Sunday 6 April 2014

Dress for Success

As a runner who enjoys most types of racing, I often wonder what sits behind the decisions so many of us make when selecting our training and racing attire.  Go to a fell race in pretty much any weather, and you'll find at least half the field wearing the minimum to protect their decency, next to some runners who are set for an expedition to the poles.  Generally, the difference is easily explained by the expected amount of heat generated on the ups and just how much/little will be lost on the downs.

At trail ultras, on the other hand, the motto seems to be "more is more".  It struck me last year, looking through all the snaps of the Cotswold Way Century, that the runners looked pretty hot early on (it was a warm day).  On closer inspection, I noticed most of them were wearing several layers.  The correlation seemed pretty obvious.  So, I've been keeping an eye out to see whether it was a one-off or part of a wider trend.

I hope a lot of these guys are prepping for the MDS! Not a lot of skin, plenty of layering, and the start is in 5 minutes.
My trip to the Eco-Trail de Paris might have been a little skewed, since it often acts as a last kit test for the MdS, but again, on a warm day relative to the season, there were a lot of extra layers on.  Considering the heat impact a standard pack has, or the even larger influence of many of the current design of race vests, I get the feeling a lot of runners are dressing for the pre-race standing about, rather than for running.

How many of these runners know it's one of the warmest days of the year so far?

Looked cold, but I was burning up, with far too much clothing on. Doh!
If I take this picture of my third trail marathon as an example, you can see I'm sweating heavily, and don't have much option left with the top I'm wearing other than to remove it.  It was about 5C out, and my Montane shirt was great pre-race, with a t-shirt on top (hanging soggiily at my waist only 7mi in).  I could have stripped off, put on my t-shirt, and carried on.  The problem, though, was that as soon as I got around the corner, I'd be facing a headwind, shuffling across Chesil Beach, and my temp would drop like a stone.  These hot/cold kind of days make it very difficult, because the trail conditions don't always encourage consistent effort.  Sometimes, you just can't run hard enough to stay warm.

May 2, 2010 - one of the coldest runs of my life.
I'd suggest that over-clothing is usually the result of a previous under-clothing event.  My first trail marathon was in early May. Sunshine, blue skies, beautiful views?  Not in England, my friends.  Rain, more rain, then some driving wind and a bit more rain.  By the end of the race, I was wearing my vest (newbie error), waterproof, and spare windproof gilet.  Oh, and I was freezing.  Turned out to be about 4 degrees on the hills.

So, back to the prevalence of over-dressing at trail ultras.  What possesses us to wear layers we won't need until dark at the start of a long race?  Is it down to fear of being cold?  Perhaps the inability to find further space in the pack for that extra windproof (it works on airplanes, so why not at races)?

Another hot day, but plenty of extra layers here, too.
After Rocky Raccoon, I decided to stop wearing my compression calf-guards.  Having had calf and ankle issues consistently through the past 6 years, I'd become psychologically reliant on the idea that they'd hold me together.  At Rocky, though, I realized that mostly they were keeping my legs warm on a day when I wanted to cool down.

At the ETP, I couldn't see the front-runners, but I definitely didn't see a lot of skin on show around me.  Socks up to the knees, shorts down to the knees, longish short sleeves, long sleeves, long-sleeved compression tops, full tights, windbreakers - anything and everything that could possibly keep the heat from escaping seemed to be on show.

Why did I choose a vest for the ETP?  The temperature was due to be around 20C, and we've not seen a lot of that in northern Europe this year, plus it was going to be sunny, and there's not usually a lot of wind in the trees to help keep one cool.  Was I worried about losing a lot of skin? Not really.  The 24 miles I'd done in a similar vest 8 weeks ago was very comfortable from that angle.  I did have to make some adjustments because of the heavier pack, and would have preferred the protection of a t-shirt, but not enough to put on the long-sleeve top I had in the pack for the cool of the night.  Even when the weather cooled, I was happier to use the opportunity to run faster and generate more heat than I'd have been to keep the slower pace in the warmer top, even with a little less rubbing on my shoulder.

I often think that pace judgement is one of the hardest part of endurance running.  Sometimes, when I look around a bit, I see that dressing for the temperature around your body, and not the one in your mind, is often a key factor in how the race will go.  Soon, we'll all be sporting our skimpy summer gear on our mid-week runs, enjoying the feeling of sun on skin.  Then, come the long run on the weekend, I wonder just how many will adopt the "more is more" method and wonder why it all felt so slow and difficult.  Maybe, if you're worried about getting cold or chaffing, pop a spare shirt in the pack to ease your mind, and let all that skin do what it was designed to do in the first place?

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