I am always in search of the “perfect gear” for my adventures. This has been a struggle for the past 10 years or so as I’ve gotten deeper into the world of ultra marathon running. I’ve gotten the shoes dialed in. I’m pretty set on my favorite socks and socks. I think I’ve gotten my hydration gear nailed, but the one thing that I’ve never been able to figure out are my tops. My legs and feet run super hot so I tend to run in lightweight and thin things on the bottom half of my body. My top, however, tends to run very cold. I thought that I had tried almost everything when it comes to shirts.
When I was preparing for my most recent 100 mile race, I was trying to figure out all of my options for my drop bags. For those unfamiliar with ultra distance races, you are given certain points on the course where you can put a bag of some sort that will hold any additional items that you may need during the race. For me, this typically includes a couple of pairs of socks, a pair of shorts, maybe some tights, shirts galore and a jacket or two. This usually gives me enough options and leaves me feeling completely overwhelmed.
During long events like this, I tend to go through big temperature swings with the stages of dehydration and fatigue. Last year I began a race, that started out at 50F, with a super light wind breaker and a moisture wicking top underneath. I was cool to start, warmed up, took the jacket off, got cold, put the wet jacket back on, got hot, opened up the jacket, got cold. This cycle went on and on for nearly 5 hours until I came into an aid station and was told to strip all of my wet clothes off because I was at the beginning stages of hypothermia…and it was 60 out….ummmmm?
During my preparation, I posted a question on the Trail and Ultra Facebook board regarding options of shirts that people like that would accommodate my crazy temperature swings. The weather in Houston at the beginning of February tends to be on the cool and humid side with a few sporadic days going scorching hot and nights dipping into freezing. I really wanted to minimize the amount of things that I was bringing because it can be a HUGE pain in the butt packing all of the items above. More than one person mentioned merino wool…..wool?…..Really? Isn’t it scratchy and heavy?
I reached out to my friends at Active Endeavors and asked about options. Being the leader in the greater Des Moines area in their knowledge of outdoor gear, I was provided a top from Icebreaker called the “BodyFitZone Winter Zone”. Honestly, I’ve loved Smartwool socks for years and have found them to be a great option for my feet when it’s cold, but I was completely unaware of Icebreaker or the overall benefits of wool….boy was I about to find out.
This is not your grandfathers wool sweater. Trust me. This stuff is LEGIT!!!! To skip all of the technical stuff….because you can do your own research on the process of merino wool….Merino is not only designed to warm as a base layer, but also when it gets wet from rain or sweat, it’s designed to work as an insulator…seriously…look it up. It’s a crazy material. Then, when it gets warm, it is one of the best at wicking the sweat away to keep you cool…It’s seriously nuts….BUT, would it live up to the actual test and to the hype?
I wore the top exactly twice before the race. Once for a day at the office under a polo shirt and once during one of my favorite stair workouts where it would be 66F. During the stair workout I enjoyed wearing it. It did keep me cool without allowing me to overheat. I wasn’t pushing my workout too hard so the intensity wasn’t too high. I was confident that this should work when it was cool during the race, but we’d have to see how it stood up during the warmer parts of the day.
The race began around 45F with humidity in the 80% range. For the first hour of the race I was comfortable. Not too warm. Not too cold. Then the rain started and it rained…and rained…and rained for nearly 10 hours. I was soaking wet and everything I had read about merino was coming to fruition. When I should have been cold in the soaking wet, I was actually quite comfortable. While everyone around me was wearing heavy coats, ponchos or windbreakers, I was one of the few who didn’t change out of my clothes until right before it started to get dark. I was confident in the abilities of the Icebreaker top, but mentally I needed a change….which again turned to a different merino top that I had purchased from the running shop where I work.
For the whole 28 hours that this race took….another story for another time….I wore two different tops (and a Salomon jacket for the overnight section) for the whole event and both merino wool blends. Aside from a short 2 hour section where the winds picked up a little bit with the rain (where I actually did throw a garbage bag on) I was incredibly comfortable for the entire race. I’ve always just worn “tech shirts” from some of the big name manufacturers in running clothes, but this experience changed everything for my future.
Want to know the benefits of wool from the experts? Head into Active Endeavors and let them know that you read Brad’s report on the benefits of wool.