough to stop the ankles rubbing against the side. Simples!

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The simplest solutions are always the best

This solution worked a treat and got me through 100k without any foot problems at all, other than what you’d expect from walking that far in one hit.

The great thing about my Akashas is that they have a degree of stiffness about the sole, not that you’d notice it much or think they were stiff at all compared to boots or approach shoes.  This was a bit of a problem with the Mutants to be honest – they had superb grip, were really nicely cushioned and felt great but they flexed a little more than the Akashas and I knew that having a little less flex would give a more comfortable ride over longer distances.

Regardless of the brand or model though, the key thing I learnt was to persist with trying or buying different shoes, to ignore all the jokes at home about Imelda Marcos and not stop until I was sure the shoes I had were going to be perfect for the race.  It’s really worth that investment because there are enough things to struggle with on an Ultra, you don’t need your shoes to be one of them!

Socks
I won’t go into huge detail about socks except to say that double socking is really worth it.  The inner sock should be really close fitting, as any looseness here will rub and cause blisters, which kind of defeats the object or wearing two pairs to prevent blisters!  I used a pair of Thorlo ‘Experia’ Mini Crew socks as the inners and a pair of Bridgedale ‘Speed Demons’ as the outers.

The Experias are superb socks and I’ve used them on their own for ages for running.  What I like about them is that the main body of the sock is really light and breathable but they have the full Thorlo pads on the sole, so you get great cushioning.

The Bridgedales were just a punt I took while shopping for gear (like you do) and they worked out pretty well, although the were susceptible to fluffing up on the ankles when shoes brushed past.  They had good padding on the soles too and also they were a little bit looser fitting, which worked really well as an ‘over sock’.

Both pairs combined to keep my feet really snug, well cushioned and also well ventilated from start to finish and they dried out well after the early rain too.

Vest
I guess the next most important piece of kit is the vest or backpack and it certainly was for me.

Quite early on, because I was walking not running, I decided to take a sack with a reasonable capacity, so that I could carry a bit more kit and food supplies.  I figured that with there not being a huge difference in weight from, say, a 10L vest to a 15L vest style backpack, I might as well carry more food and then just walk through most of the feed stations (which I did) and it gained me a lot of ground on other competitors who were stopping regularly to re-supply.  The extra weight was minimal because I’d already streamlined everything but the capacity allowed me to travel up to 40k without need to re-stock.

Almost from the outset I’d set my heart on the Ultimate Direction Peter Bakwin Adventure Vest but UK stocks were limited, so I wasn’t sure if I would be able to get one.  As a first step and potential back up if I couldn’t get the PB vest, I purchased a 20L Salomon Peak backpack that had a similar configuration to a vest with soft flask pockets on the straps.  It was perhaps a bit oversized for the race but perfect for long self sufficient training walks. The key determining factor that drew me away from it as my chosen race pack, was that on a couple of training walks I found the strap configuration (which gave the pack its structure) became quite fiddly when trying to put it on quickly or while walking. I would get my arm caught quite easily and I also managed to inadvertently stop my watch a couple of times, as the button got caught on one of the straps while I was putting it on (I use a Suunto Ambit with the stop/start button on the side).  So I knew from these experiences in training that I would benefit from a waistcoat style vest sack with no harness straps to get caught in.

Eventually, stocks of the Ultimate Direction PB vest re-emerged and, having measured myself according to the size guide I bought a small sack and waited impatiently for it to arrive.  Although my sizing clearly fitted the guidance, when I put it on it was way too tight under the arm pits and so this sack became my wife’s and she loves it!

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The PB Adventure Vest – a bag with masses of storage options

I immediately bought a medium instead but when it arrived I was disappointed to find that the structure of the ‘waistcoat’ part of the pack wasn’t elasticated or stretchy in any way.  Pulling the concealed webbing straps on the side to tighten it to fit caused the side pockets and cloth to bunch up, creating ‘crinkly’ side panels. I found the adjustment straps were a little uncomfortable too and given that there was no stretch, putting it on fully tightened would be challenging.  The main concern with the bunching up of the vest’s structure though was that this could lead to chafing during the race. While I walked around the house wearing it, knowing deep down it wasn’t going to work but desperately trying to find a positive, my heart was sinking. I’d coveted this vest for so long!  And it truly is a fabulous thing – the overall design, the sheer number of different pouches and storage options, the build quality and if it fits you without needing major tightening you’re going to be one happy Ultra Bunny that’s for sure! But try as I might, I simply couldn’t get it to fit me without everything just bunching up.

