Review - UltrAspire Belt System

I was super excited when I first heard about a relatively new company, UltrAspire, and their line of products. The idea of a company that has runners involved in the design of belts and packs for running is perfect. Early in the process of creating their products, UltrAspire shared them with their team of athletes to get feedback and to test the gear in races. The products had a presence in the community and at races before they were available to buy which only amplified my suspense.

However, like a nutrition and hydration plan during a race, there is no single solution for a belt or pack for every runner. Personal preference, how the gear fits your body and the specific goal or race that you're targeting all impact on what gear would suit a runner. Plenty of testing and trial and error is required to arrive at the best solution and this review is the result of my testing of the UltrAspire Molecular Belt System (MBS).

I love reviews with lots of photos that highlight which features work and which features don't work. I've chosen the features and photos that I'd like to see, but if you want some more information or a specific photo, let me know in the comments and I'll include it.


General overview

My components of the MBS
I have three components that I use to create two different belts: the Atom, which I always use as a belt component; the Nerve, which I use with the Atom when I need to take water with me; and the Reflex, which I use with the Atom when I don't need water, but still want to use a belt on my run.

UltrAspire Atom

UltrAspire Nerve

UltrAspire Reflex

How I use the MBS
I use the Atom with the Reflex on shorter runs when I want to carry my keys, phone or camera. I typically use this at night or in early morning runs as I like the additional safety of having the Reflex belt to show cars that I’m on the road. I wear the Reflex at the front with the Atom pocket on my back. I find wearing it like this reduces the amount of bounce in the belt when I’m running and as I don’t need instant access to the pocket it works well.

I use the Atom with the Nerve for my longer runs, mostly on the trails. I carry my camera in the Atom pocket or occasionally gels in this pocket. I also carry a sachet of powdered drink mix in the pocket on the Nerve and when needed I use the shock cord for either my arm warmers or a light jacket. I wear this the “normal” way around with the Atom at the front and Nerve on my back. I find with the added weight of the Nerve bottle at the back the belt is more balanced and there is no bouncing even with a camera or phone in the Atom pocket on my stomach.


Features I really like

The Atom Belt
This is almost perfect. The width is very good as it doesn't pull on my mid-section or stomach and creates no pressure points. The mesh is open and lets moisture through so I never feel hot with the wider belt. The pocket is a good size and fits my camera or a few gels. I appreciate how the mesh stretches and how accommodating this pocket is.

Atom belt and its excellent pocket

Velcro connection from Atom to Nerve or Reflex
I like this connection as it offers easy and fast adjustment of the belt while wearing it. I use this connection only to adjust the belt when it's on and not to take the belt on and off. The end tab section is slightly wider than the buckle on my Reflex and Nerve which makes it difficult to get through these buckles when initially setting up the belt. This is a positive feature as I feel secure that the belt will not fall off if I catch the Velcro with my arm or on an obstacle in the trail while running.

Connection from the Atom onto either Nerve or Reflex

Speed hook connection from Atom to Nerve or Reflex
I love the speed hook connection! It feels secure, strong and durable. I have no doubt that this part will not break. In my first uses I found the hook to be very tight and difficult to hook into the loops on the Nerve and Reflex. As I have used the system more it has loosened up and is much easier to use.

Shock cord on the Nerve above the bottle
This is useful as it allows me to stash my jacket or arm warmers on my belt and out of the way. It is simple, easy and fast to use. A well thought out feature. I appreciate the small pocket that you can put the buckle of the shock cord into. This keeps the belt neat and prevents any unwanted bouncing or irritating when the shock cord is not being used.

Shock cord on the Nerve to the upper left of the bottle

Gel pocket on the Nerve
The gel pocket on the underside of the Nerve provides a little extra storage. I use it to carry a sachet of powdered drink mix so I can refill my bottle with my drink choice on the go.

Underside of Nerve features a gel pocket

The Nerve bottle
I like the angled spout as it is easy to drink out of and to pull out of the belt. The finger loop is the best feature of the bottle. It makes it easy to carry multiple bottles and to pull the bottle out of packs. For such a small detail this is a tremendously rewarding feature of the bottles.

