Thursday, January 10, 2013

Worlds Toughest Mudder Gear Review (overdue)

A much overdue gear write up for WTM. 
At last year's WTM I froze my butt off and spent way too much money on the "wrong gear".  All the WTM participants were "virgins" to the course, elements, and hours and had no idea what we were getting ourselves into.  We had spent months on facebook guessing, researching, and eventually individually purchasing gear for the inaugural WTM.  For the majority of us, in 2011,  our choice of and lack of gear purchases lead to complete failure - with hundreds of participants dropping out from hypothermia after the first lap.  I survived the first lap but eventually in the wee hours of the morning my body and mind shut down, I shivered, cried, and moaned, and was taken by ambulance to the med tent at about 4am.  All my layers were stripped off of me and I was wrapped in first clear plastic, then a sleeping bag, and then a wool blanket.  I laid there embarrassed, defeated, and cold until I eventually warmed up and could muster up the strengh to redress.  I vowed I would never be in that situation again and spent months deciding on a better plan for 2012.  Going into WTM this year I was confident I had the best gear on the course, would stay warm through the night, and would be able to fight the elements.  That was not the case. 
                            Blossom getting cozy with my WTM 2012 layout pre-packing

Socks: last year I wore smartwool toe socks and smartwool heavy merino wool socks.  I don't remember my feet being cold last year so decided to go that route again.  This year my feet were THE MOST cold part of my body and were so painful they significantly contributed to my physical and emotional downfall.  Same gear, warmer year, epic fail.  Why... I don't know.  Possibly last year the rest of me was so cold my feet seemed warm?? 
Shoes: last year I wore a pair of 5.10 shoes that I have worn for many of my races.  I like to race in this brand because they have climbing shoe rubber on the soles and I feel they help me on obstacles.  The shoes worked well last year but they are a heavy shoe and I felt for the weight I could possibly get something better.  I researched shoes and decided on a canyoneering shoe from the same company.  The weight of the shoe was the same but my new shoes had buckles instead of laces and a neoprene shell instead of leather/cotton/mesh.  I thought this would be perfect because the neoprene could potentially be warmer and the buckles would be easy to get on and off and prevent my shoes becoming untied. 
In general the shoes did everything I thought they would do but the neoprene shell hit higher above my heel than my other shoes and eventually started rubbing into my Achilles tendons and causing horrible pain.  I had ran 27 miles in the shoes previously but hadn't had this problem.  It could have occurred due to the shoes weighing more wet and just the extra drag across my tendons, or the increase in mileage alone.  Except for races, I have tried to avoid wearing all shoes since WTM and my Achilles is still a little sensitive.  I actually really liked these shoes and think they were great for the race, the buckles saved me time changing out socks and my foot felt stable in them, they just rubbed me the wrong way :)
Under layer: Smartwool underwear and bra.  Similar story to the socks.  What works one year doesn't always work again.  Chaffing is always a concern with distance runs.  I have worn this combination underwear for all my races including WTM last year (38 miles??) and never had any chafing issues.  Without going into nasty details the under chaffing was so bad this year that each time I peed in my wetsuit I literally was doubled over in pain from the burning.  My post WTM celebration consisted of wearing mens underwear (different seam arrangement), gold bond powder, waterproof bandages on my rear end, vicodin, and wine.  I'm not even sure where to go from here and am open for recommendations from any WTM ladies who did not get chaffing.
1st layer: This I thought was so genius.  I got a heated rash guard from Quicksilver with three extra batteries.  Each battery was meant to last about 1.5 hours so I thought this could help me make it through the night.  The batteries attached to a port around hip level and I put the first one in at the start of my forth lap.  Let me rephrase that - the first battery was put in.  Since my wetsuit only had a chest zip and I couldn't take it off I had to stretch out the opening and have a fellow numb fingered mudder reach as far as he could down my wetsuit to try and plug in the battery.  The battery operated by pressing on a quarter size button through my wetsuit.  When the battery was on - I felt great!  It was like having a heating pad wrapped around my back. It was physically and mentally comforting.  The problem was the battery was bulky - about as big as a twinkie and as I moved over obstacles it pushed against my hip bones and often turned itself off.  Although sporadically, the battery was still going strong after I finished my forth lap.  I wanted to change to a new battery for my fifth lap but not being able to get my wetsuit off, and with no other mudders around to help me I couldn't.  The battery (and I) died midway into my fifth lap. 
