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Gear Report: ‘America’s Toughest Road Marathon’

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Touted as “America’s Toughest Road Marathon,” the National College Blue Ridge Marathon starts and ends in downtown Roanoke, Va. But along its 26.2-mile course it climbs and snakes through its eponymous Blue Ridge Mountains above town, a journey that pits racers against more than 7,000 feet of total elevation loss and gain.

I wrote about the event, which took place on April 16th, in the blog last month, ‘Race Report: America’s Toughest Marathon’. This post covers the shoes, clothing and other products I used during the race, which was by far the hardest road run I have completed recently, and maybe ever.

Lined up to start ‘America’s Toughest Road Marathon’

To gear up for the event, I cherry picked from my best and favorite road-running apparel and equipment. Weather at this year’s race — temps in the 50s, torrential rain — made the gear even more important than it otherwise would be for a marathon event. Storm clouds were ever-present on the race, and wind was in intense. Indeed, I seriously feared hypothermia at the start line, and to combat the elements I wore a thin merino wool T-shirt and a lightweight eVent shell jacket.

Merino wool is something of a miracle fabric — it’s warm when wet, yet it regulates with your body as you sweat or get too warm as well. My shirt, the $69 Balance T from Ibex Outdoor Clothing, was a crucial piece on this race.

Conversely, my jacket — a close-fitting eVent-based shell made by Cutter Bike — was the wrong tool for the job. I never intended to run in this top, but I grabbed it last minute after the forecast turned brutal. The jacket fit a bit too tight for running, though in the end it worked fine and kept me protected from the wind and rain.

Push it! Runners slogging on the Blue Ridge’s hilly course

To be sure, I was hardly dry underneath the jacket, Cutter’s Cyclical Shell model. Running in a hardshell jacket like this, no matter what the manufacturers say, is a clammy experience. But in harsh weather with rain pouring and big wind, a hardshell can save the day. I was soaked underneath the shell, sweat overtaking the waterproof-breathable eVent membrane within minutes. But it protected me from the wind on the course, and I could zip and unzip the jacket at will to regulate the extra heat.

Moving on to my feet, I ran the Blue Ridge Marathon in the Road-X 255 shoes from Inov-8 Ltd., a U.K.-based shoemaker. These unusual shoes have a minimalist design and a smooth, non-treaded sole. They weigh a third less than many road shoes. (I wrote a full review of the Road-X 255 shoes last month.)

In Roanoke, the Inov-8 shoes’ light weight was appreciated. Each step on a marathon is an effort, and if you’re moving less weight on each stride then you’re saving energy. It adds up over a long run. But the tradeoff to light shoes is less padding or “support.” The Road-X 255s, which cost $110, have almost no cushion. I am a fan of this minimal style. Runners in need of more cush should look at another shoe.

On my legs, I wore fancy compression clothing from Salomon. The setup — including Salomon’s EXO SLAB II shorts and its EXO IV Calf “leggings” — proved to be a serious performance boost.

The author shortly after completing the marathon course

The shorts, which cost $100, fit tight and ensconce leg muscles. The $55 calf leggings, which pull on like foot-less socks, subtly squeeze your lower legs as you run, providing support and increasing blood flow, the company touts.

In the end, I finished the Blue Ridge Marathon in a bit less than four hours, my time of 3 hours and 57 minutes netting me 37th place in a field of about 300 fit runners. For me, gear like the calf wraps and the fancy shorts worked, providing comfort and support for 26.2 miles. The lightweight shoes felt fast on the feet. In “America’s Toughest Road Marathon,” it’s these little things that can make a difference and give that needed extra edge.

—Stephen Regenold is founder and editor of www.gearjunkie.com.

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