Great bottle and useful finger hook


A few small improvements

Zip pull on the Atom pocket
This bounced around and occasionally distracted me when running. It is not a big deal and the zip pull is easily tucked away, but with all the clever features on this belt this could be something to improve.

Material overlap under speed hook
Where the speed hook connects to other components there are three pieces of cloth protecting my hip from the hook. In my never-ending quest to lighten my gear I would remove some of the material here.

Bottle spout
I like the twist-to-open spout, but there was some play in the spout when someone who didn’t know how to use it pulled on it. By pushing hard on the spout it closed again and now works normally. However, it could be improved.

Twist-to-open nozzle on the bottle

I gave my feedback to UltrAspire on these areas and they're looking into them so they may be addressed in future iterations.


Final thoughts

The belt system looks new after a month of using it regularly. I am very impressed with the durability and have no problems with the zip, with the Velcro wearing out and no stretching of the shock cord or pockets which is where I would expect the first failure in a belt system.

I feel comfortable with the MBS and I will continue to train with it and use it for appropriate races. I would recommend that anyone looking for a belt system try this one and see if it is the "optimal" solution for them. For me, this is the best belt I've used and I've even given away my old belt system as I no longer want it.

You can get UltrAspire products from their website (link to products page) or direct from the distributor in Chile (contact me for details).


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New domain name: dwrowland.com

Welcome to the new domain name for my blog about trail running, where I share my thoughts and ideas on training, races, trail adventures and all the things I learn along the way.

This is the next step to make the blog easier to remember, a little more professional and much easier to share. Please keep reading and share the new name with everyone who wants to learn about trail running and ultra-marathons!

Here are a few small tasks to ensure that you have better access to dwrowland.com:

  • update the bookmark in your browser with this page
  • update your RSS feed reader with the new name
  • subscribe to the blog by email or RSS (links top right)
  • follow me on twitter (@dwrowland)

For now, here are some past posts in the categories that define this blog.

DANIEL ROWLAND IS:

a trail runner
my last race the Salomon Xtrail 21km
a trail marathon in Chile which I ran last year

training for
awesome playlists from champion runners to fuel your training
enjoying the Santiago mountains with my friends

extreme events
my report from the 250km multi-day Atacama Crossing
my report from the Susitna 100 - race across frozen Alaska

in beautiful places
a snowy day and short video of Cerro Carbon
running in spectacular Chillán

using awesome gear
backpack reviews for multi-stage races, part 1 and part 2
the gear needed for a 7-day race
the gear needed for a 100-mile race in the snow (including a sled!)

and telling great stories
the archives with every post published!

Multi-stage race backpacks (part 2)

This is the second installment in a series of reviews of multi-stage backpacks (part 1, part 3, part 4).

Deciding what pack to use during a multi-stage race is one of the most difficult and important decisions to make before the race. The pack needs to hold all your required gear and food, it needs to be durable enough to last throughout the race, and it needs to fit you well so you're comfortable while running.

There were a wide variety of packs in the Atacama and I wanted to find out which packs worked well and what specific features were appreciated by runners. I asked a few friends from the race to give me their feedback. Previously we had Joel and Argi who used slightly larger 25l packs and here we have Massi's 20l pack and my 17l pack.

Massimo Pasamonti and the Raidlight Olmo 20l


1. What pack did you use during the race?
Raidlight Olmo 20l.

2. Did the pack have enough capacity for all your gear?
It did indeed. The only item which didn't fit was my inflatable mattress that I fixed on the outside.

3. What was the final weight of your pack and hydration system (without water)?
7.4kg

4. How did the pack fit and ride while you were running?
Very good fit and very good stability whilst I was running.

5. What did you use for hydration (front bottle, bladder, etc)?
2 x 750ml front bottles from Raidlight.

6. Did you use the external pockets on the pack? What for?
No external pockets.

7. Did anything break on your pack during the race?
Nothing broke.

8. Was there any specific feature that you particularly liked?
The Olmo 20l is extremely comfortable and has great cushioning on the back. The weight is just great. The stability makes this rucksack an excellent part of an ultrarunner's gear.

