Friday, 19 February 2016

Safety and the "Mandatory Kit"

Always plenty of threads on Facebook. Runner X asks whether this bit of lightweight kit will pass the inspection, Runner Y says don't be daft, take something heavier or you'll die, so the debate begins, you'll have seen it. Most races of any length these days have a mandatory kit list, some of which makes sense, some which doesn't, so I thought it might be interesting to tease out what is going on here and how we might approach the subject with a bit of objectivity. My views as always, I don't expect everyone to agree, but it's one of those subjects which as well as being good for a bit of pub discussion, covers areas where some sensible choices could give you a much better race experience, and might just keep you alive.

If you continue reading you'll have to indulge me for a bit while I ramble over a couple of climbing anecdotes  -  I know they come up far too frequently in what's supposed to be a running blog but it was how I spent my formative years and I think the two pastimes are not really so far apart in many ways.

In my second or third Alpine season, four of us went out to climb the South Ridge of the Aiguille Noire de Peuterey, a classic, not too difficult but very long and committing rock climb on the south side of Mont Blanc. The normal starting place is an unguarded but comfortable and well-equipped hut 2 or 3 hours walk up from the Peuterey valley road. From here, our guidebook gave 12-16 hours for the ascent and 4-6 hours for the descent by the East Ridge back to the hut. Those sort of times suggested a bivvy was likely, so we took the gear and decided to bivvy anyway. We left the valley around lunchtime, ignored the hut, bivvied about a third of the way up the South Ridge and again about half-way down the descent of the East Ridge, getting back to the valley about 48 hours after leaving it. On our second ("summit") day, we were passed by two Swiss climbers. They had stayed at the hut, were travelling light and fast (I guess they had just a waterproof, spare sweater and lunch in their sacks), and would make it back to the hut for a second comfortable night's sleep. They too spent a total of 48 hours away from the valley but their experience was completely different from ours. Who had the most fun? Who was the safest? Discuss.

A few years later, I went with a friend to another climb in the same area, the Gugliermina Pillar on the Aiguille Blanche, a more difficult and rather more remote climb, approached from the Monzino Hut over the Col de l'Innominata and the very tortuous Freney Glacier, a 4 hour trip landing you on some ledges (the Schneider Ledges) at the foot of the face. Our English guidebook recommended a bivvy at this point and said that "a confident party can leave their bivouac gear here and return to it in a day".  But we had been talking to a French guide who said the trip was now considered possible from the Monzino, back in a long day without a bivouac. So that's what we attempted, but we ran out of steam and daylight on the Col de l'Innominata on the return trip, resulting in a pretty chilly bivvy at over 10,000ft  with just a sweater and a polybag. But we survived OK.

I had numerous other experiences along these lines as we gradually worked out how to conduct ourselves effectively and safely around the mountains, but the conclusions I eventually came to were pretty simple:

- if you take enough gear to survive, then you will survive, though it may not be comfortable
- if you take enough gear to bivvy comfortably, then it will slow you down and you will probably bivvy, even if by travelling lighter you could have got back in the day
- lighter is faster, and faster is safer - you are exposed for less time to all the objective dangers inherent in mountains (rock and ice fall, weather changes, etc), and are less likely to yield to dehydration, energy deficit and poor decision making which are often the results of being out too long.

But how is this relevant to running ultra events and the "mandatory kit list"? Well, stay with me and hopefully it will become clearer as we go.

To start with, what's the big deal with keeping everything as light as you possibly can? Well, if you don't believe it's important, try a little experiment. Find a nice bit of trail that you run regularly, something like 5 miles with maybe 1000ft of height gain would be good. Run it carrying nothing, then again carrying 2kg, then again with 4kg (and possibly even 6kg, judging by the packs I see some runners carrying!) You'll find difference in effort required is fairly dramatic. And you're going to see that difference over many hours. It's the difference between dancing over boulders or trudging between them. The difference between an uphill feeling like a welcome rest from running or an obstacle to be overcome. And it works like this for everyone, whether you're at the front of the field or the back. Take some weight out and you will be faster everywhere; that's less time for something to go wrong. If you really want to enjoy your races with a good safety margin, carrying the minimum you actually need is important. 

