Marathon des Sables Kit Review

Marathon des Sables 2014 

Kit that I used, a review

I wanted to put some thoughts down on everything I used for Marathon des Sables 2014. It’s an independent, subjective view I chose all my own kit, and paid for it all myself. Where I can, I’ve put the manufacturers link. If there are broken link please let me know.

For the first timer getting kit sorted can be overwhelming, even veterans still refine their equipment, so if you’ve time on your hands, get opinions and where possible try and test the kit.

Just because something worked/didn’t work for me doesn’t mean it will/won’t work for you. Try and make up your own mind. At the end of the day you have to believe that the kit you are wearing is up for the job for you!

I don’t think there are any hard and fast rules, remember in 2009  a tweed jacket, a jumper, a plastic carrier bag and a shoulder bag got a finish for an elderly Indian chap. I’d say time on your feet is a better use of time than shopping!

 

From the bottom up I wore

Inov8 Roclite 315 with gaiter velcro attached
Inov8 Roclite 315 with gaiter velcro attached

Inov8 Roclite 315 trainers – I went with these because I use them a lot for running around Wales. I like the fit and the sole unit. They did very well in the desert, though the grippy soles weren’t needed and the final wear for the race is about equivalent to two to three times what I would expect in the UK for the same distance. I went up a half size, but after the swelling that I experienced in the long day, I’d have no hesitation in going up a full size, especially with a two sock approach.

RaceKit gaiters – The back story to getting the velcro on my shoes is this – use a professional service like the ShoeHealer. I used a local cobbler who destroyed a pair of shoes, I tried to glue my own. ShoeHealer did mine in 48hrs, no buckles or rucks, the velcro stayed on and I had every confidence. Don’t muck around! The gaiters did well, stayed firmly attached. I had a slight issue on Stage 1 with the bottom seam filling with sand. I small incision prevented this happening again. The toe took a hammering on the rocky stages of Stage 4 and I gaffer taped these. Solid ankle seal, and very unaware of wearing them.

X Sock Marathon Short – A very comfortable sock, well fitting. Need to spend some time to check that there are no rucks or twists, but that is no different to any other sock. I took two pairs so that I could start the long day with a fresh pair. I was pleased I did this.

Injinji sock liner – As liner socks go these have a cult following for a good reason. When they’re on they do a really good job of preventing blisters between the toe. My problems started with a good hard kick of a rock on stage 1, and the blood blister and then rolling my ankle on Stage 4 changing my gait for 120+ km. I ditched these for the Marathon stage due to the swelling of my feet. There was a noticeable difference in the tenderness after this stage. Again two pairs.

Compressport R2 Calf Guards – I was introduced to calf guards by Matt Williams, a Physio who suggested that I might benefit from them after a calf strain. I really like the compressport guards, they are hard wearing, supportive and comfortable to wear. I notice the difference running without them now, in that the vibrations caused by running are non existent. I can’t comment on whether they help recovery or not, as I haven’t really tested this aspect. It was useful having lower leg cover from the sun.

Salomon Exo Short – I chose these mainly because they have a liner brief inside the short. My mistake was to not check the position of the slightly rubberised seam on Stage 2. This caused a small chafe. This is not the shorts fault at all, just an oversight from me. I find the compression on my thighs nice, and the waist is good and high. Nothing interfered with the rucksack. Wore very well, lots of life left in them.

Salomon S-Lab Exo Zip Tee – I don’t normally use a compression top, but decided for MdS that I would use this. Being a biggish guy the top isn’t flattering. I can’t fault the top at all. Kept me cool and dry – the zip was a nice to have. Good sun protection and the compression seemed to do well. The only visible wear afterwards was an area where a piece of velcro on my rucsac has obviously pulled repeatedly in the same spot. I was amazed at how clean it came out of the wash when I got home. No staining at all despite being very stiff with salt and desert grime.

Montane Featherlite Ultra Gilet – I used this on two morning only. A very lightweight bit of kit, really effective in getting rid of the chill associated with wind. With the long sleeve merino shirt it was all the temperature control that I needed.