9. Was there anything that you would change about the pack?
I would create an Olmo 22l because that is what I consider the perfect volume.

10. Would you recommend the pack and would you use it again?
I will definitely use it again during my next race.


Daniel Rowland and the Salomon XA20



1. What pack did you use during the race?
The Salomon XA20 with two Salomon custom front bottles.

2. Did the pack have enough capacity for all your gear?
Yes it did. However, I had a very minimal amount of gear that did not include a sleeping mat and that included close to the minimum amount of calories. At the beginning of the race the pack was completely full with all the external pockets packed with my in-race nutrition.

3. What was the final weight of your pack and hydration system (without water)?
My pre-race weight at the check-in was 6.5kg.

4. How did the pack fit and ride while you were running?
The pack fit well and was stable during running. I experimented with this pack using different weights, packing it differently, as well as using various accessories for the front such as the front pack and the custom water bottles. For me the best answer was the pack with two bottles and even when I got to this solution it took some adjusting to arrive at a stable pack during the race.

5. What did you use for hydration (front bottle, bladder, etc)?
I used two Salomon custom front bottles and a 2l bladder to meet the minimum requirements. I would change the bladder to a soft bottle in the future as I think that would be a much better solution and more accessible during the stages.

6. Did you use the external pockets on the pack? What for?
I used all three of the external pockets because the bag is small and I was pushing the limit on the capacity. All of my in-race nutrition, gels, electrolytes and powder drink mixes, were packed in these pockets. I also put the required race passport in the outer most pocket so it was easily accessible to sign-in for each stage.

7. Did anything break on your pack during the race?
Nothing. The pack is in exactly the same condition, albeit a little salty and dirty, as it was at the start of the race.

8. Was there any specific feature that you particularly liked?
I liked the adaptability of the Salomon custom system. As I mentioned earlier I tried various accessories and I appreciated that I could do a lot of testing before the race to find what worked for me. It was also a durable bag that lasted through my training and the race and I liked the security I felt with a strong, reliable pack.

9. Was there anything that you would change about the pack?
The custom bottle holders were too loose for my liking. In the end I duct taped them onto the shoulder harnesses to prevent any bouncing. I was also irritated by two metal drainage studs on the bottom of the pack which could rub when the pack was not full. I would recommend removing these studs from the pack.

10. Would you recommend the pack and would you use it again?
I would recommend the pack as it served me very well and I would definitely use it again.


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Salomon Xtrail 21km - 13th

This past weekend was my first race after the Atacama Crossing. I wanted to do a fast race to run hard, but I also wanted to keep it a little shorter as I have the 64km Ruta del Condor race in two weeks' time. The Salomon Xtrail offered a 21km, but also two shorter options so V joined me for her first trail event: a 7km race.

Before the start.

The trails were dry and it was a cool day so perfect conditions for racing. I started out close to my goal pace for the race and as the field settled I was running alone or with one other (the same) runner. The first 5km were relatively flat and then we started a series of small climbs and descents as we crossed multiple streams and later climbed up to the minor peaks in the area. The race was mostly out in the open with many short trips through a beautiful forest which lay between the various small peaks we ran up.

Section of the trail with the rolling terrain in the background.

I ran consistently for most of the race and was pleased with my performance as I finished feeling strong and ready to run more - a good sign for two weeks' time. My time was 1hr52min and I was 14 minutes back from the leader in 13th position.

I finished strong and felt ready to run more!

V really enjoyed her race and finished well. She took all these photos and made the most of her first trail race. I think she'll be doing a few more races in the future!

A happy Team 505 at the finish.

We had a great day, enjoyed a well organised race and are already looking forward to the next Salomon Xtrails event.



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Fastest Known Times

A Fastest Known Time (FKT) is exactly what its name suggests: the fastest time on a particular trail from defined start and end points. The reason for the development of FKTs is that people want to challenge themselves on trails that are either too remote, on restricted land, too long for a traditional race, or merely trails where no races are currently organized. The "Known" part of a FKT acknowledges that not all attempts are recorded and that by their very nature FKTs are events that anyone can take part in when it suits them.