While we're on the subject of keeping weight down, have a think about food. Many races nowadays have well-stocked, or maybe even just adequately stocked, checkpoints. For quite a few years I carried a lot of my own food but even a few energy bars, gels, or whatever you think powers you along can add up to serious weight. I've now come to the conclusion that if someone's happy to take it round the course for me, why should I bother with the extra weight? Just get a bit less picky about what you eat, it's all calories.

The key to weight is that it's cumulative. You can convince yourself that each bit of extra kit or food doesn't weigh much, because probably it doesn't. But add all those little bits together and it becomes significant. Conversely, take little bits of weight out wherever you can and that adds up too  - Kaizen for ultra runners. Weigh your pack before each race, you'll know when you're getting it right.

Anyway, on to the mandatory kit.

There are two lists of kit that you have to consider when packing your bag for an ultra, (a) the kit that the Race Director says you have to take, and (b) the kit that you believe is appropriate for the task in hand, based on your experience and judgement. These lists will not necessarily be the same. During the race you have two responsibilities, (a) to carry the mandatory kit (if not you break the rules of the event), and (b) to make sure that you stay safe. Again, these are not necessarily the same thing.

I'm always surprised when I hear someone say that such-and-such bit of kit is with them on all their events; I prefer to consider each event in its own right, using a sort of mental checklist:

- what is the terrain like?
- how long do I expect to be out?
- what is the weather going to be like? (forecasts are pretty accurate for at least a couple of days)
- how close together are the checkpoints?
- are the checkpoints indoors or outdoors?
- what can I expect at checkpoints ? (no point in carrying food and drink if someone is going to supply water and jelly babies every two hours or so)
- what degree of navigation is required? (and how well do I already know the course)
- how remote is the course? (from roads, towns, etc)
- how big is the field (proximity of other runners, etc)
- if I am forced to slow down, what will my strategy be?
- if I am forced to stop, what will my strategy be?

Asking these questions helps me to decide exactly what kit I would take if there were no restrictions. Clearly what's good for one race may be completely inappropriate for another. For a 30 mile trip on a nice day with frequent and well-stocked checkpoints, I may be happy to carry nothing (though of course the rules may dictate otherwise). For a lengthy trip across the mountains with no support I may want to carry items that are well in excess of the mandatory list. 

Now let me be clear that I would never argue with any Race Director about his particular list - it's his right to make it a condition of his race and I will always make sure that I have everything stipulated. I won't need any clarification on the items that I agree with and see a real reason for, but I will go as lightweight as possible ("skimp" if you like) on the items which my personal strategy says that I will never use. So let's have a look at the sort of things that appear on many mandatory lists, and why they might be there, and if they are in fact useful.

Waterproofs seem to figure pretty well everywhere these days so lets start here.

Waterproof Jacket. I wrote a complete post on this a while ago if you're interested (My Waterproof Jacket Leaks). But basically, you wear a waterproof not to keep you dry (you'll be wet anyway from sweat) but to keep you warm, because water transmits heat from your body much more efficiently than air. I've never understood the logic behind taped seams  -  the fraction of a percent a non-taped seam might let in seems irrelevant alongside the water you're generating internally. Likewise a hood; if you have a waterproof hat that covers your ears I'm not sure what it's for. I have one  jacket with a hood for races that require it, and several without for all other occasions. But what is key is having the proofing in good condition, you need the outer layer shedding droplets fast rather than wetting out, that's the way to stay warm. So I'm a bit cynical that paying a lot more for "quality" is worthwhile, it more than likely goes into styling and gizmos. I have an OMM smock, not because I think it's any more waterproof but because I like the stretchy non-rustling material. But in general there is no reason not to go as light as you can get, so long as it doesn't shred on every tree you brush past The only exception I would make to this is for an event where long periods of pretty nasty weather are likely, ie races where you are going to wear a jacket for long periods  -  such as the UTMB/TDG with a bad forecast, or the Spine Race. In these conditions I would go with a lined mountain jacket - even a thin mesh lining has a significant impact on the heat transfer so is a much warmer system. I know I've gone on a bit about this but having a jacket that you have confidence in is for me one of the most important factors in staying warm and safe.

Waterproof Trousers. I've never worn these against rain, only against wind, so I personally would be happy with windproof. But almost every RD stipulates waterproof/taped so I go with a cheap as chips version as light and compact as possible  -  I'm currently using Peter Storm which I think were about £15. If I ever get around to justifying the cost I would probably go with OMM for the stretch and quietness; I'm sure one pair would last me the rest of my running career.