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Bunching of the vest’s body when tightened to fit

I was gutted but sometimes kit just doesn’t fit and there’s no point hankering after something that isn’t right, so I moved on and returned to looking at options from Salomon.  I’ve had a Raid Revo for longer than I care to remember and I still use it and trust it.  The Peak 20 I’d already bought is a great sack but the specific thing about the straps ruled it out for RTTS, so now I use it on mountain raids, where I don’t need to take it off or put it on in a rush and the extra storage means I can take my mountain waterproofs with ease, so it’s really superb for that.

In the end, I opted for the Salomon Skin Pro Set 15, which is a vest style sack with 15L of storage, two flask pouches that can take 500ml soft flasks and simple stretch pouches for all the essentials positioned on the vest front.  It is similar to the S Lab style vests, just with a backpack back and that’s about it.

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Skin Pro 15 – perfect capacity & great value

I found the capacity just right to carry the gear I had and the extra nutrition supplies that would allow me to push on through the feed stations, although I guess I could possibly have managed with the 10L version.  When the 1.5L bladder is full though, it kind of eats into the space within the sack, so I just felt that 15L would give me a bit more wiggle room and it worked out perfectly.

I only had a couple of niggles with it on the day.  The first was the zipped entry to one of the side pouches which runs along the whole side of the vest giving masses of storage.  When the pouch was quite full I found the opening to be quite tight and because it was zipped the opening wouldn’t stretch, unlike the zipless version of the pouch on the other side of the vest. There were a couple of times where I got my hand stuck and cursed, trying to pull out a bar that had worked its way right to the back of the pouch.  I didn’t feel that the zip added anything really and if you want security for something valuable that you don’t want to fall out then maybe put a press stud on the opening which would provide a closure but would make the opening elasticated.

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The pouch zip – great idea but annoying in action

The other niggle was with the ’sensifit’ adjustments.  Nice minimalist design and innovative idea but in practice, it’s far too easy for the adjustment fasteners to give and let the straps or bungee cords slip, loosening the fit.  I found that when I had the bladder full up (the vest came with the bladder so it’s not as though I’d added something too big), both the side adjustment straps and the bungee adjustment at the top of the harness straps slipped when I pulled the sternum straps tight to give a secure fit. The plastic spring locks were also too flimsy for critical fit adjustments, where you need the vest to stay securely fitted at the tightness you’ve selected.  Compare this to the ‘normal’ elasticated strap adjusters on the Peak 20 which, like any rucksack straps, hold the adjustment firmly.

It didn’t cause me any real problems during the race but from a design point of view I think if there was a way to change the adjustment locks to a design that really doesn’t slip, this would be a superb sack to take on rivals that are double the price.  I bought this pack for less than £100 normal price and it performed as well as anything I’ve tried for much much more, so I don’t criticise it as a complaint, more as a wish that it could be improved in these two simple areas to make it even better.

I adapted the vest a little for my own needs before the race, adding a bungee cord to the outside face of the pack and this proved to be a shrewd move, as I was able to stuff my waterproof under the cords for easy access on the move between bouts of drizzle during the early miles.

Clothing
I often walk in close fitting long trousers but for this race I opted for shorts, thinking it could be hot (wishful thinking).  I picked up some great stretch shorts from Decathlon but opted for a Raidlight Performer XP jersey on top.

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My Raidlight Performer XP shirt – great fit & nice design touches

I was a bit late to the party looking into the whole range of Raidlight kit but i’ve certainly been impressed by their attention to detail and really practical design features.  I did briefly look at their race vests but by this point I’d already returned the Ultimate Direct vest, so I didn’t really want to take another punt on a brand I had no experience with for that critical piece of kit so close to the race.

The Performer XP top has some really nice features but first and foremost it’s a very comfortable fit.  It has three stretch pockets on the back, like a cycling jersey and these were all accessible under my race vest.  I didn’t need any extra storage on this race but I did find these pockets really useful for storing bar wrappers and other rubbish until I got to the next feed station.

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The top has a high collar, great for giving you that little bit more warmth when the chill sets in and I also liked the black under arm panels, which will be great for the longevity of the garment, as progressive deodorant stain build up is probably the biggest reason for consigning a top to the bin after a time.

The other great feature that I though was fab was the detachable race belt for your number.  I used it for RTTS but I think I probably would have been better off pinning my number to my shorts given the need to keep putting my cag on. I loved this detail though and will definitely use it again for other shorter races or races where the conditions are a bit more predictable.  Whatever the application, I really liked the fact that they’d thought it would be useful and they’d designed it in very well indeed.  There were two mini elasticated loops either side of the top at the back by the pockets and the belt simply hooked into these loops, with adjustment on the belt itself for tightness.