In order to maintain consistency in various attempts at the same route there are some general guidelines that relate to whether the attempt is supported, self-supported or unsupported. An important aspect of measuring and maintaining records is that the runners are honest and share the details of their attempts so there is some clarity on the route and method of the attempt. Buzz Burrell (a holder of multiple long-distance FKTs in the US and a few around the world) has proposed the following guidelines:

  • Announce your intentions in advance. Pay respects to those who came before you, and tell them what you intend to attempt and when.
  • Invite anyone to come and watch or, better yet, participate. 
  • Record your event. Write down everything immediately on completion. Memory doesn't count.

Fastest Known Time lists
There is one well-known list of FKTs kept by Peter Bakwin as an online notice board, the Fastest Known Time Proboard. This notice board has extensive lists of FKTs in the US, FKTs on certain mountains in the US and a few other general FKTs on well known trails outside the US. The forum nature of the notice board allows it to be regularly updated by anyone and for the board to function as a place to announce your attempt and invite others to join you.

In Chile, TrailChile recently started a list of challenges on well-known trails here. Matias Bull has a list of 7 challenges (desafios), mostly on the trails and mountains around Santiago and a few on other well-known routes outside Santiago. The lists are new so some only have one or no entries meaning FKTs are in reach for anyone willing to give these routes a try!

Recent FKT attempts
Although I haven't known about Fastest Known Times for very long, it seems that there have been a large number of recent attempts to set new records. Here are some interesting stories that provide the detail of what is required to attempt a new record time:


The ones I'd like to try!
There are two routes that I'd like to try for the FKT in Chile. The first is on Cerro Manquehue, a mountain I run on very regularly and is visible from my apartment and most areas in the city. It's a 6-7km climb with about 1,000m elevation gain from the city to the highest point in the city bowl:

TrailChile's route on Cerro Manquehue.

The second is the Torres del Paine O + W trail. This is a much bigger challenge as a new record was recently set and it's a long trail of 120km. This might turn into an expedition as it requires travelling to Torres del Paine to wait for a good day to run the trail.


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Multi-stage race backpacks (part 1)

This is the first installment in a series of reviews of multi-stage backpacks (part 2, part 3, part 4).

Deciding what pack to use during a multi-stage race is one of the most difficult and important decisions to make before the race. The pack needs to hold all your required gear and food, it needs to be durable enough to last throughout the race, and it needs to fit you well so you're comfortable while running.

There were a wide variety of packs in the Atacama and I wanted to find out which packs worked well and what specific features were appreciated by runners. I asked a few friends from the race to give me their feedback. This is a two part article with a post on the packs of Joel and Argi first and then a post on Massi's and my packs coming later.

Joel Meredith and the Salomon XA25 WP


1. What pack did you use during the race?
I used the Salomon XA25 WP (waterproof). It had a 25L capacity with 3 rear zippered pockets, the main compartment being rubber-lined and waterproof, one large open mesh pocket on the middle back, and 2 mesh side pockets. The pack also featured side pockets on either waist-belt and was compatible with Salomon's advanced accessory line of add-ons (i.e. front pack, bottle holders, gel carriers).

2. Did the pack have enough capacity for all your gear?
Even though I overestimated the amount of gear I needed, the XA25 did a very good job of expanding to accomodate the added bulk. I probably stuffed 28L into a 25L pack. Conversely, it also did a very good job of compressing down as my gear bulk dissipated later in the week.

3. What was the final weight of your pack and hydration system (without water)?
The final weight of my race pack was 9kg, including everything but water.