Image 1Quiksilver Cypher PS+Heated Vest--Extra Battery  This is the battery - near actual size. 
If I do this crazy race again I would use this rash guard again, just somehow rig up a better way to access the battery, and locate it on my body where it wouldn't rub so much. 
2nd layer: My other genius idea (not!).  I had gotten a cheap wetsuit for WTM 2011 and blamed it for me being cold.  I decided to invest whatever I needed in order to avoid this again.  I didn't want to blame my gear for my outcome in 2012.  I read an article in Men Health (yes - its better sometimes than woman's health) about a wetsuit company  called Isurus producing wetsuits for super cold weather out of a special lightweight closed cell neoprene rubber.  The wetsuits were cut following a "compression" fit style and were meant to help circulate blood through your body and prevent muscle fatigue.  I was sure this was the perfect wetsuit for me.  There were various models of this wetsuit available and I tried to order their warmest one.  I spoke to two managers of the company - one in New Jersey, and one in California who both tried to talk me out of ordering the suite and were certain I would be too warm.  I tried to explain to them the conditions of 2011 and eventually we agreed on me getting the 2nd warmest suite they made.  It was a 4-5-6mm hooded suite, mens size small.  They informed me that it would take a while to break in the "compression" suite and I should start putting on and wearing it as soon as I got it.  I did just that and they were right, the suite was very hard to put on.  The first night I put it on it took me literally 10 minutes, I ended up covered in sweat,out of breath and totally exhausted.  I put the suite on about 8 more times and while it was never at all easy, it did get a little better.  Once the thing was on it fit great, I surfed in it, and in the ocean the legs would fill with water and it would even feel "big" in some places.  To be honest the longest I had ever kept the thing on was probably 3 hours, and that was my (BIG) mistake. 
i-Evade Wetsuit by ISURUS
So going into WTM 2012 I had my new Isurus wetsuit and my old 2011 cheap wetsuit.  The weather was forcasted to be nice during the day and I knew the "old" wetsuit would be the best choice for the first two laps.  The problem was, I was afraid that after running two laps I would be too exhausted, and my fingers may be too numb to get into my nice new wetsuit for the nighttime.  Since I was pretty much at the event solo I made the decision to wear the warmer wetsuit from the get go.  I thought it would be better to be too warm, than to wish I had put it on and not be warm enough. 
The first lap I was warm and sweating but not so badly that it slowed me down.  The water obstacles felt amazing and I was actually looking forward to the Arctic enema.  The wetsuit seemed to move well and I was happy with my decision. 
By lap two my hands had already started to swell.  I had anticipated this might happen but somehow thought I could postpone it happening until later in the race, and I had told myself I wouldn't panic when it would happen.  It was just too early for my hands to swell though!  This was not good.  I experimented by rolling up the sleeves of the wetsuit and shaking out my hands but they continued to swell.  Curse the wetsuit!  Curse the tight, warm sleeves!  Curse the compression!
Lap three was great for me.  I was emotionally high and happy and felt strong and warm.  I was happy with my wetsuit choice as the sun went down. 
Lap 4 - lap 4 began well but with every step my muscles seemed so tight and began to get more and more tired.  I could no longer really lift my legs and was dragging my feet.  When I approached the ladders I had trouble bending my legs and moved slower and slower.  The mud trenches which I usually enjoy were incredible difficult.  I felt like with each step and each movement I was fighting the resistance of my wetsuit. I felt like the wetsuit was holding my legs straight and each bend or step up was a struggle.  My efforts drained me, I cursed the wetsuit some more and wished I hadn't put it on until the 3rd lap.  I actually began to get cold during lap 4.  Mostly on my back along my spine but also my feet and hands. 
Lap 5 - I now was very cold and felt the need to add more layers.  I added a wetsuit hooded vest combo, a 3mm shorty suit, and changed out my windbreaker for a new one.  At this point my Isurus wetsuit could no longer keep me warm, I had no more strength to fight the thing and obstacles had frozen over.  I crawled on my knees up the ladder to the last obstacle - walk the plank, and then I was out. 
