Confessions of a (running) shopaholic and the evolution of my brand choices #UltraBoyShops


In 2017 these are the brands that litter my wardrobes: Altra, Montane, OMM, Raidlight, Drymax, Rab, Ronhill, Decathlon, Ultimate Direction, Buff, Oxsitis, Raidlight, Runderwear 

But in 2011 at the start of my running journey the brands that I was using looked quite different: Adidas, Nike, Asics, Marks & Spencer, Rab, Decathlon, Buff, OMM 

And it made me wonder why I’ve evolved from certain brands to others and have I become something of a running kit snob?

The accusation and the defence. I have been accused in the past of being more interested in the kit of running than the running itself and while I was deeply offended by this statement there was a whiff of truth about it.

There is no denying that I love checking out new kit and usually buying far too much of it but I rarely buy things I don’t need and there has been a constant evolution in what I buy to accommodate the needs of the races I run. 

For example the SW100 requires as part of its kit a thermal mid layer and this has required lots of research, lots of testing and in the end the purchase of two hybrid jackets and one synthetic down jacket. However, I’m in no doubt that my (already owned) Rab Powerstretch thermal layer would have done the job perfectly well. But I wanted new kit.

I remember running my first marathon and my kit consisted of a neon orange vest, a pair of Adidas Adios racing flats and a pair of 5 inch Nike shorts (with mesh brief) and the piece d’resistance, a pair of cotton M&S socks, I thought I was the bollocks, sadly, I wasn’t.

These days I roll up to a marathon wearing much more kit, two tops, tights, liner socks, wicking outer layer socks, a race vest/backpack, sunglasses, buff, tissues, compeed, gaiters but at least I now know I’m not the bollocks.

Have I changed, has running changed or have brands simply switched on to the depth of the pockets of this market? 

I wonder if we all go through the kit gears, especially those of us who bang through the disciplines looking for that challenge that fits? Did we all go to a Sweatshop or a Sports Direct for our first pair of trainers? Did we all listen impatiently as the store staff ‘advised’ us? and did we all trawl round the high street shops looking for stuff that wouldn’t make us bulge in new and weird ways? I suspect we did.

Feeling a little uncomfortable. I recall being in John Lewis and trying on a pair of full length tights – Asics, black with blue trim – very understated. However, because it showed the clear shape of my gentleman’s region I refused to step out the changing room. The GingaNinja told me I was being foolish and that you couldn’t see anything (which obviously made me feel SO much better!) but that started me on a journey that has cost me a small fortune one way or another. 

A trinity of trouble. However, how did I go from the high street to really quite niche brands and kit? The answer to that is three fold, the first part is racing, the second part is social media and the third part is ‘I love shopping’.

Turning up to my first race after I returned to running (The Grim Challenge) I wore the aforementioned plain black tights with blue trim, a black t-shirt and some grey with orange trim Asics trail shoes (size 9). I did not feel out of place in this gear, many of my fellow racers had cotton shirts on and worse. However, my eye was drawn to several names I’d never seen before, ‘Zoot’, ‘Inov8’, ‘Camebak’, ‘Montane’ and ‘OMM’. My eyes were agog attempting to process all of this information – Sweatshop and the like had nothing like this and I resolved to find out more about my kit options.

It was around this time that I joined Twitter, the blogosphere and even developed a lazy relationship with Facebook – here I developed community relationships with my fellow runners, cyclists and triathletes who were providing a near infinite amount of new touch points for brands and kit.

But neither of these would have provided me with the drive to develop my unhealthy obsession with kit unless I loved shopping – and I have always loved shopping. Long before running I’ve adored bimbling round shops both for research (looking) and buying and weirdly it could be any kind of shopping too – shoe, clothing, craft or even grocery shopping.

This trio of elements left the perfect conditions for fostering an obsessive love of kit. Adidas and Nike apparel was quickly replaced by OMM, Ronhill, Rab and Montane. I tested dozens of sock types, changing my allegiance as new distances and challenges would change my race needs. It was in the shoe department though that I blasted through many types until I finally settled on Altra with hints of other brands. Vibram FiveFingers, Hoka, On, Scott, Salomon, Pearl Izumi, Brooks, Saucony, Inov8 and many more have been tested to destruction or been deemed completely inappropriate for my feet. I’ve owned more pairs of running shoes in the last five years than I have owned ‘normal shoes’ across the whole of my life.

