I have been struggling for a couple of months to write this review. Like a certain shoe brand, running with poles in ultramarathons, particularly in the UK, is somewhat controversial.
Some races allow their use, whilst others don’t and there is often back biting at those that do, even though they are allowed, if that person happens to do well. Which frankly does seem daft.
In Europe, pole use is very common with often in excess of half the field using them at races and their use in the USA is also growing exponentially.
However in the UK, people who do use poles can sometimes be ridiculed and even sneered at. I wanted to give a pair a go and see how I thought about them and whether they would encourage me to become a convert…
To be frank, I had never really considered using them until I saw some tetchy comments about those who did. For me, running is about freedom and therefore feeling free to use whatever you wish to make it more enjoyable. If someone wants to use poles and they are allowed under the rules for that particular race, how is that a problem for anyone else?
Generally speaking, I try to be as stripped back as possible with my running. I don’t tend to wear compression clothing or a Garmin or heart rate monitor and am pretty casual in my approach, preferring to run by feel. I run to get away from the overburdening feeling of reliance on technology in day to day life and when I run I want to get as back to basics as possible. So, using poles was naturally against the grain for me as it was an extra thing to think about, as opposed to one less thing to think about.
The first thing I felt was a little self-conscious. I didn’t want to be seen using them, especially on anything like a flat route, so I chose the most hilly route I know of that is close by, the route of the Bath trail marathon which I ran last July. In my opinion, poles are really only of use to aid when climbing or balancing when descending on steep hills and times in-between I did find them hindrance. Having said that, many people do use them on flatter terrain as a rhythm marker and swear by them. I suppose it is like anything new, getting used to it is key.
I have tried to minimise weight on my back and chest in running recently through mandatory kit and so have tried to progress from having my water bottles on my chest pockets, to running with them in my hands. Here, I had to reverse that school of thought and get the bottles back on to my pack in order to free up my hands for the poles.
The poles I tried were the Trail Blaze by Mountain King, a UK company who design and manufacture in England and are at the mid-price point at circa £70. The poles are aluminium and extremely light at just 125g for the 120cm length ones I was sent. They collapse down into four sections quickly and easily, which makes carrying them on flat and less hilly sections very easy. They have a Velcro strap which means they can be secured together in their sections securely and when you want to extend them again, you remove the Velcro and pull the drawstring to slot the sections back into place in under two seconds. The design makes them very easy to use. Here’s what the mountain sport retail experts Likeys have to say about them:
“…a pair of uncompromising 4 section ultra light poles for fast-packing minimalists. This (from) 110g wand is lighter than expensive carbon models and outperforms comparable products on the market in field testing. This pole has already caused a stir on the Web among the people that know… Stiff, light and packable; it’s just what we’ve been waiting for. The sections are secured with perlon cord (like an avalanche probe) and pull apart to collapse to a neat 38cm.”
I found that they helped a lot when I am trying to maintain speed and rhythm on steep hill climbs and one particular climb that typically takes me 8 minutes when not using them, I got down to 6:30 within a few days. This was a big difference if you factor in how many climbs you get in most ultras.
One of the things I found most frustrating about them was not the poles themselves, but as I hinted in the Peter Bakwin race vest review a couple of months back, the fact that most packs only have storage for poles on the rear of the vest. This means you have to remove your pack, store the poles, put the pack back on and then get moving. This can be a massive rhythm breaker and very annoying. Consequently, it is why I would be unlikely to use them in the UK for a race where hills typically take minutes as opposed to Europe or the US where they can take hours.
For me, the biggest benefit I found using poles was that they helped improve my posture and strength in my shoulders and arms. I think they are an excellent device to use in training alongside other cross training methods.
I will certainly use them in races next year that I plan to do in mountainous environments. If I get into UTMB or Grand Raid de Reunion, I will almost certainly be using these. For now, I will continue to use them at least once a week to help improve my form, speed and efficiency on steep training runs and as an added string to my training bow, keep me improving and becoming a better and more efficient climber.
As most people know, Western States is my dream race and poles are not allowed there. However, if I fail to get entry there next year I am pretty certain (funds permitting) I will be going for Trans Gran Canaria and here the Trail Blaze would come into their own.
The Trail Blaze has also just one the Best In Test and Best Value in the June/July 14 issue of Trail Running Magazine.
The Mountain King website can be found here, to explore the different options in more detail and there is also a link to find a retailer near you: http://www.mountainking.co.uk/
At just £70 I would highly recommend these poles, even if just as a training aid.