Gloves: Gloves (and hands) had been a huge problem for me in 2011 and I had vowed that this would not happen again.  Last year I ended up wearing underarmour fleece gloves for the entire race.  This year I bought two different pairs of neoprene gloves and one pair of wool gloves.  I also brought a pair of "Mad Rock" neoprene/mesh ice climbing gloves (size men's XL).  In total I had 2 pairs of fleece gloves, 2 pairs of neoprene gloves, 1 pair wool gloves, and 1 pair ice climbing gloves.  I will say that in attempts to save money this year I only checked one bag and left 2 pairs fleece gloves as well as a pair of snowboarding gloves at home (another mistake!). 
On the first and third laps I wore my fleece gloves which in mild temperatures protect my hands and are great.  On the second lap I did not wear any gloves.  I'm not totally sure why I thought this was a good idea but it wasn't and my hands got scraped up crawling through the trenches.  I guess I was already not thinking straight !  On the forth lap I tried to put on my pair of wool gloves.  I had bought them a large, just in case my hands would swell, and swollen they were.  Even with help of another mudder I couldn't put them on!  I tried the neoprene gloves but those wouldn't fit either!  Frustration!  My last resort was my pair of XL ice climbing gloves.  I knew the design and material of these gloves was perfect for the race but on a normal day they are huge on me, at WTM this year they barely fit.  Myself and my mudder friend jammed my fingers into them and I was off.  The gloves were great and warm!  I was happy. 
These were the "best" gloves and most affordable - coming in at $29
Without going into a long story about the differences between the course/climate of WTM 2011 vs. 2012, 2012 was MUCH MUCH MUDDIER.  What this meant for my gloves was that I really couldn't wear them for multiple laps.  After taking a pair off, they were a muddy mess and impossible to put back on, so once I put on my last pair I was in a little bit of a bind. 
I had wanted to keep on my gloves for lap 5 but I was so cold I knew I needed more wetsuit layers, and the gloves had to come off to put those on.  At the beginning of lap 5 I was out of gloves.  I put a pair of socks on my hands and for a few miles they were great.  All my glove choices were great in theory, they just didn't work for my big swollen hands.  If I had a chance to do it over I would have brought all the gloves I owned, and borrowed gloves from all my male friends. 
Other gear: I had a hooded vest combo that was 3mm.  I wore it during my first WTM and again this year.  It was relatively inexpensive, easy to put on, allowed full movement and provided some warmth.  I would recommend it as must have accessory.
Shorty suit (mens size L):  I had this in 2011 but didn't bring it (stupid me!!).  This was a good asset in 2012 because like the vest it was easy to put on and kept my core warm.  I would definitely use this again as an "added layer"
         The shorty wetsuit, windbreaker, vest combo, and isurus wetsuit hanging up to dry post WTM.
Windbreaker/Waterproof jacket:  I didn't use this in 2011 but a lot of people spoke highly of them.  This year I brought both.  Although people had recommended windbreakers for some reason I thought a light waterproof parka might provide more warmth.  I was totally wrong.  I wore the waterproof parka over my wetsuit on lap 4 and every time I emerged from the water the sleeves (although loose) will fill with gallons of water, causing it to not be warm and in fact be a big pain in the butt.  
On lap 5 I changed out to my actual windbreaker and it was much better.  
At the end of the race I was not as happy with my gear selection as I had thought I would have been.  I was neither comfortable or warm....but one was....and what was I expecting??!!!  I think more than anything my unrealistic expectations and my overconfidence about my gear led to some real let downs mid race.  I felt if I had the gear, I would have no problems running the race.  This will never be true and I was a fool to think so.   WTM will always be so much more than a race of who has the best gear.   No matter what anyone tells you, this race is a suffer fest.  Even those with the best gear are still miserable, and the athletes that continued running through the night have incredible physical and mental strenght beyond what I can come close to or even imagine. 
 That being said, I do see a lot of mistakes I made in gear selection and pre-WTM practice, and I can see opportunities to improve my gear in the future :)

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