4. How did the pack fit and ride while you were running?
The pack fit me very well during active movement. However, the XA25 has more of an elongated shape as compared to other models. When fully packed, it would rub just above my tailbone, leaving a nasty scar. The only other issue that I encountered with this pack was its tendency to loosen while running. I noticed this primarily with both shoulder straps and, eventually, with the sternum strap. During training runs and while fully packed, the should straps would require re-tightening every minute or two. I easily remedied this by adding a triglide to each of the shoulder straps and the sternum strap. By adding the triglide, the strap would not loosen, but they were also non-adjustable while on the move. Once you strapped in for the day, you were fixed. This was never a problem for me - better too tight than too loose. The pack also featured a fantastic back ventilation system that aided in keeping good airflow and reducing the heat that is sometimes generated with less well ventilated rucksacks.

5. What did you use for hydration (front bottle, bladder, etc)?
For hydration, I fixed one of the add-on bottle holders from Salomon to each of the front shoulder straps. I also carried a 2L Platypus bladder in the reservoir pocket...which I never used. I simply carried this to meet the 2.5L fluid carrying capacity required by the RTP staff. I used the Salomon 600ml 3D bottles in the holders. These are pyramidal shape, so they sit flat against your chest and stay put. Very well engineered piece of kit. Next time, I will nix the bladder and take a collapsible Platypus bottle with bite valve. It's packable and I can use it as needed or when more fluid is required to be taken at the various checkpoints.

6. Did you use the external pockets on the pack? What for?
I definitely used every pocket on the XA25. I stuffed my packets of recovery drink into the rear, large mesh external pocket. They were flat so they stacked easily and the pocket held them stable with zero problem. The side pockets on the body of the pack were used for socks, toilet paper, and waste bags. You can easily reach these side pockets while running, making them very accessible. On the front, I used the waistbelt pockets for my on-course nutrition. The left side was a single zippered pocket in which I carried my camera (tight squeeze). On the right, there are actually 2 pockets, one zippered and a mesh unzippered one on top of the zippered. I carried the gels, bars, and drink mix I would use for the days run in the right-side pockets. In addition, the bottle holders also had open mesh pockets on them, as well. I placed my iPod in the left and my electrolyte pills in the right. These worked great.

7. Did anything break on your pack during the race?
I made the mistake of training with my pack daily for 4 months leading up to the race. I didn't inspect it before setting-out or I would most likely have noted that it was pretty worn out. 10 minutes into the first stage of the day my sternum strap pulled out of its railing. I remedied this with a zip-tie and had no further problems with it. However, both shoulder straps quickly began to pull away from the body of the pack, possibly due it being completely stuffed, but I think that it was most likely due to rotten stitching from me sweating in it during training. Zip-ties rescued me again here and I had no further issues.

8. Was there any specific feature that you particularly liked?
I really liked the multiple compartments available on this pack, especially the large waterproof pouch. Though I didn't have to deal with wet things or wet conditions, I can easily see how this pocket could be of great value. I also liked the way that the pack compressed over the week. Even though I ended with only 8 liters of gear or so, it was nice and tight.

9. Was there anything that you would change about the pack?
I didn't like the length of the pack. As cited earlier, it gave me quite a rub on my back. I would like it to sit a bit higher. Otherwise, great pack.

10. Would you recommend the pack and would you use it again?
I would certainly recommend this pack to others. However, I won't be using it again. I plan to pack far less for the next event and want something that sits higher on my back. I've decided to use the Salomon XA20 with optional XA5 front pack for the Sahara race. The XA20 retains many of the features that I liked about the XA25, yet with a much smaller volume, which will force me to travel with less gear. I also like the addition of the front pack. It gives me access to more gear while on the go.


Argiris Papathanasopoulos and the OMM Classic 25l


1. What pack did you use during the race?
This year I decided to try the OMM 25L, after reading some good reviews on the internet. In 2006, during the MDS in Sahara, I had an unpleasant experience with RaidLight Front and Rear version, so I thought that it would be better to try another company’s product.

2. Did the pack have enough capacity for all your gear?
I love big rucksacks which can fit all the equipment and food required for such a big race like the Atacama Crossing. The OMM 25L definitely has the ideal capacity. It compactly fits everything I needed for the 7 days, without any excess of space, though.