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The excellent detachable race belt

I took with me in the sack a lightweight waffle fleece from Decathlon and also a Sugoi super light gilet for a bit of wind resistance.  I also had some Gore arm warmers and this combination of the Raidlight top, Sugoi gilet and my Gore arm warmers was all I needed other than my cag.  It could have got colder in the night had the weather deteriorated so I wouldn’t have skimped on the fleece but on this occasion the other items were enough.

Waterproofs
One of the first items I bought for my RTTS kit spec was the Ultimate Direction Ultra Jacket and I just love it.  I’ve really put it through its paces too, with some really heavy showers during a training walk and also the rain and drizzle in the first 30k at RTTS.

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What drew me to this jacket was first the weight, second the teeny packed size and thirdly a couple of design features.  The hood has a peak at the front which keeps the rain out of your eyes but this also forms part of a front to back vent, to keep your head cooler.

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The early rain through the field of dreams

The other key thing I liked about this jacket was the built in mitts on the cuffs.  They are better for providing wind resistance than water proofing to be honest, as they do tend to collect water in them when you’re walking but I don’t begrudge them that.  They are just a nice additional feature and really do help keep fingers a bit warmer when the wind chill picks up.

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The handy mitts built into each cuff

The only thing I’d want to change with this jacket is to have strapped sleeve adjustments, rather than the elastic sleeve cuffs but I suspect that would cause problems with the mitts.  The issue with the elasticated cuffs is that they are quite tight and again, it’s easy to stop your watch as you try and pull the cuff over the watch so that the watch is visible.  Now you could argue that you could just leave your watch under the sleeve but if you’re racing and need/want to keep a check on your pace or distance during a long bout of bad weather you need to have it on the outside.  It wouldn’t stop me from buying this jacket again though, as it only really applies to situations where you’re racing in changeable weather.

For my leg coverage, I bought a pair of Raidlight Stretch overtousers, which are super lightweight and fit really well.  I didn’t use them but was glad I had them.  When I eventually get the chance to test them out properly, I’ll let you know how they performed!

Other kit
I took to wearing calf guards on my New Forest walk and I’ve worn them in training and for challenges and races ever since.  Basically, if Im going over about 15k I’ll use them although I’d probably also use them for shorter walks too, as I just find they keep my calves so nicely secure and I get much less leg fatigue.  I never realised just how much your calves flap until I wore them!

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The excellent R2 V2 calf guards

I used to use some ‘Skins’ guards but although they were really supportive and very comfortable, I used to get really (and I mean REALLY) itchy shins after taking them off.  I’ve no idea why that is, whether it was maybe the lycra type material or perhaps it was just me but now I use Compressport R2 V2 guards and the itching is a thing of the past.  They are made from more of a cloth like material than the Skins and they’re really comfortable, so perhaps it’s breathability.   If you’ve not worn calf guards on a long walk before I can highly recommend it.  It’s not just a theoretical improvement, you can actually feel that your calves are well supported and you really notice the reduced fatigue in your legs.

Every long Ultra or 100k requires that you take a head torch with spare batteries.  We have the Silva trail runner torch at home, which is great as it’s rechargeable but for this it was going to be too heavy and bulky. Also, taking a spare battery pack wasn’t really the best option.  Instead, I took a Black Diamond Spot.  It has great battery life for this sort of event, even at the highest setting and it uses AAA batteries, so the extra weight of the spares was minimal.

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I did look at getting another rechargeable lamp but those that also allow for AAA or AA replacements are quite expensive and their standard burn times tend to be less than for a more keenly priced AAA powered model.  Given that you need to take spare batteries anyway, the gains from having a rechargeable model seemed to be largely lost to me.

The Spot was simply brilliant!   The beam was strong, bright and gave a great flood illumination of the trail, so much so that I was able to descend at full tilt down even the trickiest track.  It was relatively light and being Black Diamond, the build quality was spot on (sorry!).

The other compulsories were a first aid kit and a survival bag.  I took a Lifesystems Nano first aid kit designed for races and I also took their minutely packed foil survival bag with a hood.  Both these items took up hardly any space in my bag and thankfully were never used!

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I took a number of other bits and pieces in dry bags from a Brunton power supply to a second back up torch (super light Cateye bike lamp) and also additional first aid items such as pain killers, tick tweezers, blister pads, wet wipes and other emergency essentials.

I used Osprey light weight dry bags to keep everything in and they really did make a difference compared to my other dry bags.

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Food and Drink
I planned to use the official feed stations as little as possible, not to snub the organisers but to ensure that I was running my nutrition plan, not theirs.  I’d trained self sufficiently over 40k, so I knew I could carry enough supplies for at least 80k in terms of fluids.  I’d then just need to stock up on bars and back up sachets of drink at some point along the way from Aleksandra, my wife, who was supporting me.