Embers Merino LS base layer – An ancient bit of kit. I like merino, and on the coldest morning, this over my race shirt and covered with the Montane Gilet was super warm. On other evenings and mornings I wore this alone and was a nice temperature. It was a nice change to the race shirt and I would definitely take again.

Racelight Shara Cap and oakleys
Racelight Shara Cap and oakleys

RaidLight Sahara Cap– Initially I was slightly dubious about this. I have a 59cm head and this cap felt pretty tight. However, it never fell off, nor was it ever too uncomfortable to wear. I found by pulling the flap over my ears and then putting my sunglasses over the top my ears stayed well protected. A top thing to note, for baldies like me, the flap will cover the small hole in the back of the cap where the adjustment velcro is-its worth checking if you don’t suncream your head (I did). It was pointed out to me by someone at the start of Stage 2. Be aware this is THE hat of MdS – I would consider personalising my hat in the future.

Oakley Radar Path sunglasses – I had these for cycling from before the event. Very light, fit me well and eal very weel with themy face shape and blocking out the light. They sit securely on my nose, and on the top of my head.

Aarn Mountain Magic 33 Rucksack – I only have really, really good things to say about the performance of this pack. It really does do everything it says on the tin. It was a good size for all the kit, and compresses nicely as the volume decreased during the week. I was slightly dubious about how the chest strap was going to work out with the requirements for displaying the number- see my solution here. I ended up being able to hook the chest strap behind the number no bother at all. The chest pockets were great for organising the stuff I needed during the day. Regularly leaving CP’s with 3 litres in them plus all the other bits and bobs I needed. I didn’t cut anything down, just fitted as per the instructions and ran with it. No sign of any failings at all. Briliiant! If pushed as to a bad point – in photography the crossover chest strap accentuates man boobs.

Equipment Carried

Raidlight Press to Drink bottle x 2 I wanted to be taking my bottle out to drink so I could keep tabs on how much I was drinking. There is nothing wrong with these, but if I were selecting again I would lose the 90 degree bend bits in favour of a standard drinks bottle. The clag around the bite valve was horrid on all the bottles like this in the tent, and were tricky to clean with what we had available. Also of note, when dissolving Nuun tablets in the bottle, do it when the bottle is empty with just a little water left in it. Because there is a straw that reaches to the bottom, when this is immersed in water, Nuun tablets cause the bite valve to spray.

Thermarest 3/4 light matress – probably 15 years old, if not more. Comfortable and trusted, not the lightest by modern standards but worked very well. Doubled over for feet up comfort at the end of the day, and full three-quarter length for a good nights sleep.

Kimmlite PA1 sleeping bag – also old, don’t think they’re made any more. Plenty warm enough, a bit narrow for being able to relax in, but it’s a race sleeping bag, I wasn’t expecting glamping!

Silk sleeping bag liner – another old bit of kit. I like these for looking after my sleeping bag, the hygiene side of things. I also found that it was amazingly useful for maintaining an element of dignity whilst having a bed bath in the tent. Mine is square cut, so it was also a handy wrap around sarong for evening pee expeditions.

Exped Air Pillow UL Medium – after the first night I covered this in a buff. Very comfortable and made for no stiff neck. Would definitely take again. Only downside perhaps is its light weight, doesn’t take a big breeze to turn it into a game of cross the desert chase the pillow!

Buff Orignal x2 A pretty versatile bit of kit – warm head, cool neck, back up sand protection in a sand storm, camera bag, pillow case, one corner was used to deal with a nosebleed, sunglasses cleaner and carrier of Welsh Dragon. Brilliant.

Esbit Titanium Stove – so lightweight it’s crazy. I found that two hex tablets heated all the water I needed for a main meal and a cup of tea. I took a piece of tin foil and this made the stove really efficient. Very stable with the MyTi mug too.

Alpkit MyTi Mug – another bit of pre owned kit. Light, robust and just the right size for heating enough water for a meal, and for making a cup of tea. During the day it carried the stove, fuel, tea bags, lighter and toilet roll.

MSR Titan tool spoon – another 15 year old bit of kit, still going strong. Didn’t need the tool as that fits a multifuel stove, but its a good shape for food, lightweight and doesn’t break.

