WAA MDS Ultrabag Review

I recently got a 20L WAA MDS Ultrabag. This is the official backpack for the Marathon de Sables, a 6-day, 250km foot race through the Sahara desert.

WAA MDS 20L Ultrabag

I have no plans to do that race, but do intend to go on some multi-day adventures here in Japan. So far, I have used the bag for a 52km trail run and an 86km road run.

I’ll assume that you’ve already researched the Ultrabag and know what it is and what accessories it comes with. If not, read up the feature list from the store I bought mine at.

Don’t like reading? Here’s a 20-minute video I made about the Ultrabag.

First impressions

The bag arrived in one piece, and by that I mean that all the accessories were pre-attached, and since there weren’t any instructions, I carefully remembered what connected to what before taking it to bits.

Once everything was off, I weighed the main pack at 576g, a touch less than the advertised 590g, and there are still a lot of small shock cords that could probably come off, too.

Bottles

I then unwrapped the bottles and spent a good while figuring out how the straws went through the caps… turns out you need to push them through with brute force and pull them out the other side with your jaws. Well, at least there shouldn’t be any leaking! Actually, I haven’t used the bottles yet. It’s still early in the year as I write this and have no need for massive 750ml bottles. Plus, each straw is too long when the bottle is on the shoulder strap, and too short when the bottle is on the side of the main backpack. I’ll probably cut the straw for use on my shoulder, but am using my old Ultimate Direction bottle for now.

Trekking poles

I really wanted to know how my Berghaus trekking poles would attach to the pack. The advertising says you can put “walking sticks” in the long, cylindrical pocket on the back of the pack, the one that’s supposed to be for the MDS flare. My poles are of the telescopic variety, and I could quite easily get one in that pocket, but just one. I’d have to take the pole baskets off to squeeze them both in.

A better solution was to attach them outside that pocket with the existing shock cord and elastic loop. Excellent, except you have to take the pack off to get to them, which is not so easy to do with a technical pack like this – there are four buckles to unclip to take the pack off with the front pouch still attached to one side.

Pouches

I haven’t used the side pouches or the shoulder one yet. The 4L front pouch is amazingly convenient so I just threw everything in there. The contents shake around a bit because the compression straps don’t really compress the whole pouch down, but it’s manageable and very comfortable when used with the main pack. I did try using it by itself on a short trail run, but the bottle I attached to the side swung around terribly, and it bounced a lot when strapped on top of the pouch, too. I really do like the front pouch for convenience, though, so I will definitely be using it for my long runs.

Straps

This pack is loaded with straps. You can adjust almost everything to get the perfect fit, and it’s really comfortable to run with. If you’re skinny like me, you’ll probably have unnecessary straps hanging all over the place. There are elastic loops to tuck these into, but I couldn’t be bothered to keep folding up and tucking the straps away every time I took the pack off and put it back on again, instead opting to stuff them behind the front pouch. Much easier. Of course, you could probably cut the straps shorter and save some weight in the process.

Bottle holders

My biggest disappointment with the MDS Ultrabag is the bottle holders. They look great, but are useless for anything except their intended purpose, that is holding a bottle in place. If you’ve ever used an Ultimate Direction Ultra Vest (I have an SJ one), you’ll love how the bottle holders are a bit baggy, but with shock cord elastic around the top so you can easily stretch them open to put your bottle in and tightly secure them in place. Indeed, you can even use them for other stuff like sweets or a camera. They are very easy to use on the go, even while running, without having to look at the pocket.

The WAA bottle holders, on the other hand, are not stretchy at all. They fit the WAA bottles perfectly, but that means they are a pain to get the bottles into because you can’t even squeeze a finger between the bottle and the mouth of the holder. There are two straps you can use to tighten the holder around the bottle, but these are a bit short and hard to use on the run. I can imagine time lost at aid stations messing about with these holders, even if you choose to use the straws… though I suppose in the MDS you could just leave the bottle in the holder, unscrew the cap and refill the bottle while it’s still on your shoulder strap. Actually, writing this has helped me figure out what to do: I’ll cut the straws of the WAA bottles to a comfortable length, and unscrew the tops off for refilling. Why didn’t I think of that before?!

