As a dedicated gear fiend I have managed to find more essential gear that I can’t live without. One looks set to become an expensive addiction, the other fills an excellent gap in my arsenal.
Paramo Valez Adventure Light Smock
Not a name that will ever roll off the tongue, I was put onto the Valez after booking what is expected to be a cold wet night out looking for SI boxes spread about the Peak District: a.k.a. Dark Mountains. Partnering up with Braddan Johnson, who took part in the original event (see here for accounts), he told me the only survivors of the event to get around almost without exception wore this jacket. Whilst everybody else struggled with the conditions and hyperthermia the Valez wearers shrugged it off and cracked on. My reservation over the jacket was the sheer weight of it – my other waterproof weighs a little over 100g so 585g and multiple layers of fabric seemed a bit extreme. I was also concerned about it ‘wetting out’ and just becoming a heavy sodden lump on me if I’m out in a sustained downpour. A quick exchange with Joe Faulkner of Nav4 sealed the deal as a recommendation from Joe on kit is the best I know of.
Why buy it when I have a perfectly good waterproof jacket in the fab Montane Minimus Smock? Well it’s all about cold weather and extreme rain (something of a good purchase given the 2014 weather so far). Wear this jacket to run in at more than 5 degrees and you’re gonna get hot, there is plenty of ventilation with two huge zips at the front of the jacket, but if it’s pouring with rain that kinda defies the point. It is the perfect jacket for biking though and thus I can see why it’s the number one choice for adventure racers (Joe assures me it is also very comfortable to sleep in :))
Having tried and relied upon various fabrics over the years I’ve found that the membrane layered systems such as GoreTex don’t really shift the sweat fast enough. Great for walking, but moving swiftly across a mountain side and I find myself wet through… still warm, but wet through. My experience so far with the Paramo is that it shifts the sweat much quicker or at least appears to. It’s far more comfortable as a result and given the warmth of the garment even if I were to get a little wet I don’t fear a sudden chill down like I do in other jackets.
In the field I wore it for the Tour De Helvellyn 2013. The forecast was 70-90 mph winds and persistent rain. In the end I’d say it was 50 gusting to 70 and I had about 20 minutes of rain, so not the extensive test I was consoling myself I would get for entering such a race, but a test all the same. The forecast for the temperature was to feel like -14, I’ve no idea what it actually got to, but I wore a single short sleeved compression style skin top underneath and a pair of shorts for the race. I was toasty all the way around. I got a sweat on going up Sticks pass which I could feel on my arms and I felt a little wet in the jacket (arms only), but 5 minutes after reaching the top I felt totally dry again. In previous jackets I’d have been soaked to the skin way before Sticks through sweat; in short, very impressed at the breathe-ability.
In the rain the jacket more than stood up to the elements and didn’t wet out. Not the best test though as the rain whilst heavy only lasted ~20 minutes. Enough to give me confidence in the jacket though. I’ll update this once I’ve had a nice 8 hour down pour in it!
Hood – I find the hood is spacious but can be pulled tight easily enough, it also doesn’t flap in the wind which is one of the things that really gets my goat as you’re not only battling the wind, but also being strangled too, so very happy with that side of things. The zip on the front comes half way down and provides plenty of ventilation in addition to two half zips which come up from the bottom on either side. Obviously for venting and they are two way, but I can’t see why I’d ever unzip from the bottom… a slightly odd system. To top it off it has an enormous kangaroo pocket which is very handy but…
The pocket does get wet as moisture is transferred from the layer against the skin and tries to escape via the pocket it obviously cools and makes for a damp pocket. This is no different to any other jacket, but it is a little disappointing of course.
Temperature, only really for cold outings, It’s a perfect cycling jacket, but running in it means it’s only really suitable for cold outings, but I have my minimus smock for the warmer ones, so for me this jacket complements the minimus to make up my arsenal. If the temperature has a minus sign then it’s the valez, otherwise it’s the minimus.
Cuffs – in order for you to be able to tighten your cuffs with your teeth they are reversed, frankly I find this a real pain. If you are left handed I’m sure it’s a boon, but I just find it really awkward and if I had a magic wand (or the ear of Paramo) I’d change these to be a standard cuff.
Price – Retail it’s £190, but a quick google comes up with £165 or hit ebay paramoseconds or paramoextras for a bargain. I paid £125 as the jacket had been used once for a photo shoot then back to the factory for a re-proof; i.e., it was like new.