Turboflame Military lighter – has the guts to light a hex tablet very quickly, doesn’t get affected by the wind and is useful for sealing rope ends or sterilising a needle for blister duty. Needed to be turned down in power because the increase in temperature was making the gas flame out.

Gerber Knife
Gerber Knife

Gerber Ultralight LST knife – didn’t need anything more than this, main use was for opening vacuum packed food, though it did get a light bit of “first aid” use. Sharp, holds its edge and very light weight. The locking mechanism feels strong and the blade seems rust resistant.

Petzl Tikka XP head torch – used for training all through the Welsh winter, very confident in this torch. I use it with rechargeable batteries and for the complete time at MdS never needed to use the spares. Also has a whistle on it, which was another bit of mandatory kit. The red light was useful for not really annoying other tent mates around the bivouac. On the night stage there were a couple of times when I would have ideally liked a bit more light, but by flicking the diffuser up I always got to see what I needed to see.

VeniStop Venom Pump – mandatory kit, unused.

Plastic signalling mirror – mandatory kit, not used for signalling. Useful for checking out how badly split your lip is, or how much blood is left on your nose.

Silva Field compass – not used in anger, see Vector watch beneath. Mandatory kit, and this was the lightest option that met the criteria.

Suunto GPS track pod I wrote an initial review of this here. Battery life lasted really well, as expected. Even after leaving it on for an extra 5 hours at the end, this still had 33% charge when I got home and hooked it up. Definitely not necessary, but I’m pleased I took it to record the route and critically didn’t need any charging. It was just dropped into the chest pocket of my Aarn sack and it had no issues at all. Acquisition time was fast (less than 2 minutes) after turning on in Morocco the first time, and far less on all the other stages. I had it set to be manually started, and probably should have set auto off for 1 hour of non movement.

Suunto Vector
Suunto Vector

Suunto Vector Watch – another old bit of kit. I love this for navigating generally only using the altimeter. The time display is super clear and was useful all the time I was remembering to put in salt tablets, guestimate time to run to the next CP. I used the compass on every dune leg just to check the given bearing in the roadbook translated to somewhere to end up on the horizon. It was this that put me back on track on the way to CP2 on Stage 4. Not essential by any means, but I like it.

Prosport SPF 44 Sun cream – Piz Buin seemed to be the sun protection of choice on MdS. This though I had used before for sailing. It dries quickly and doesn’t leave a residue that sand sticks to. It gives a solid 8 hours protection and seems not to be at all affected by sweat. Even applied to my head with water running off I had no stinging eyes. Given I was out raising money for Melanoma, this was really important to me, and the SPF44 was as strong as I could find in an apply once, waterproof, stick free sun cream.

Brave Soldier Friction Zone – Very good at what it does, should have applied it early to my thighs. Once I had an infection I swapped to Friars Balsam and then this round the edge. Good stuff!

Wemmi Wipes – Another bit of hygiene kit with lots of uses. I found that filling a bottle top with water and then dropping one of these in worked really well. Rachel, in our tent rehydrated one in her mouth to cope with a nose bleed – not recommended. I will use these again as I only discovered them for MdS.

Friars Balsam – my topical antiseptic. Benzoin is the active ingredient. It’s quite harsh, and any grazes feel like they are being well cleaned. Useful for making skin sticky for applying sticky tape dressings!

Adventure medical kit Ultralight and Watertight .3 – didn’t need the contents of this, Doc Trotters at all CP’s and in the bivouac have all that you might need. Reassuring to have with you for anything that might have happened and not at all heavy.

Imodium – why wouldn’t you? I used one, just in case.

Cuticura Antibactieral hand gel – given most people are bringing food that has been pre packaged and the water is bottled, the only way you’ll get a tummy bug is by you putting germs into your own mouth. A small 100ml bottle got me through with plenty to spare, after toilet and before you put anything in your mouth, clean your hands. Germs from locals handling anything that might go in your mouth is a chance to have things other than your feet running!

Sea to Summit Ultra Sil Nano bag – fantastic stuff sacs, 4l ones were my preferred choice. Pretty resilient for their weight, slightly transparent which is useful for getting to the right bit of kit when needed. I like having my stuff organised into different bags Sleeping, clothing, food, personal admin, cooking this was another layer of protection from the sand…and when you pour water over your head…your kit gets wet. My knackered roadbook is testament to that!