Size

The main backpack is rectangular and somewhat shallow. It doesn’t use any stretchy material so I was worried how easily I could pack everything. So far, I’ve been able to put in a small tent, sleeping bag, emergency bivvy, full rain wear and a change of clothes. My sleeping mat is strapped under the pack so I just need room for a camping stove, which I’m hopeful I can squeeze in.

Conclusion

This is a great pack. It fits well, is comfortable to wear and I love having a spacious front pouch to throw stuff in. I don’t think it’s perfect, but it’s the kind of pack you can customize to make work for you, and I like that a lot.

KA50K – Kakamigahara Alps 50K Trail Run Event

Over the last few months I’ve been planning a 50K trail run course, clearing trails and posting photos and course updates for the Kakamigahara Alps Trail Run Project on Facebook. All of it, along with a lot of training, was for yesterday’s first full course run.

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The team

What I didn’t expect when I started this project was that I’d be joined by thirteen other enthusiastic runners, all of which turned up despite a gloomy weather forecast: rain, snow, strong winds and cold temperatures.

I think every one of us was either a sub-4 hour marathoner or had trail race experience. Three members of the group were UTMF qualifiers, and one of those (who came all the way up from Kyoto to take part) has entered the draw for the UTMB in France next summer.

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The goal

However, this wasn’t a race. The plan was to run together as a group with the goal of completing the course within 12 hours. It was my job to lead the group. I had divided the course into sections, with checkpoints and “aid stations” along the way, each with a target time.

To cut a long story short, only three of us (me, Souichirou and Yuki) completed the whole course, along with “Randy” who joined us from the 2nd aid station at the 17km point.

What went wrong?

While it was undoubtedly an incredible day, the fact is that only 3 of 13 starters finished the course and no-one did it within the time limit. Had this been a race, we all would have had a “DNF” by our names. For the rest of this blog post, I want to look at the factors that kept us from finishing and forced so many to retire early.

1. The weather

Rain, snow and very cold conditions all contributed to slowing the group down. Wet leaves and slippery mud made us extra cautious. Snow weighed down on branches, causing them to partly block the trails. For one early part of the run, we were constantly ducking to avoid them. The wet, snow covered bushes along narrow trails brushed up against us, making us even wetter, and this led to problems with clothing.

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Not everyone was kitted out in Goretex rain wear, and even those that were, weren’t immune to cold hands and feet as water soaked through gloves and shoes. Within three hours of the start, we had our first retirement. Poor Akinori was soaked through, freezing to death and in no shape to continue. Hiroyuki, who was planning to leave early for work anyway, took him down an escape route.

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The course consists of a dozen or so mountains around 300m high, and it’s a relentless up and down journey. At the top of each little peak, we waited for the guys at the back to rejoin us, and while that was expected, more time was lost as people changed jackets and gloves. No-one could really decide if they had warmed up enough to take layers off, but every time we did stop, we’d start to get cold again.

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2. Aid stations

Far too much time was lost at aid stations. I didn’t plan for long breaks, but a full 20 minutes passed at the first aid station as people went inside the restaurant to warm up by the heater and drink what looked like bowls of warm milk. Time at the second aid station was just as long, and five-minute breaks here and there, either on mountain tops or waiting for others to catch up really started to add up. By 17K, any thoughts of finishing within 12 hours were forgotten.

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3. The rules

I posted some rules in advance on the Facebook group. They probably seemed trivial at the time, but they would have made things much smoother had I enforced them a bit. Two rules in particular:

We’ll take a quick break after each of the 15 stages. Use this time to play with your backpack, etc. Or at aid stations, of course.

