A post about gear – the kind you can buy in outdoors shops

As a addendum to my post about the Hoka One One ultramarathon in Keswick, I would like to talk about the poles that I trialled during the race. I know that it is not good practice to try anything new on race day, but I had run my first trail marathon the month before, and the only things I thought could have helped were ‘more savoury food’, and ‘maybe some support for the downhill towards the end’. Life was hectic in the three weeks that followed, and I did a few checks on the use of poles  in ultramarathons, without actually getting any right away. I began building up a picture that was hazy at best. Brits appeared to consider it cheating (same as ‘eating is cheating’, ‘sleeping is cheating’, ‘telling the truth about how many hills there are is cheating’, ‘sport climbing is cheating’, ’emotions are cheating’…the list goes on). Europeans don’t seem to think that it is cheating, but then they tend towards using poles for trekking more often than their reluctant neighbours as well. America seems to be mixed, and I didn’t see much from the Canadians. When I was in Colombia, lots of the ultra runners seemed to run everything with poles (but there are a lot of VERY BIG hills in Colombia, so it is quite understandable).

micro vario

I went to my local Cotswold Outdoor, and tried asking questions about trekking poles in ultramarathon. The staff were lovely, but looked at me like I was crazy. I checked everything that they had, asked them to look some things up online, went away, checked a few other running shops (that did not have any trekking poles), read some blogs (amongst which see here, here, and here, and here), then went back to Cotswold and asked if I could buy them and bring them back if I decided not to use them.

I went for the Leki Micro Vario Carbon Lady.

I figured that if I was going to potentially carry them with me for many many hours on trails and mountains, that I wanted them to be light. These things are definitely light, weighing in at 434g for the pair. However, I also wanted them to be compact, so I went for the collapsible version instead of one of the many ultra-light but fixed options. At the time I was thinking of attaching them to my Salomon vest (reviewed here by the Ginger Runner), and I imagined that a non-collapsed pole would merely endanger those around me, and probably drive me crazy after about…say…15 minutes. As the Cotswold guy pointed out, they also have their handy stuff sack, and can be packed in luggage if travelling by plane. **Cue daydream about running the Mont Blanc Ultra, or indeed, any of the Skyrunner series.**

What they are not, is cheap. I get a discount, and they were already on offer, but I still didn’t commit until I knew that I would definitely use them (ie, after I had used them). The retail price hovers around 149.95GBP. In the end there is usually some correspondence between quality and cost, but I would not have paid the full price.

I practised opening them out (follow the instructions and then it all becomes clear and quite easy, but not originally intuitive), and I then practised stowing and taking them out of the vest while wearing it; for which I was thankful later on. It was surprisingly easy, and once they were stowed they didn’t move about or bash against my head or anything else that I had worried about. I did add an additional elastic to the top to make sure they didn’t accidentally start waving around.

The race allowed poles to be used, and really, except for the start, there was no point when everyone was bunched up enough for it to bother anyone. As with anything when out on the trails, it is always best to ensure that you are not in anyone else’s way, but that is a matter of spatial awareness, not really about the gear you are using. I didn’t pull them out until about half way-ish. There was a steep and rocky downhill that looked for all the world like Mordor. image

I’m technically blind in one eye. I don’t allow that to stop me from doing anything, but it does mean that I have a whole lot more scars on the right hand side of my body. The majority of these have been caused by me falling off something (a rock, my bike, a tree, a fence), and automatically throwing myself away from the things that I can see rushing towards me on the left. So yes, scars.

What I didn’t want when attempting ultra distances, was to become tired, and then make errors in judging depth, or distance on the downhill. I know what that feels like on a good day, and I didn’t know what this day was going to look like.

So I pulled out the poles, and they slotted together just as easily as when I practised at home, and then I ran down the hill, laughing and enjoying the wind on my face. It was glorious. I don’t know whether that part was merely psychological, but my arms adapted to my stride, and were touching on the sides in counterbalance to my steps. I stowed them for the flat-ish bit, and then tried them again for the last part of a really long uphill (the last big one), and the subsequent downhill.

For me, the main benefit was balance. I found the poles to be helpful, and that it was easy to fall into the right rhythm (although I will continue practising before my next race). I didn’t use them much on the uphill but can see that on a longer race, it would be good to have them in order to conserve leg strength overall. I didn’t immediately stow them once I hit the flat, but that was more because I had just arrived at the section of the race that I wasn’t certain about. In the future, I would have a race plan that included where I would use them, or whether I would bother stowing them at all.

I was not the only person using poles in the race (and as I mentioned, they were permitted or I would not have used them), but I had a few comments from people (who were not being hedged in, or endangered by them at all as I only used them when I was running with big spaces around me – not hard given the layout of the race). I found myself almost telling people why I was using them, but reminded myself that this was a race of one. I was testing me- not them – and I was enjoying the challenge. It would not have made my day any better if I engaged with non-positive people, so I saved my energy for the good ones. Thankfully, there were lots of those!

The only other point against these poles is that they are pink-ish and have the word ‘Lady’ attached to the end. They are smaller and slightly lighter than the orange (Tramp?) version, and as I am smaller, it made sense.

Pros: Do what they say on the tin, stow easily while running or travelling, adjustable, quick to open, great for downhill balance (and I imagine if you have problems with your knees), light.

Cons: Expensive, look a little like a Barbie accessory, some Brits and Americans may want to argue with you*

*True whether or not you are carrying these poles.

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