If you’re doing something cold, adventure race or bike a lot in winter then this is the right tool for the job.
X-Bionic Running Shorts
For quite some time I’ve been interesting in trying out some of the kit from this top end manufacturer, but haven’t been able to convince myself to part with the cash when I know there are other products that work for me but are half the price. X-bionic make a huge number of claims about their products, each one takes half an hour to read about the patents and there is more marketing jargon than any other product I come across. The big question for me was whether it actually worked.
Following the chaffing issues I had on the L100 I knew I had to do something. Sweat had become a real issue. I already used Kinesio tape on my “bikini line” to avoid chafing and would religiously apply if I was doing anything over 20 miles. I also wear skins shorts which I find really good, but they do get wet and don’t shed the water particularly well. Combine that with a standard pair of cotton pants and the chaffing was brutal.
Chatting with Simon Robinson (X-Bionic Rep for UK) post L100 resulted in a generous offer of an ex-demo pair to try out. All I can say is that I now look for x-bionic offers everywhere I go! The shorts themselves are without doubt the most comfortable shorts I have ever worn. They are just like my skins in as much as they stop just short of the knee and whilst they don’t offer as much compression as the skins (probably because I have a large rather than medium pair) they seem to keep the muscles in place very well.
So to the sweat test. Ok, if you’re expecting miracles from all the patents then you’ll be disappointed, at the end of the day whatever you wear will need to absorb the moisture before releasing it so it will still feel wet to the touch on the outside, but the crucial fact is I don’t bother to tape up any more as all chaffing issues have gone. Naturally I need to test them in hotter conditions like we had on the L100, but I’m totally confident that there isn’t a more effective product out there. So yes they cost £70, but a pair will last a very long time and in ultras the right kit is the right kit! I know I’d have paid £70 not to be chaffing where the sun don’t shine. I have also combined the shorts with the start fitness own brand sports briefs. Since rocking this combination I’ve completely eliminated the issue. Thus in my acid test of gear; i.e., would I buy another pair if I lost/ wore them out? The answer is yes, in a heartbeat!
X-Bionic Energiser 2 Long sleeve
I purchased this at 30% off as a replacement for my ever ageing (7 years and counting) icebreaker tops I use when it’s really cold. To be fair to my icebreakers they have been used and abused as I lived in them for a year whilst travelling and have worn them to death ever since. They can get heavy though when I’m working hard as they do hold the moisture. The Energiser has all the sweat traps, air conditioning channels, 3D Bionic Sphere chest, etc. it’s rated as warm and boy does it perform. It’s got excellent compression, comfort and everything is articulated and supported where it needs to be. It is sooooooooooo comfortable I just feel ready for action once I’ve got it on.
Initially I doubted how warm it would be, but I found myself ditching my windstopper smock within minutes of starting out. I then feared I’d get too hot, but again once at temperature it appeared to manage it very well indeed. With the garment being so figure hugging there is nowhere to hid in it, but it also feels like an extension of your skin so it’s my go to warm layer. I’ve also picked up a bargain on sports pursuit for a short sleeve top and again it’ll be my go to ultra top – I wore it under my paramo for the TdH along with my sample shorts and that was it. Despite the extreme weather I always felt super comfortable and like my temperature was being managed by the garments.
X-Bionic in general
Would I pay full price? Yes. Am I a convert to X-Bionic? Yes. Do I think some of their garments are bonkers? Yes. In terms of durability and overall value for money I think it is high despite the price tag. They are comparable in price to a merino top; e.g., icebreakers and they offer so much more than a standard compression top. The products are backed by a 2 year guarantee and in my experience when gear just works then it’s worth the price tag. Keep eyes peeled for web bargains, bite the bullet and buy them, you won’t regret it.
Whilst training for the Bob Graham I ran into a real problem. Frozen feet. When your feet have no feeling it reduces your speed and drastically increases the chance of injury. Fell and mountain running your feet get wet, there are no two ways about it and in winter it can be excruciating. Until now I’ve used Seal Skins to counter this issue and whilst they don’t keep your feet dry they do keep them warm. Enter DryMax socks. Sam Robson provides a more extensive review here if you want the details. Essentially they work by using that fibres that don’t absorb water so whilst your feet still get wet, they dry out quickly and with the winter socks, they are nice and thick to ensure warmth. I wouldn’t go back to Seal skins now, if it’s cold and wet then I reach for the DryMax.