As mentioned above, people were in and out of their backpacks too frequently (myself included!). Since we stopped so often, it’s completely understandable, but still, I didn’t want to move the group forward until everyone was suited up and ready to go.

If you can’t see the person behind you, please stop. One by one, everyone will stop.

This rule simply wasn’t followed, which led to Alex getting left behind and completely lost. He took off in the wrong direction, adding nearly 3km to his own run while the rest of us (when we realized over 10 minutes later) were blowing whistles and considering splitting into two groups, one as a rescue party. We did send out a scout, Kero, who thankfully found him, but Alex never really recovered from his detour up a different mountain!

4. Food

We had already lost Teruhiro at 22km when he bowed out with sore knees, and by 28km another three were suffering and chose to take a short cut to the aid station for lunch.  The rest of us joined them soon after, by which time it was 2:30pm, a full hour and a half later than scheduled. Needless to say, the delay in getting proper food took its toll on a lot of people, and a total of seven guys called it a day at that point. That left just four of us!

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It is clear now that we should have had two “lunch” breaks: one when we first got to the aid station at around 9:45am, and the second as originally planned. Of course, this would have added to the course time.

The last 20km

After lunch, there was one more big climb up Mt. Yagi before another stop to refuel at a convenience store.

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I filled up on chicken, KitKats and Monster Energy, and then we set off on roads and forest trails back towards the start. The sun set and soon we were heading back up the mountain we first climbed over 12 hours earlier. The night views were beautiful and we reveled in our success when we finally reached the end, 13 and a half hours and 52.4km after the start.

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If you’ve read this far, thank you! My next challenge is a full marathon on January 19th. On a pancake flat course, I’m hopeful I can trim a few minutes off my best time, but I’ve said that before! ;-)

Mino Fukube Hill Climb: Report

This morning I took part in my first cycling race. I’ve done a couple of triathlons before, but was apprehensive about a cycling-only race. After all, I’m not a cyclist, I’m a runner with a bike!

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The forecast wasn’t good and, sure enough, it was pouring with rain when I arrived at the foot of Mt. Fukube in Mino City, Gifu prefecture. I expected the race to be called off, but was surprised to see people already kitted out in flashy cycling gear and warming up on turbos and rollers under what little shelter there was at the event site.

Mt. Fukube is 1,162m high, and this race would have us climb from 220m to 870m over 7.6km on a winding road through the forests that cover Mt. Fukube and it’s neighboring peaks. Apparently it’s the joint-third steepest hill climb in Japan.

I signed up for the race a few months ago when I was cycling regularly and a little more enthusiastic than I have been feeling lately. In fact, today was only my third time on a bike since my last triathlon in July! Fortunately, those two other rides were practice runs on this very course so I knew what to expect and what I was capable of.

I checked in yesterday and had my bike looked over by a mechanic. He tightened a few screws and gave me the all clear to take part. Had the race been cancelled due to bad whether and had my entry fee not been returned, I was grateful for the bike check anyway. I am useless when it comes to bike (and car) maintenance.

The event hall looked like it might have once been a school, and farther down the road are colorful gates to an empty lot where once there was a kindergarten. Real examples of Japan’s dwindling population, especially in remote areas such as this. The small village where these schools once were are looking old and run down, but people still came out in the cold, wet conditions to cheer us on. I made a point of thanking everybody who encouraged me up that mountain.

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The car park was a muddy mess and simply getting my bike and gear out of the car to somewhere dry was quite an effort in itself. Then there was the customary, pre-race trip to the toilet. There was probably only one woman in the whole race so I stepped out of the long line for the men’s loo and hopped into the women’s lavatory. Just as I was stepping into a cubicle there was a gasp by the only woman in the race who had come into the loo moments after me! I embarrassingly excused myself and rejoined the long line for the men’s.