Now for the ancilliaries that you may need for various types of race, due to the time of year, duration, weather uncertainties and so on.

Hats. To keep you warm or to keep the sun off. Apart from the UTMB which specifies both because extremes of temperature there are the norm, there doesn't seem to be a lot of logic in what is included as mandatory and why, so I  go with what suits me and it normally passes OK. If I take a warm hat I prefer a waterproof fleece-lined cap style with ear flaps that you can turn up and a peak that clips back when you're wearing a torch. No heavier than a beanie and much more versatile.

Gloves. Again, I think only the UTMB specifies waterproof, but unless its just for the early morning of a low-level summer affair, I think if it's worth taking gloves then it's crazy unless they (or at least your complete hand covering system) is waterproof. I have on several occasions had to open rucksacks for runners whose fingers were too numb to operate because their gloves had got soaked. Once you get to that stage, if you're a distance away from civilisation then things can get nasty quite quickly.

Torch. I would only take one torch on an event where I knew its use was going to be limited to a couple of hours or so. Beyond that, it's a no-brainer for me, always take two.  Torches fail or run out of battery in the dark. Even if it's not raining or blowing a gale, that's not the time to be fiddling around fitting new batteries, or worse trying to see what's gone wrong. Get your second torch out, click it on and you're back in action. Conversely, I see people with huge torches projecting lighthouse-like beams; the weight of a single one of these is far heavier than the two I carry. Unless you're a top-end performer wanting to cover really technical ground fast, I say go with the light you need, not with the brightest available.

Well, so far all of this is stuff you will probably use a lot, and probably not too controversial. But now we come to the two areas where a badly thought-out mandatory list can make life hard for you. These are firstly hydration and secondly stuff you may need if something goes wrong.

I really don't get why so many races specify a minimum quantity of liquid to be carried. This figure can take no account of the facts that different runners have different fluid requirements, these requirements vary with conditions, and water is often readily available on the course at frequent intervals, either at checkpoints or naturally occurring in streams, etc. Water is really heavy; you can work hard to pare off 50g here and there from the weight you have to carry then you have an arbitrary kilo (or more!) added for no good reason. Some events take a more sensible view. The Round Rotherham race is 50 miles but has no fluid specification, and  with checkpoints no more than 10 miles apart on a flattish course I have never carried a water bottle. Similarly the Lakeland 50/100 events; frequent checkpoints and water available almost everywhere in the Lakes anyway means you don't need more than a single 500ml bottle unless conditions are extremely hot. What would be much more useful would be for organisers on other events to flag up where water is available and let runners make their own decisions on how much to carry - as it is I suspect many people will fill up for the kit check then pare down to a level they think is sensible once out on the course.

As a little aside here, I'm amazed at the number of runners who carry conventional sport "water bottles". A typical brand will weigh in at around 60-70g for a 500ml bottle, whereas the weight of a typical PET soft drink bottle (Oasis, Powerade, etc) is 25g and will last perfectly well for the duration of a 2 or 3 day race.

Now let's get to the kit that causes the most debate - stuff that you hope you won't have to use but you carry in case something goes wrong. 

I don't understand the First Aid Kit thing. These are often specified in some detail  - the  trouble is that the details are different from race to race. Some ask for blister treatment - I don't get blisters. Some ask for wound dressings, some for various bits of bandage and so on. I'm not sure that they've thought through what all this is going to be used for. I'm happy with a few paracetamol and a metre or so of adhesive elastic tape (yes, this is one that I think the UTMB guys have definitely got right) This bit of kit will do sprains, cuts, grazes and plenty else beside. You don't need a knife or a pair of scissors to cut it, a Stanley blade wrapped in a bit of insulating tape weighs almost nothing. 

But minor trauma that can be fixed with your first aid kit is not your main or most likely problem. The thing most likely to spoil your day is simply that you get cold.

How does this happen?