Ortileb A5 document bag – another bit of pre-owned kit. Perfect for carrying passports, paperwork, money etc. Totally waterproof and something I don’t travel without. Might be a bit heavy for the gram counter, but really reliable.

10 safety pins – mandatory, I used 4 front and 4 rear for my race number.

Fix kit, needle, gaffer tape, thread in a Sugru tube
Fix kit, needle, gaffer tape, thread in a Sugru tube

Gaffer Tape – great for repairs, only used on the toe of my gaiter. Carried this wound round a small Sugru needle holder I made – write up on the Sugru website here

Needle – taken mainly to sew with, but ended up being sterilised with the turboflame for a bit of blister management. Stored in the above carrier.

Thread- not used, but taken in case anything needed stitching, I took about 3 metres of strong thread and wrapped around the outside of the Gaffer tape.

Sugru – goes by the strapline “The future needs fixing” and it’s brilliant stuff. If my gaiters had broken earlier I would have used it to make a toe cap for them, but with ‘only’ a dusty marathon left I made do with a gaffer tape repair.

Toothbrush – I had a break in half and fit inside itself style travel toothbrush. Lovely for de clagging your mouth morning and evening. Should be mandatory!

Half a tube of toothpaste – goes with the above, the mintier the better!

28 sheets of toilet paper – I banked on 4 sheets per day, probably could have done with 6, to get rid of the nasal grot that the desert brings on. Only felt short once, when things were a little looser than I would have liked…Tent mates helped out with a whip round. I took dinner serviettes before the race. In hindsight I would have taken more in my luggage and binned what I didn’t need at the start of day 1. ALWAYS, ALWAYS put your toilet roll in a ziploc bag!

GoPro Hero 3 and 3 batteries – no case, just the camera, wrapped in a buff. Could have got away with 2 batteries, but 3 gave me a bit more confidence. The quality of the stills camera is good enough to get some nice pictures, and grabbing a few bits of video here and there seemed to make sense for an event. of this scale.

Supplied by MdS

Flare – weighs about 900g, though some people got a small emergency beacon (epirb). It’s a parachute style flare and are very pretty. We heard of a few being used, so pay attention in the briefing in case you have to let one off.

Timing transponder- neoprene cuff with a velcro strap. An extra safety pin is supplied to make sure this is fully secure. I wore mine under my gaiter and didn’t notice it was there at all.

Salt tablets- start with 120. 2 an hour for the first three hour and then 4 an hour thereafter. Definitely noticeable if you don’t use them. Use them!

Food

When you’re not running, or sleeping you’ll be eating…

Expedition Foods High Energy Serving – I took a range of flavours, none of which I minded in the heat. I had a slight preference for the Sweet and Sour Chicken and Rice as it was less liquid and made for easier to eat. I heated water for mine, but a fair few people just cold rehydrated them. I looked forward to these everyday, and the one I had at CP5 on the long day definitely put the energy back in when needed.

TORQ Recovery – I’m a late convert to recovery powder. I used the Cookies and Cream powder and because of my body weight went for 6 scoops (150g) in 750 ml. I found it dissolved really well in cold water in a normal drinking bottle. I used one serving in the middle of the long day and was grateful for the calories. I vacuum packed my own servings, which I wouldn’t do in future, double freezer bag makes for easier storage rather than a flat brick.

TORQ Energy, Recovery and Gel
TORQ Energy, Recovery and Gel

TORQ Energy – I only had one serving (90g) of these as a day, in the neutral flavour. The flavour is really neutral and I could always tell I’d had some. I would take more of this in the future instead of shot bloks or jelly beans. I also vacuum packed this, but would also double freezer bag for convenience.

TORQ Gel – Orange and Banana, I had one a day, again I would take more in favour of other energy foods. I find them really palatable and would much prefer to have one of these than either of the other option. I don’t find them a problem in the heat, but some do.

Peperami Wideboy – 1 a day, at the end of the day. A luxury that I looked forward to. Good balance of nutrition and nice to eat whilst the water was boiling. It also did my mental state good on the long day.