At 8 o’clock we were asked to move to the start line, some three or four kilometers up the road. This short ride was enough to get me soaked through, and then we waited, shivering at the start line for twenty minutes. It’s amazing how just two weeks ago we were basked in sunshine and temperatures over 30°C, and now this. Had it been a running race, we’d all be bouncing up and down, jogging on the spot to keep warm. For cyclists holding bikes and wearing clip-on shoes, we just stood there, anxiously waiting for the starting gun.

“Pssssssssssss!” went one guy’s front tire minutes before the start. The poor chap got a puncture simply standing next to his bike! Hats off to the staff that sprinted off to find and bring a replacement wheel for him.

I was in Class D, a group of 18 men from 35 to 39 years of age, all, no doubt, given permission by our wives to be here. Judging by their bikes and kit, it was clear they took their cycling quite seriously. I was the only one without Lycra, and the only one with my number stuck to my front and back, marathon-style, instead of my sides, cycling-style. What a newbie!

When the gun went off for my group at 8:36, I was the slowest clipping my feet into the pedals and within one minute, my whole group had disappeared out of sight. One minute later and the gun sounded again for Class E. Another minute later and I was passed by a dozen riders. This was not the start I was hoping for, but it wasn’t completely unexpected.

From my last practice run up Mt. Fukube, I knew the hardest part was the first, long climb up to the first switchback. Just as I did in practice, I stayed in the lowest gear up to that point. It wasn’t long before I spotted a couple of people in the distance that had underestimated just how steep this hill is. I chuckled an evil chuckle under my breath and passed them, still in the lowest gear.

Some of these cyclists are phenomenal. I’m not usually one to eye up other men, but these guys have legs like horses! Huge calves and quads, turning the crank like they were stirring a cup of tea. I was overtaken by dozens of these cycling powerhouses.

Once past that first switchback, I shifted up a gear and pushed on. Now moving at a whopping 10km/hr, I was able to hold off the two gents I’d overtaken and pass a couple more from other classes. I actually felt good, like I was getting stronger while everyone else was fading. This is a feeling I’ve always wanted in my running races, but never achieved. Today, having set off so slowly at the start, I was positively flying at the end.

The highlight of my race came when I chased down and overtook one more cyclist right at the finish, beating him by a nose! He must have been gutted. I bet he never saw me coming. He slowed up just before the finish line and I zipped past him, snatching 15th place in my group by a single second!

The next half an hour or more was spent freezing in the rain and wind at the top of the mountain. Fortunately I had my new Goretex rain gear sent up so was able to dry off and put that on, still cold, but at least I was dry. Others stood around, physically shaking in their Lycra shorts.

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Eventually we were allowed to cycle back down the hill, a grueling journey that tested one’s forearm and grip strength to its limit as I squeezed and held the brakes tight on the steep 10km descent back to the event hall. To be honest, that was harder than the ride up!

I was pleased with the effort I put in today, and I think the staff and event organizers did a fantastic job in terrible conditions. I have to admit, though, that the race hasn’t inspired me to enter other cycling events. In fact, now I don’t have any races, of any kind, on my calendar for the first time in three years. I have come to the realization over my last few races that I am average at best in these sports and as such, don’t really need to take part in official, timed events that cost money and may well take place in the rain or when I’m injured, months after registering for them. I like having the freedom to run, or cycle, wherever I want, whenever I want.

This doesn’t mean I won’t take part in events. I’ve made friends and joined groups on Facebook that host small, local events, which are free from the rigid rules and regulations of official events. For example, I’m joining a dozen others in a 30km run/walk from Nagoya to Kakamigahara, a trail run during the colorful “autumn leaves” season with the Risu Trail Running club, and may even dress up as Santa for a 10K “Santa Run” in the streets of central Nagoya this Christmas.

There’s still a lot of fun to be had, and I haven’t completely ruled out doing another big trail running race next year, possibly a re-run of Utsukushigahara… to see if I can finish it this time! ;-)

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(That’s me in 15th.)

Update: I was 88th out of 108 overall.