The probable starting point is that you slow down more than you intended. You might have sustained a minor injury, sore muscles or blisters may be slowing movement, you may have food or digestion problems, or you may simply be too tired to go any faster. You may even slow down because you're carrying too much stuff! Whatever the cause, you slow down. You stop generating as much heat as you were when you were going faster so you start to get cold. This is not a race-threatening situation...... yet. You need to put more clothes on. If it's not raining, you put your waterproof jacket on and that retrieves the situation, you can carry on to the next checkpoint and re-appraise your strategy at that point. But if it's already raining and you get cold, what then? What are you carrying thanks to the mandatory list that might help. A space blanket? Well, you could wrap it around you for a bit of extra warmth to the CP (it has been done) but then it's probably game over. An emergency bivvy bag? Ditto, but you're not going to stop, the situation doesn't feel that serious, you'll wrap it around you and carry on. A spare base layer? Well, once you're in the rain and cold, the presence of mind and determination it takes to take everything you have on off, before putting on another layer in the pouring rain, should not be underestimated. The chances are you won't bother, you'll struggle on possibly hypothermic until hopefully you reach the next bit of civilisation and then stop.

If you can foresee a situation in a particular event where what you see as your normal running kit won't keep you warm when walking, then you need something you can put on quickly and easily and that gives you some real insulation, and in which you can continue your race. A light fleece or a primaloft smock will do this  -  and neither of these is likely to weigh more than 300g, less than a third of the compulsory litre of water someone wants me to carry. On a race of any real length in anything other than a perfect weather forecast, I wouldn't go without one or the other, I think it has more value than many of the "mandatory" items you have to carry. It's interesting to see that just this week Jon Steele has added a Blizzard Survival Jacket to his mandatory list for the sometimes wintry Hardmoors 55 as an alternative to the bivvy bag. I don't have one but I think it's a sound move. When we were young and inexperienced we took sleeping bags to bivvy in the Alps; with more experience we progressed to bivvying in duvet jackets with our feet in our rucksacks  -  a bit more uncomfortable at night but you can't climb in a sleeping bag.

From the above you can see that my personal attitude towards dealing with and ultimately surviving an unplanned situation is to keep moving towards safety for as long as you possibly can. Get lower, get to more shelter, get to the next checkpoint, but keep moving. This is improving the situation you're in. Unless you absolutely have to, stopping before you've reached a place where you can regroup and warm up is bad news, things are unlikely to improve if you do. So I believe your safety kit should be geared to support this strategy.

OK, very occasionally you may be faced with a situation when you genuinely can't move - though short of breaking a leg I can't think what it would be (I'm assuming that action in more serious incidents such as a heart attack is likely to be out of your hands). This is the situation that your emergency bivvy bag is for (space blankets are for the finish of city marathons in my opinion and have no place in an ultra-runner's bag). I can't really argue with that, and at 100g for the most modern ones it seems a light enough insurance policy. The stuff you brought for keeping warm while moving will still work inside it and your backpack will give you a bit of ground insulation. But it probably won't be much fun.

To wrap up, my philosophy for kit can be easily distilled into three rules:

1. Don't argue with the mandatory list
2. Really work at going as light as you can
3. Emergency kit should keep you mobile, not make you stop.

So as I said at the start, my views, I don't expect everyone to agree but I have reasoned them through to myself over the years to my own satisfaction. I haven't gone into the more esoteric items on the mandatory lists of races like the Spine, which present different challenges. I have my views here too but they're probably of less general interest than what I've covered above.

As a well-known runner and race organiser is often heard to say "Let's have fun and stay safe out there!"


Paul said...

Very well thought out as usual. Carrying water is my particular bugbear. I would be interested in more detail about the jacket you recommend for UTMB.

Steph said...

Nicely put, the hill running community have been revising safety standards over the last couple of years along similar lines to your thoughts following the Belfield fatal accident enquiry.

Re hats vs attached hoods, hats can get blown away, not so important in some ultras but more common in hill races:)

Unknown said...

Great post.

I share the same opinion that your emergency kit should be gearedtowards helping you move towards safety should something go wrong rather than staying stil and waiting for rescue.

My first trail ultra race I carried a ridiculously huge bag and although comfortably fit enough to run the 62 mile course, the cumulative effect of carrying lots of what if I need it items took its toll and I ended up with a DNF, mainly because I'd moved a lot slower along the course than expected. The other thing this led to was seriously dodgy decision making on the clothes front.

By the last indoor CP it was already dark and I was still in shorts and T Shirt. I was so close to the cut off, that I CHOSE not to layer up on a mildish night.

A few hours later when I was slowed to a walk and decided to bail out, I was very cold and I later identified early hypothermia symptoms in my behaviour. Luckily, my always move to safety attitude had caused me to make the decision at a place where I knew I could reach a warm pub and await pickup from the RD.