Kellogs Nutri Grain Oat bake – a last minute substitution after my Ma Baker bars didn’t arrive. This was to be my breakfast everyday and it got increasingly hard to swallow. I would replace these with home made paleo balls for breakfast in the future.

Clif Shot bloks – worked well for me and I always ate them. Didn’t feel that they gave me the same lift as the TORQ products, and so would swap these out.

Extreme Sports Jelly Beans – this was my surprise. I usually love these, and feel a lift from them. Not at all in the desert though. Ate them everyday, but would swap them out.

Nuun Electrolyte tablets – one tube, I didn’t use them for the first three days, but started using them on the long day, mainly to change the flavour of the water. There was a good deal of flavour trading going on in the tent, but the citrus one worked for me. I like the way it leaves the mouth feeling a little fresher.

Conclusion

I’m not at all upset with my kit choice at all. When I was stomping along, I did occasionally wish I’d had some walking poles, but on the legs that I ran, these would have been a real pain in the butt.

The only major change I would make would be to my daytime nutrition and to the amount of toilet roll I took. I’d swap more TORQ supplements in and probably take a small nut and dried fruit mix to fill the stomach with savoury.

A week to go – a pain in the bum

Look, Sun!
Look, Sun!

7 days to go – right now I should be in peak physical condition. Instead I’ve got a streaming cold and a pain in my bum. 

The cold will take its course – I can believe that will go.

The pain in my bum, well it’s sciatic pain – wickedly good when I cough or sneeze. I’m sure it’s because I haven’t taken care of stretching my glutes, so some foam rollering and some glutes stretches are order of the day.

The major downside of the cold is that I’m missing out on sessions in the sauna – really important for getting my body ready for the higher temperatures in the desert. 

All in all not ideal, but I still know I can complete the distance, I might just have to take it a bit easier than I hoped.

Otherwise things are coming together.

Layout of most of the kit
Layout of most of the kit

I’m pretty organised with my kit, a few bits to finally sort out – needle and thread, some Pepperami wideboys that sort of thing. In general though I’m pretty happy. My total kit without water is going to come in around 7.5-8kg on the start line. Which is about where I wanted to be. Much closer on the weight limit of 6.5kg would mean I’d be calorie light – so this is a good compromise.

ECG heart trace
ECG heart trace

I got my medical certificate signed off. Due to the nature of the race an ECG is needed as well as a general check over from the GP. Despite it showing up some abnormalities my doctor was happy enough to sign me off as ok to go. The unusual trace shows Sinus brachycardia compatible with a bundle branch block, left ventricular hypertrophy with wide QRS and an insignificant Q wave in high lateral. Basically, compared to the normal person, I have a big, slow heart – quite common with people who exercise. Makes sense, running needs a big pump.

Dune training and kit testing
Dune training and kit testing

I also managed to get a short test in with my gaiters and shoes on some lovely, hard dunes. Really not looking forward to day 1 of the event…there seems to be a lot of dune work to come! 

Cooking, a teaspoon of cement and soup for the soul

So having just written an article about balancing training and life for Andy Mouncey  this week sucked a big one for training. 5am starts and at 11pm finishes meant for 5 days training wasn’t an option, and Saturday I was washed out totally so training was completely unappealing.

Saturday then, I put to checking out how my cook kit would work out for Marathon des Sables. I’ve got the equipment and fuel to under 200g for the race, but I really wanted to check that it’d work in the wind. I’m going to be eating dehydrated food, so need to get some heat into the water I’ll use for reconstitute. I’m using an Alpkit Mytimug  to cook in, an MSR Titan tool spoon, both of which I have used a good bit on different trips. But to get the weight down, and as I’m not going to be worried about speed I’m going for an Esbit titanium stove. That and some solid fuel tabs will see me through the race, tests show that 10 mins is what it takes to boil the right amount of water. I can wait whilst I’m recovering! The only thing I need to work on is the high performance wind shield – tin foil. Job done.

