I arrived in ultra-distance running from a fell running background and we fell runners are a very traditional bunch. Simplicity tends to be the name of the game. Regardless of the weather, we charged around the fells in only a singlet and a small bum bag with a spare jacket in, drinking from streams and eating just the odd bit of Kendal mint cake.
For me, the times have changed. Ultra marathon races (and many fell races) require you to carry a significant amount of emergency clothing and provisions, trail races often avoid the high fells where drinkable stream water may be available, it may be several hours before you can replenish vital food supplies and, when racing for many hours, you may experience a wide variety of weather conditions. For my first couple of years in ultra-racing, I persisted with my tried and tested system of a bum bag, which was fine for the slightly shorter distances but did not have the capacity for the long 100 mile races where the kit requirements are more significant.
I am, like most of you, particularly fussy about my requirements for a pack; enough capacity to accommodate all equipment without being tightly packed, minimal bounce, comfortable, particularly around the shoulders and waist, the ability to carry 2 500ml bottles and some small, easily accessible pockets to store trail snacks.
Until this year I have been happy to use my OMM bum bag or The North Face Enduro 13 pack, which I have alternated depending on the race. During this season I have had some stomach issues in races and have found the tight waist band on both of my normal options quite restricting, to the point where I felt it might have been slightly detrimental to my performance. Being the kit geek that I am, I had started to look around for an alternative. The general trend by the manufacturers now seems to go towards the race vests which generally have a tighter fit than a normal pack but avoid having a waste band. This seemed to fit the bill for what I wanted, however, many only seemed to use a water bladder and did not have the option for carrying bottles.
After many hours trawling the Internet, the pack that I kept coming back to was the Ultimate Direction Scott Jurek Signature Race Vest. This is the middle model in the Signature Race Vest Series, with the minimalist Anton Krupicka model and the bigger Peter Bakwin adventure pack slotting in either side of the SJ pack. Although I liked the look of AK pack, I felt that it was just a bit too small for some of the races I intend doing in the future.
On paper it seemed to tick all the right boxes; ability to carry bottles, a nice snug fit without any bounce, enough capacity for races like Lakeland 100 or UTMB and easy access to pockets without having to take the pack off. Getting the fit is very important and I spent some time trying on different sizes to make sure I was happy; I suggest you take along some full water bottles and some kit when trying the packs on as it feels very different when fully laden.
When I first got my hands on the SJ pack, a few things struck me immediately; it looks too small to fit in all the kit needed for some of the big 100 mile races, it is really light and it has a ridiculous amount of pockets.
I’m not going to go into all the technical detail here, if you want to know all about the materials, take a look at the Ultimate Direction website. All the edges of the pack, at the points where chaffing could occur, are all finished in a soft mole-hair type of fabric, which is nice and comfortable and means that there is not a single rough edge anywhere on the pack where it makes contact with the body. The majority of the contact material is described as Hex Mesh, which is non-elastic, breathable but does not absorb moisture. The “breathability” for a tight fitting pack such as this is a bit difficult to comment on as the pack, when full of kit it, makes you sweat a great deal anyway. On some of my first training runs with the pack, I did not use a pack liner and it was good to see that no sweat came through the material; the jackets inside the pack remained totally dry.
You wear the pack like a waistcoat, which is secured across the upper and lower chest by two straps with which you can control the tightness of the pack and which can be adjusted up and down the front of the chest. It took me four or five runs to finally find a comfortable set up with the straps on the front, constantly adjusting them as I ran. I also had a look at some pictures and video clips of others using the pack to see how they had their set up. I guess this is partly to do with the general shape of the pack, but there seems to an even three way split; some runners seem to prefer even tension across the two straps, some like to have the lower strap tighter with the vest more open across the upper chest and some, like myself, prefer to have the upper, slightly elasticated strap, a little bit tighter with the lower part of the pack more open. You pays your money and takes your choice. Just having the versatility is a bonus.
The main pack on the back is a two compartment affair. The top and sides are made from Cuben Fibre which is used in the making of sails, making it very light and but incredibly strong. The outer fabric is made from Power Mesh which is very stretchy, allowing you to compress small loads and accommodate large loads equally well. The main compartment and has a small compression cord built inside which can be used to stop small objects bouncing around. There is also a Velcro fastening for use with a bladder and a small hole in the side to allow the bladder drinking tube to pass out. It is important to get at least a jacket tucked behind the toggle of the compression strap to stop it rubbing on your back when running. This is fine when done before a run or race but is a little bit fiddly when trying to do mid-race.
|Inside main compartment with compression cord|
On the outside of the main compartment is a smaller compartment without any compression chords which can be used for quick access to kit during a race. On the outside of the pack is a laced compression cord which can be used to tighten the whole pack when small loads are being used, making the SJ vest an option for shorter races or those with less kit requirements. There are also options for carrying poles or an ice axe, neither of which I have tried yet but I fully intend to try the poles option later this winter.
|Back of pack showing compression cord|
This configuration on the back, and particularly the Power Mesh, means that you can fit in a great deal more kit and equipment than you would first imagine. I can certainly fit in all of my Lakeland 100 kit easier than I could in my The North Face Enduro 13 pack, when first looks suggest that this would not be the case.
