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Why it's time to change the way we think about mandatory equipment.

May 25, 2021 5 min read

Why it's time to change the way we think about mandatory equipment.

I’m as guilty as anyone of looking at mandatory equipment lists for races from time to time and thinking they’re put together by ‘The Fun Police’. People hell bent on making me spend more money on gear I’ll never use, that’ll do nothing more than strain my pack, test my Tetris packing skills, and slow me down - as if I wasn't slow enough already!

If ever there was a wake up call to take a good long hard look at how we go about racing in potentially dangerous environments, it’s the tragedy in northwestern China where 21 people died a while back when severe weather hit a 100km ultramarathon.

I don’t know enough about that specific situation to offer any real insight into what went wrong that day, but I do know enough to tell you this: being prepared for highly unlikely events is a bit of a drag, but also really important.

I couldn’t tell you how many times I’ve taken gear with me I’ve never had to use. But I can absolutely tell you exactly how many times I have needed it.

Twice. OK, possibly three times now I think of it.

Once on a local training run where everything went wrong, I slowed from a run to a walk, had quite some way to get back, was losing body heat fast and was grateful for the space blanket that was permanently stashed in my pack gathering dust. It had been there for literally years and I really only carried it because it came with my hydration pack at the time. I’d never used one before and while I wouldn’t want to rely on it for too long in extreme conditions, it definitely stopped things going downhill fast while I was going downhill slow.

Start of race in Nepal

The other time was in the Himalaya during a 200km stage race which got a lot more serious than my training run and eventually involved a helicopter evacuation. That particular day could have been a lot worse if I had been less prepared. I still remember cursing at how much stuff I had to carry for a stage that was “only 40kms” on what they refer to as "Nepali flat" (ie a trail that turned out to be not flat at all!), but when I was still on trail about ten hours later, walking in slow motion, trying to make it to the shelter of the checkpoint before the sun set and the temperature dropped any further, I was grateful for every layer I had begrudgingly packed.

And a few years back, despite having completed the Ultra Trail Australia 100 previously, I came unstuck during the 50km, didn't finish before dark, and spent almost ninety minutes trying to cover the last kilometre of the race which consists of 951 steps up to the finish line. I made it, but it was cold, it was dark, and I stumbled across the finish only to end up in the medi-tent where I spent the next few hours on a drip recovering. (Yes, that's unglamorous me in the picture!)

There was also a rescue at sea in a kayak, but that's a story for another day, and each time I can say I was absolutely grateful to have also been wearing ioMerino - my 'outdoor insurance policy' against the unexpected and often stupid situations I find myself in.

Mandatory equipment, and even non-mandatory equipment, is exactly like insurance. You hope you never need it. You actually kinda hope it’s a waste of time and money. But you have it for a reason, because when you do need it… holy crap are you grateful for it.

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Helicopter ride for a running event that went wrong


It’s good to be a positive person. To push limits. Go beyond. And you can still be all of those things while still taking a few moments to think about what will make your time in the outdoors better if something does happen to go wrong, regardless of whether it’s an event or not, and regardless of whether or not your Race Director tells you to.

Take that snake bandage. Take that space blanket. (Who knows, it might not save you but it might save someone else!) Wear merino instead of cotton or synthetic. And no, this isn’t just a gratuitous plug for a sponsor. As we've seen, this could be life or death. There’s a reason search and rescue crews around the world refer to cotton as ‘killer cotton’. It won’t keep you warm and you will suffer if it gets cold. Take an extra top just in case. A long sleeve merino top can fit in a sandwich bag and weighs a grand total of less than 250grams. (That's my large long sleeve ultra zip in the picture. The bag keeps it compact and dry.) I'm not for a second suggesting this whole tragedy could have been avoided if only those runners had an ioMerino top in a sandwich bag, but I absolutely am saying something like that can help in all sorts of circumstances and could well make all the difference. 

In everyday weather, that may just mean you’re not as comfortable as you could be. In terrible weather it could mean you suffer, feel terrible, DNF. And in extreme conditions, you could die. (As one of my friends often reminds me, DNF doesn’t just stand for 'Did Not Finish' but 'Did Nothing Fatal’.) Sure it sounds dramatic, but with more and more people doing more and more races around the world, often put on by people or organisations who may not have the best or most comprehensive risk assessment skills or safety systems in place, either through lack of ability or an unwillingness to spend money on something they may not need, the chances of something going wrong aren't getting any lower. Over and above what others might decide is or isn't acceptable, it’s up to each and every one of us to take responsibility for staying OK outside.

Because outside is beautiful and amazing and awe inspiring and where most of us would rather be. But mother nature can also be pretty bloody brutal, often without much warning. That’s when it pays to be just a little bit smarter about what we take and what we wear. Something as simple as swapping out your regular running top for a merino one, could genuinely be the difference between a good day and a bad one, life or death.

You don’t even have to go with io in particular, just think ahead, be prepared, choose your gear wisely, and please, go safely.

Sputnik, Outsider. 

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