impromptu trail race = UltrAspire Astral review

So last Wednesday I had one too many glasses of red wine and agreed to run an 8km trail race on the weekend. I was told that it was a “small field”, and I was intending to run 8km on Sunday anyway (though I highly doubt I would have had I not agreed to the race). So on Sunday I was up at the crack of sparrows to drive to Hartbeespoort to run further than I’ve ever run before. I made it through the Vivobarefoot Nature’s Way 8km Run coordinated by My Road Less Travelled, unfortunately not in my vivobarefoots (more on that later). It was a wonderful, quiet course, definitely flatter than last week’s Beast, and I did get through all 8kms without dying, puking, or crawling across the finish line. Official time was 01:04:41, 36th overall (out of 56) and 5th female veteran. Also, I won a hat from Windpomp that conveniently matches my watch.

But the real reason to run was to demo the new women’s race vest from UltrAspire: the Astral. I don’t usually run with a pack; I try to run for as short a time possible so I don’t have to carry water. But after last weekend’s Beast I realized that I might want to entertain the notion of carrying water in a feminine, light-weight running vest. Also, some races require you to carry stuff, like water, and a cell phone, and a space blanket, and trail mix.

Unlike the happy, go-lucky models on the UltrAspire Astral website, I am 173 cm (5’8″) and a 36C, so not built like any trail runner I’ve seen so far. I was carrying 1L of water, my blackberry, my inhaler, a small container of yogurt covered dates, a space blanket, my car keys, and tissues. But there was space for a ton more- like a wind breaker and a first aid kit, and also more food and water! I liked the layer of padding between the bladder and my back, providing a cushion that prevented me from getting too chilled by the reservoir, or too hot when I warmed up. The construction of the harness actually felt like wearing nothing at all, literally there was no pressure on my shoulders and the pack hung well around my (ample) chest. The front pockets (I used one for clean tissues and one for dirty ones) weren’t poofy (they sort of look that way in the pictures) and didn’t get in the way of my arms. And boy are those front pockets roomy! Another cool feature: pockets on the shoulder straps allowing easy access to little things like lip balm or pain killers. And there’s this very cool bungee at the top (which I noticed after the race) that allows you to hang the whole pack from a rope or tree branch while you fill the bladder with more fluids, or use your required cell phone to check in on Facebook.

camelbak

Kinga is modeling my very first hydration system- a Camelbak, purchased for mountain biking circa 1995. He is also illustrating how uncomfortable it is.

I don’t have much experience with race vests, but I do with packs for hiking and commuting. I have always hated the chest strap/waist strap combo, which creates a big squeeze on the top of the breasts and squishes everything together into one giant uniboob. At first I was skeptical of the Astral’s front bungee cords holding the pack across the rib cage because they hit right at the diaphragm line. The last thing I wanted was to free the ladies, but restrict my breathing. I didn’t have to worry at all- the suspension system over the shoulders and back, combined with the bungees, actually allow for plenty of breathing room across the chest while still holding the whole kit securely in place with no chafing or rubbing anywhere! It was a really wonderful first race pack experience and I’m sure I’ll be spoiled from now on. These beauties will be retailing at Mindful Runner mid-March and you can get in line after me!

For reference, I’ve included a picture of my loyal companion wearing my first hydration system. The Astral leaves this pack way back in the closet under the stairs from where I dug it out just for this picture.

Also, lesson learned- at first I thought this pack was so noisy! But then I heard other runners with packs passing me and I realized there was a lot of clattering from carrying too much gear. So pad all your hard items for a quieter run.

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