Susitna 100 - gear that worked and gear that didn't

The Susitna 100 was a huge venture into the unknown for me. The distance far eclipsed anything I had run before and the weather and trail conditions were more hostile than what I had trained in and what I'm used to. I learnt a lot of things along the way and have a multitude of ideas for gear that I'd keep, change or leave behind when it comes time for the next winter ultra.

What worked
  1. Running gloves and mittens: This was a perfect combination of hand gear. My Nike running gloves worked well during the day to keep my hands warm, to handle my gear and to protect my fingers from the wind. I learnt after taking them off once that I shouldn't ever expose my fingers so I was happy to have a pair of gloves to provide more dexterity than mittens only. When the temperature dipped, putting mittens over the gloves worked great to provide another layer of insulation. My mittens were not wind proof, but they didn't need to be as the running gloves had that covered. When it got really cold I put a hand warmer in my mittens and my hands were in a comfy, happy place all night.
  2. Running shoes: I used Salomon Speedcross 2 running shoes. They were fantastic! I didn't get cold feet at any point, my feet felt dry the whole way and I never had any trouble with grip on the snow. No blisters and no frostbite was an unusual experience amongst the runners so I'd definitely use these shoes again.
  3. Petzl head lamp: It might seem weird, but I love my head lamp. It is bright, lasts through the whole night and is hardly noticeable. What more could you ask of a headlamp? I could see every step of the way during the night (when my eyes were open!) and it felt like I wasn't carrying any extra weight.
  4. Wigwam socks: Great socks that were warm, long enough to ensure there were no spaces between my clothes and didn't give me any blisters.
  5. First Ascent down jacket: Another great piece of kit. I put this on as my first defense against the cold and it was ideal. I was warm and cozy all night long and paired with an extra wind layer this was ideal to get me through a long afternoon on a windy river. It also packed down light and small when I needed to put it away during the day.
  6. Dried fruit, chips and chocolate: This was all easy to eat, didn't freeze and tasted great. All items that I'd take along again.
  7. iPod shuffle: My monkey shuffle doesn't weigh too much and when I put on a great playlist from V during a tough section and during the night it more than contributed for it's weight. The shuffle really really helped get me through a tough first evening so definitely on the list of successfuly gear.
  8. Balaclava: I tried all combinations of beanie, scarf and other head gear and the balaclava was hands down the best option to keep the heat in. During the day I kept my whole face exposed and left my beanie off and during the night I added a beanie and scarf. This is a perfect, versatile piece of winter gear that I wouldn't be without.
  9. Spare water bottle: As suggested gear, I thought about not taking anything. But when my hydration pack froze, this was my lifeline at the checkpoints. I used the bottle to mix Perpetuum with boiling water and the large opening made it easy to spoon out the slush when it started to freeze again. I think that having separate bottles is the key to fast turnarounds at the checkpoints and for mixing drinks.

What didn't work
  1. Perpetuum and amphipod flask: I trained on Perpetuum and found it to be a fantastic source of fuel to keep me going with all the necessary carbohydrates and protein. In all my long training runs it worked well and seemed to be the simplest and easiest way to look after my nutrition. Unfortunately during the race it was far too cold and using liquid nutrition was a disaster because it froze before even an hour into the race. I did use boiling water and Perpetuum at the checkpoints and I think that it helped, but the combination of small amphipods and liquid fuel were not right for this race.
  2. Sled design: My sled was a simple home made design that worked sufficiently. However, I saw some much better design features that I would like to have had. A lower, longer and narrower sled would have helped in the rough conditions where my sled turned over and probably produces less drag. Putting the sled on runners also looked like it resulted in less friction and a smoother ride. Finally, I liked the idea of a single pole attaching the sled to your body to allow enough play and movement without affecting running stride.
  3. Stuff sacks: On my sled I used stuff sacks to hold my gear. They held everything together and most importantly I could access and find all my gear. However, there were a number of much better solutions that I saw out on the course. A bag with zips or the most impressive, a sewn-in cover for the sled, would be much easier to get into with cold hands. It was a small ordeal when I needed to get my gear out of the sled while the people with bags or incorporated sled covers could easily get in and out very quickly.
  4. Rope to tie down gear: I used rope to tie down the stuff sacks on my sled. I had to undo it each time I wanted to get into the stuff sacks and adjust it quite often to maintain the balance on the sled. There were much better and more elegant solutions to rope, including elastic cords, straps and the sewn-in cover.
  5. North Face hydration pack: This is a great pack that got me through many summer days, but the hydration bladder froze and the gear that I carried in here mostly turned out to be on the "leave behind" list. I also ended up accessing my sled for a lot of food, so a pack was not necessary.

What I'd leave behind
  1. Winter boots: I was really concerned about frost bite and deep snow so I took along my winter boots. I even considered taking bunny boots. However, I just didn't need them and they were dead weight on the sled.
  2. Camera: I didn't take too many photos. There were some great shots from other competitors and people at the checkpoints so I didn't miss out too much. I think rather than just leaving this behind, I'd need to consider either committing to taking photos or leaving the extra weight behind.
  3. Food: I think that I took along too much food with the Perpetuum and other solid food. In the end I only used the solid food and a little Perpetuum and I didn't even eat that much in the checkpoints. I needed far less calories than I packed so I could have reduced this load. I still need to think about what combination would work best, but less food is the answer.
  4. Spare batteries: My headlamp worked great all night and I just didn't need these.
  5. Gaiters: This was another consideration for thick snow and would have been perfect if the conditions were different, but I didn't need them. I think they should be a last minute decision on the morning of the race depending on the weather.
  6. Spare clothing: I took changes of shirts and socks and didn't use them. One pair of socks at the start and one spare pair would have been enough. I also didn't change out any other of my spare clothing so should have left it behind.
  7. Emergency gear: I had a leatherman, rope and duck tape. Some of this was required and some I took along to adjust my sled, but none of it was needed.
  8. Medical gear: I did take some ibuprofen, but didn't need any of the other stuff I took with.
  9. Foot and body warmers: I did use one pair of foot warmers, but I didn't need to so I'd leave these behind.

As you can see, I had some great kit that worked well, some kit that was inappropriate for the conditions and that I took way to much gear. I thought that I was ruthless in eliminating the unneeded before the race, but obviously I could have taken this much further. My lessons for the future are to reduce my weight to the absolute minimum and to test gear beyond the extremes of what I expect of the weather and conditions.

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