Even when it comes to running equipment I make my selections only after extensive research and testing. When I first decided I would start RunCommuting I purchased half a dozen bags I thought might be suitable but none of them were ever quite right until I bought the OMM Classic 25 and the OMM 15 both of which still run a little bit today (though the 25 is definitely in its twilight years after being extensively abused). Recently I decided to look again for a RunCommute pack and while the OMM 15 was mostly perfect for my needs I felt the materials now used are nowhere near as good as it was 5 years ago and the classic has had the bungee cords removed from the side therefore removing a very useful component (in my opinion).

I started my research in December 2016 and bought a Raidlight XP14 in mid February 2017 after searching through every foreign language review I could find and then one day when I saw a runner wearing one (and I was in work gear) I gave chase. I caught up to him somewhere in Mayfair and drawing level I said ‘excuse me is that the Raidlight XP14?’ His reply initially was ‘what that fuck??’ but upon realising I was asking about his kit he stopped and let me try it on – very nice of him on a cold February morning. Job done, research over, purchase made.

Understanding yourself. What I’ve learned over the last five years is that the right kit is essential and that the right kit for each person is very different.

However, it’s important to note that the UK high street isn’t really equipped to deal with runners needs and that by expanding our search and looking at the brands that we might associate with outdoor adventuring rather than running and you’ll often find equipment more tailored to you – even on the high street.

It’s a shame that we can’t learn a lesson or three from our European neighbours who appear to have high quality high street sports stores much more readily available. (But the UK and it’s attitude to all things European is a contentious issue currently).

Should you be brand loyal? We also need to be wary of brand loyalty. Just because you love a particular item doesn’t mean you should buy everything they make! You’ll see brand ambassadors ‘head-to-toe’ in a manufacturers garb but the reality for us mere mortals is that we should be testing everything and always questioning whether something is right for us – none of us want draws full of ill fitting, unused kit just because Anton, Scott or Elisabet was seen wearing it!

Undoubtedly my kit choices cost me more and I could buy things much more cheaply but not necessarily more cost effectively. Cheap rip-offs from Sports Direct (and similar) are pretty much just that – put a Salomon shoe next to a Karrimor shoe and while they might look like siblings I believe you’d find the experience very different (and that is a test I’ve done). I could also do things more cheaply by not buying from independent retailers but I value the contribution and advice that these awesome retailers provide and want them to be there in the future.

Providing value for money. I should point out though that not all cheaper brands are bad. One high street brand name that has remained constant from day one of my running is Decathlon – the lovely French brand that covers just about every sport going. Decathlon proves quite simply that you don’t have to pay a fortune to get high quality, well developed and long lasting kit and it certainly gives a kicking to many of its more expensive rivals (though you don’t always have to ape Salomon in your race vests chaps!). I’d also give some credit to ‘Crane’ from one of the discount German supermarkets, though the lack of availability and sometimes questionable longevity make this kit a little hit and miss.

Importantly though, I don’t want to be unkind to major high street names like Asics, Adidas and Nike – they have their place.

In truth I still love my Nike commuting shorts (4 pairs, 3 still going strong) which I’ve worn pretty much every day for five years. I’m simply suggesting that there’s a great big world of exciting kit waiting to be discovered – don’t limit yourself.

The snobbery question? Am I kit snob? I like to think not as I try to find the kit that works – it’s true that I would love to see Sports Direct closed down because I feel they provide a path of least resistance to runners who can’t be bothered to look for more effective kit. So if despising Sports Direct makes me a snob then so be it.

So what am I asking you to take from this?

  1. Research extensively 
  2. Test extensively
  3. Evolve your kit and knowledge
  4. Ask questions…
  5. …but remember you’re only getting an opinion
  6. Question brand loyalty
  7. Support independent retailers
  8. Buy cost effectively not cheaply
  9. Avoid Sports Direct (it’s associated stores) and Karrimor
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