3. What was the final weight of your pack and hydration system (without water)?
The final weight was 8.5kg.

4. How did the pack fit and ride while you were running?
As long as the terrain was flat and smooth, the pack fitted perfectly. Once we started crossing through the infamous Salt Flats, the pack was bouncing and hitting my lumbar spine constantly. The following day, I noticed a huge swelling around the soft tissues of my back and this was causing me a lot of pain for the rest of the Race. When I returned to the UK, I got an Ultrasound done of the soft tissues around the area which was causing me pain (it was still swollen after 2 weeks!), I found out that I had sustained a proper rupture of the paraspinal muscles!

5. What did you use for hydration (front bottle, bladder, etc)?
The mandatory minimum requirement of 2.5lt fixed by the organiser is too much for my personal needs, considering that I can do my long runs (4h) without drinking any water at all! The idea of bringing a bladder never excited me due to the difficulties to filling it up. I used two Raid Light bottles (1.5lt), fitting them snugly in the bottle holders of the OMM, which worked really well for me. The remaining required 1lt was contained in a plastic bottle which I squashed in a way to save space and connected conveniently with a smart tube. I never really used this 1lt. It was just kept in my pack to fulfil the requirement of the organiser.

6. Did you use the external pockets on the pack? What for?
The hip belt came with two zip pockets, big enough to fit all my snacks. However, when I tightened the waist strap, it was very difficult to get anything in and out of the pockets.
I used the two mesh side pockets with elasticated drawcords to keep my squashed bottle on one side and for electrolytes and nuts on the other side.
I did not use the mesh pocket on the front, and a Velcro-closed pocket on the top. Instead, I used the convenient zippered pocket on the hood, filling it with my sunglasses and suncream.

7. Did anything break on your pack during the race?
One of the strongest points of OMM, is its durable and compact design, resistant enough to any damage. After 7 days of race, apart from some dirt, my OMM still looked brand new!

8. Was there any specific feature that you particularly liked?
I really enjoyed the fitting of the bottle holders. They never gave me any problem.

9. Was there anything that you would change about the pack?
Definitely, the product needs a revision and change on the back of the pack, which has caused me so much pain and a swollen back! Contrary to most of the other packs, which are designed with nice soft padding on the back to absorb all the bouncing which comes with running, the OMM has a very thin back with harsh material and surface. However, the evil of it all is an unnecessary, protruding sewing at the bottom back, which attaches some mesh material to that area. It was this protruding material which has caused the friction between the heavy pack and my lower back. Unfortunately, during my training in UK with the pack, I had not realised this problem, due to the fact that in the UK, I had often worn a winter jacket when using the pack and the jacket could have reduced this friction which has caused the irritation of my soft tissues at Atacama.

10. Would you recommend the pack and would you use it again?
It is very difficult for me to recommend a pack to others because I believe that each pack fits each individual differently. Anatomical characteristics (slim, chubby, skinny, tall, short), can change the performance and the fitting of each gear. In my case, it worked decently for most of my basic requirements, but the fact that I came back with ruptured muscles due to the way the back of the pack was designed, makes me decide that I will not be using it again for my next race. I will most likely try a new product.


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Snow on the Andes and a run with my dad

It rained in Santiago and that only means one thing: it's snowing in the Andes! While the snow level was not so low that we got good coverage on Manquehue, there was some "termination dust" on the highest peak in the city bowl signaling the true end of summer.

Snow-capped Andes surrounding Santiago.

I took to the trails with my dad, who is visiting from Zimbabwe, and we went straight to my favorite peak to share with visitors - Cerro Carbon. In 5 minutes we were up on the contour path and out of the city. The view was already spectacular with snow-capped Andes visible around the whole city.

Me and my dad at the mirador.

As we climbed, the view only improved when we reached the mirador first and later the summit. It was an unbelievably clear and beautiful day that lifts your spirits and makes you want to link up to Manquehue and the other peaks accessible from Carbon.

"Estoy un mirador!" - dad's Spanish gone wrong!

We spent an amazing two hours in the mountains and my dad was talking excitedly about some running adventures we can take on together in the future. While it's never great to say goodbye to the summer weather there is no better way to do it than a crystal clear morning run with the first snow of the year visible on the mountains around you.


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