What I did take from the feed stations was pretty limited and it was mainly a couple of energy bombs before Goring because I’d used the bars in my front pouches and just wanted a little energy kick before collecting more from Aleksandra in the town.  Apart from that I really just used the feed stations for water.

Aleksandra had a huge ‘grab bag’ of cheese and onion crisps with her at all times from about 50k and I really liked stuffing my face with those!  I also took on board some peanuts for a bit of protein.

My main fuel throughout though was ‘Tailwind’, which is a powdered energy and electrolyte drink that was developed in the States by ultra runners, specifically to help with stomach problems that ultra runners seem to be plagued with.  Now I’ve never suffered with stomach problems as I’m walking but I have felt that a few things I’ve used in the past have made me a bit gassy (raw fruit bars etc), so Tailwind was potentially a great food to take, as it would give me enough calories, take care of the electrolytes and would be easy on the stomach.

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My core nutrition for the race – Tailwind and Zipvit bars

Tailwind say that the drink is so comprehensive that you can use it on its own without any other food for an Ultra, which is quite a claim and in practice it’s a claim I can’t say I’d disagree with.  For me though, there’s another dynamic that comes into play after a while and that’s the psychological benefit of biting on something other than a plastic tube!

I took two flavours of Tailwind – Lemon and Berry – so that I could alternate and change flavours when refilling.  It comes in either a large bag or in individual sachets and you don’t have to be precise with your measurements.  You can go strong if you need a bit of an extra kick when you’re working hard or weaker if you’re doing OK and want a milder flavour.  I found that I was fine with a weaker flavour to start but as the race went on I wanted it stronger and stronger, partly because I could actually taste the energy I was getting, if that makes sense?

Both flavours were great, although I think on balance I preferred the berry flavour and having the sachets meant it was easy to take supplies and refill independently when I needed it.  I worked out that two sachets would probably be OK for a litre and a half bladder and as I went further and reduced my refill to just over a litre, I simply got a stronger mixture.

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Two Tailwind sachets turn 1.5 litres of water into high calorie fuel with electrolytes

In training, I very quickly realised this was special juice and committed to making it the foundation of my nutrition from the first time I used it. The taste was really pleasant but not too sweet or strong and of all the things I consumed during the whole race this was the one component I would not have been without.  During the last 20k, all I was thinking was that I hoped I wouldn’t run out as I didn’t want to stop again to refill because of the time cost but equally I didn’t want to be without it.  As you can probably guess, I can’t recommend Tailwind highly enough!

While Tailwind was the main part of my nutrition, I also had back up soft flasks with Nuun tabs in, so that I would have electrolyte fluids to cover me should I run out of Tailwind between feed stations.  I opted for the Nuun tabs mainly because tabs are easier to dispense into soft flasks than the Tailwind powder would have been.  That was its only downside, if you can call it a downside – you really need a large opening to your bottle or bladder because it’s a fine powder.

Bars then were mainly for my mind, rather than core energy supply and I tried various different bar options in training.  I quickly found that the raw fruit type so common now as ‘natural’ energy sources turned me a bit gassy.  So I went back to the bars that successfully fuelled Aleksandra’s Ironman Austria race a few years back – Zipvit.

Zipvit also claim that their bars are easy on the stomach and I’ve always found that to be true, whether running, cycling or walking.  They’re soft but firm enough to be manageable on the trail (some bars can be a bit too firm I find), they tend to be based more around cereals than raw fruits and the flavours are really nice and not very sickly.

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I went for the uncoated chocolate flavour and it was GOOOOD!  All the way from 10k to 100k, I never tired of that chocolatey goodness!  Not too sweet, not too sickly but a rich chocolate flavour and texture that felt like a treat.  Again, I probably could have sustained myself just on Tailwind but eating a Zipvit bar every 10k or so was a nice treat and the extra energy certainly didn’t hurt.  The only thing with Zipvits and this isn’t actually a negative in my book but they are a little sticky on the wrapper and that means you can’t push them out of the wrapper, you have to ‘peel’ the wrapper back but to be honest, that’s no big deal and they remain my go to bar!

So, there you are.  I may have had a few niggles with things but there was nothing that let me down or that I wouldn’t use again. The thing I’ve learnt most from this whole nine months of planning, training and research is that it really does pay off.  By the time I’d lined up at the start, I had no uncertainties in my mind about my kit.  I knew everything was exactly right and that meant I could just get on with it.

I’d gone through all the ‘what ifs’, taken note of how I felt about aspects of a piece of kit’s character or performance during training and acted if I thought it might cause me issues in the race – my ankle rubbing and the straps on my previous backpack were two great examples.

No detail is too small to be relevant, no piece of kit is too sacred not to be sacrificed for something that will work better for you on the day.  Focus solely on your performance and get the exact kit that will enhance that performance and that’s all you need to do.

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