Let’s talk the pockets. There are 14 pockets which you can access without taking the vest off (theoretically). Yes, 14! At the top of each chest strap is a Power Mesh pocket with a Velcro fastening, large enough for a phone or mp3 player, one of which has a built in a whistle to get you through a kit check. The majority of the chest straps are taken up with two bottle holders which have a bungee cord top to help secure the bottles and on either side have Power Mesh compartments which can be used for gels or similar. Below the bottle holders are two small horizontal pockets, one made from Power Mesh and one from Cuben Fibre, both with Velcro fastenings, which can be used for small items like electrolyte tablets. Finally, on the under arm sections of the pack are two Power Mesh zipped pockets and behind both of these are Velcro fastened Power Mesh pockets.
To the finish of the package, you also get 2 500ml drinks bottles with “kicker valves”.
In use, the pack has almost no bounce, even when the water bottles are full, which is a big improvement on my OMM bum bag. Over the summer I used the pack for all of my distance training including the long recces of the Ring O Fire race on Anglesey and then used the pack for all three days of the race itself. There is no doubt that this will be my pack of choice for ultra-racing from now on. It has so many options that you can use it for almost any occasion and I think that what most runners will do is adapt the pack to suit their own individual needs. Having drinks and food right there in the front of my face really helps with my nutrition and hydration during training and racing as it is a constant reminder to look after myself. I have settled on a configuration that suits my needs , whereby I user a water bottle on one side of the vest and use the other water bottle holder as a large pouch for gels, bars and even a camera, this gives very easy access to all I need.
I have not, however, been able to get on with the Ultimate Direction drinks bottles with the kicker valves. I find the plastic a little bit too hard and have struggled to use the valves to any great effect. I much prefer to have a softer plastic bottle which I can simply squeeze to get the water into my mouth. I know that many others really rave about the kicker valves and I guess I may not be doing the correct technique, but one of the advantages of the pack is that you can use whichever bottles you like as it is a universal fit. To give me even more options with regard to hydration, I have also brought some “soft flasks” (only a few £’s from Trespass, both 330ml and 500ml) which I can use either in the front bottle holders or place in the back of the pack for emergencies. I’m still working on how best to use these.
|Soft flasks from Trespass|
The mesh pockets on the side of the bottle holders are very snug when the bottles are in place which can make it difficult to get gels in and out. I have tended to use these just to put bits of rubbish in which I can then dispose of easily at a checkpoint. The small horizontal pockets at the bottom of the chest straps are very useful, particularly for my electrolyte tablets.
The side pockets are amazingly spacious. You can get food and even small items of clothing into these pockets and I have been using them for those items which you don’t need all of the time but may need quick access to in an emergency like Buff, gloves and small Pertex jacket, along with further trail snacks. My only real problem with the pack is that these under arm pockets are a little bit too far back. For some reason, I am just about able to access the left hand side on the go, whilst I have no joy at all on the right; I have to undo the chest straps and slide the pack round to gain access on the right. During my outings so far, this has not been an issue and may only be a minor inconvenience at other times. It is possible that (with the number of injuries I have had over the years) that I have some restricted movement in my right shoulder or elbow which is preventing access. Even so, it is still a struggle on the left hand side and I wonder whether others have had this same problem with the pack? I just make sure that any items I want very quick access to are placed up front, and those items I require less, I put in the side pockets. The ultra-marathons I have done so far have had aid stations or support no further than 3 hours apart which means I can have all of my provisions up- front ready for quick access, if you have longer periods between support, these side pockets may be more of an issue for you, but you are only talking about a few seconds to swing the pack round to gain access. Not an issue for me personally.
|Under-arm side pockets|
I must admit that I don’t have much experience with other race vests, though I have used the Mountain Hardwear Fluid Race Pack, which I really like but it does not have the same up-front options and has a little “bottle bounce” when compared to the Ultimate Direction pack. I get the impression that many of the race vests on the market are designed for use with a bladder or specially designed drinks bottles which give you less options. What I really like about the Ultimate Direction pack is that it allows me to pick and choose how I configure the pack and what I would like to add to it; I am not tied to how the designer imagined it would be used.
It will be interesting to see how the design of these race vests develop over the next few years as every manufacturer produces and then further develops their own designs. What I do know is that my neck, shoulders and stomach are far happier bunnies now that I'm wearing this pack; at least until the next new thing comes along ;-)