Last night I realised that work wasn’t going to be much better this week, I might get the chance to do a few 40 minute runs in the morning, but not much else. So although I woke up really tired, and it was miserable with wind and rain, I needed to head out for some kind of exercise. My ankle is taped at the moment because of a sore Achilles, so a long run would have been a bit daft, though it is getting to the point where I want to test it.

A long ride would be perfect. Took a metaphorical teaspoon of cement and went out. Got a category 2 climb  in and a bunch of category 3’s so the training effect is good.

Achilles KT taping.
Achilles KT taping.

What the ride has taken out of me physically, it has given me a whole load back mentally. So it was definitely worth it!

Packing it in

March training is going well, apart from this really cold weather. I’m trying to build my mileage slowly and steadily to get my leg better. That means cross training on a bike and all this snow is meaning I’m not getting as much time training as I’d like.

For my birthday I got a key bit of equipment for Marathon des Sable – my pack. I wanted to get this early on as it is the key bit of equipment, other than footwear, that can make the trip comfortable, or not. Bedding in time with this is really important.

Aarn Mountain Magic 33
Aarn Mountain Magic 33

I’d done a bit of research, I have a long back and I wanted something with easy access to front pockets so I can keep feeding easily. This is quite a unique set of requirements. The pack needs to be lightish, able to take 7 days of food, all the cooking and sleeping gear, mandatory kit (venom pump, first aid) and a few luxury items.

I’d tried a few packs from the normal contenders and one way or another there was something niggling. In the end I tried on an Aarn pack, and despite it having a fantastically complicated strap system it was really comfortable.

I’m a big fan of simplicity, especially when things can break. The idea of having to stitch, or bodge something back together in the middle of the desert isn’t massively appealing. However, being made in New Zealand I’m pretty confident that the kit will work really well, I haven’t had heaps of time with the pack yet, nor have I taken it out loaded up, but that will come pretty soon and I’ll write more.

I’ve settled for a Mountain Magic 33, probably a little bigger than I actually need, but the strapping system means that whether the sac is full or empty it carries just the same. So as I eat most of what I’m carrying I can reduce the pack size and stay comfortable.

I am a little worried about some of the cording on the front pockets, but I’ve got some time to hack it better, and that will probably involve some Sugru too. Mountain Marathon events will give me a chance, to load for multiday, run, camp, repack and generally get the pack to fit me well. I’m interested to see how the ventilation works-going to save me a really zitty back if it does!

To read more about some of the unique features of Aarn packs it’s worth having a read on their website.

2/26 2012in2012, Tikka, Brecon, and Brenig

The last two weeks have been hard getting the miles in, first of all really cold, then really windy, then really wet and then chilly again.

At least good kit means that the cold stay outside, though Mrs C was pretty “impressed” when I came home with little bits of frost on my shoulders. For impressed read that she thinks I’m a little unhinged but then she is a tropical flower by her own admission.

Work got in the way too with a few 16hr days so I’m pretty happy that in the last two weeks I’ve managed 94 miles 2916m of ascent. That means year to date is 219.4miles and 5679m of ascent which is 64.6 miles ahead of schedule.

This mornings run was really nice, I felt strong and the hills were easy. I’m happy with where I’m at right now.

I broke my old head torch (a Petzl Tikka) this last week too, it’s an old friend that has done some special trips with me, Alps, Scotland, Mountain Marathons, got me out of scrapes night riding and been around Morocco on a motorbike. I’ve replaced it with the updated Tikka XP 2 against alot of advice that the Myo XP is the way forward. I’ll do a little write up when I’ve put some miles in with it.

I had a trip to Brecon with work promoting the tourism opportunity for Paddlesports in Wales with Visit Wales. I had a few spare minutes and wandered along the canal. I’d never realised that Aberhonddu (Brecon) is the end of the Taff trail- I really like the topographical casting they have outside the Brycheiniog Theatre. I can feel a family trip coming on!

Today we managed to get out in brilliant weather to Llyn Brenig. I can’t being really frustrated when I visit places like Brenig on clear bright beautiful days. The fact that the lake is not being used is an absolute disgrace-not by choice but by restriction. Amazing resources that could be unlocked sensibly for no cost. They stayed locked up with objection on Health and Safety grounds and from others who aren’t prepared to share – neither of which sit comfortably with me.