Leading up to the 2014 Western States 100, one of my biggest dilemmas was deciding how to stay hydrated during the race. Handheld? Waist pack? Vest? Or, perhaps a combination of all three?
Handhelds typically work well for me, but to be honest, I only enjoy carrying 1 x 20oz bottle, leaving the other hand free to adjust my headlamp, fumble with Endurolytes, open gel packs etc. I knew one handheld wouldn’t be enough at Western States, so quickly dismissed this option.
Waist packs are fine and they can certainly hold enough fluid/other supplies, but the ones I’ve tried tend to bounce quite a lot and feel quite restrictive around my middle. I figured with the amount of climbing/descending to be done at Western States, the bounce, bounce, bounce might really annoy me after a while. Scratch waist pack off the list as well I guess.
So, after several weeks of trying out various options, I pretty much decided the good old hydration vest was the way to go. The only question that remained was “Which hydration vest?”
First choice was the original Ultimate Direction AK Race Vest which served me well at both the 2013 and 2014 Rocky Raccoon 100. However, I find the front bottle holsters don’t quite hold a 20oz bottle in place, which leads to a fair amount of bounce and typically a bruised rib cage. To eliminate the bruising, I have been able to switch out the 20oz bottles for a couple of smaller UD 10oz flat bottles, but with Western States being a brutally hot race, I knew this option wouldn’t hold enough fluids to get me from aid station to aid station. I thought about carrying a 20oz handheld in addition to wearing the vest, but to be honest, this kind of defeats the purpose of wearing a hydration vest.
Second choice was a recently purchased Salomon S-Lab Advanced Skin Hydro 5 Set – a beautifully designed, form-fitting hydration pack featuring front bottle (soft flask) holders and a host of storage options. I plan on reviewing this pack in a bit more detail in a future blog post.
Third choice was a late addition to the product line up – a 2nd Generation Scott Jurek Ultra Vest generously supplied by the folks at Ultimate Direction. The Ultra Vest 2.0 is the product I’ll be reviewing here.
From the Ultimate Direction website:
Scott Jurek designed the SJ Ultra Vest to be the perfect all-around product for everyday use or high-end racing. Comfort and performance are outstanding due to it’s technically advanced design and features.
The SJ Ultra Vest 2.0 adjusts to fit a wider size range with the addition of side adjustment straps. Version 2.0 is also stronger and more durable with a 340gm Power Mesh, Silnylon 66 for increased seam strength, and all pockets have been reinforced with edge banding for better gear retention. An added size zipper improves access to an optional reservoir.
Scott Jurek really understands what runners need, and that is exactly what he designed.
Product Video featuring Scott Jurek:
The first thing I noticed on unpacking the vest was the weight; or rather lack of it. Even loaded with a couple of kicker valve bottles, the vest weighed in at just about 16oz. Secondly, if colors are important to you, the gunmetal and bright blue design make for a great looking vest. As for features, the SJ Ultra Vest is loaded with cool, well thought out selling points:
- Twin sturdy bottle holsters that can accommodate Ultimate Direction 20oz kicker valve bottles (included) or Ultimate Direction Soft Flask Body Bottles. The holsters can even be used to carry a camera or phone and tighten easily thanks to their elastic bungees.
- Twin smartphone-compatible pouches above the bottle holsters, both featuring a nifty velcro closure.
- Four stretchy energy bar or gel pouches – there’s two on each of the bottle holsters.
- Two velcro electrolyte/capsule pockets located underneath the bottle holsters.
- Emergency whistle located on the left shoulder strap.
- Adjustable sternum straps.
- Two large zippered “lat” pockets with enough room to store a phone, gels, energy bars or even a thin,, waterproof jacket. Concealed behind both pockets is an ingenious adjustment strap system.
- Two vertical zippered pockets located on the main back panel.
- Tall mesh pocket to store waterproof jacket/trousers, hat, gloves and those all-important larger items. The compartment will even accommodate a 70oz reservoir/bladder.
- Internal and external bungee system to secure gear/bladder.
- Trekking pole loops.
The first run with the SJ Ultra Vest was a good one – a longish road run on a typical humid Summer day in Virginia. I opted to carry the included kicker valve bottles and aside from a little bouncing in the early miles, the vest stayed put and didn’t chafe at all, although the hard plastic of the round bottles did leave my ribs a little sore and bruised.
Basic adjustment is easy to carry out on the run via the plastic sternum straps – simply slide the hard plastic bits up/down until you find a position that agrees with you, then tighten the straps until snug. Further adjustment can be made via the straps tucked behind the side “lat” pockets, and I was pleasantly surprised how you can really dial in the fit using this new feature. Nice one, Ultimate Direction!
For the second test run I decided to carry a bit more gear – 3 x Island Boost packs in the left side pocket, iPhone in the right side pocket, 2 x 20oz kicker valve bottles in the front bottle holsters, spare t-shirt and cap in one of the rear vertical pockets, and a couple of single serve packs of Tailwind in each of the pockets above the bottle holsters. Naturally, the vest was a little heavier than on the first run, but with a few small strap adjustments, the fit was just as snug.
Once again, the vest performed well over the 20+ miles and left me with zero chafing underneath my Salomon short-sleeve top. Unlike other vests I’ve tried, all pockets (with the exception of the rear vertical pocket which I didn’t need to open) were easily accessible on the run – no need to stop and remove the pack to get to fuel or the phone. The only downside for me was the hard plastic bottles rubbing against my ribs. I can deal with water sloshing around in the bottles (in fact, you hardly notice the slosh after a mile or so), but bruised ribs are not too pleasant. I can’t help wonder if Ultimate Direction should develop a flat-sided 20oz bottle that would still fit in the bottle holsters and sit snug to the body.
For the next test run, I loaded up a similar amount of supplies, but switched out the round 20oz bottles for a couple of the Ultimate Direction Soft Flask Body Bottles. The soft flasks are super comfortable, pliable and conform to the shape of your body, rather than rest painfully against it. The run was much more enjoyable with less sloshing (the flasks collapse as the amount of liquid reduces) and no bruised ribs. The only downside to this option is that the bottles only hold approximately 14oz each – that’s 28oz for both bottles, which is 12oz less than 2 of the round plastic bottles.
The SJ Vest is very durable and shows no signs of frayed stitching or bungees coming loose. The stretchy pocket fabric has retained its original shape nicely and has not developed any tears or holes. Personally, I prefer a slightly more minimal vest such as the AK Race Vest 2.0. I don’t tend to use a bladder during training runs, and the extra rear storage space of the SJ Ultra Vest was kind of wasted on me. If you’re going to be out for a long, long training run, or taking part in a race where you need to carry plenty of kit, the SJ vest is pretty much perfect. I just wish the included round kicker-valve bottles didn’t hurt as much.
As for sizing, I initially thought the Unisex Size Small would suffice (I wear a small in the AK Race Vest), but even with an empty pack and the straps adjusted to their max, the fit was too tight and uncomfortable just walking around the house. The Unisex Medium was a much better fit (chest size 31″ – 39″) with a lot more scope for adjustment.
Priced at $129.95, I think the SJ Ultra Vest is great value for money and a product that will give you years of hassle-free use. However, I would like to see an option where you can just buy the vest without the bottles, save yourself a few dollars and use whatever bottles you already have kicking around.
The SJ Ultra Vest 2.0 is available from the Ultimate Direction website where you can receive Free Ground Shipping on all orders!
Win a SJ Ultra Vest 2.0
In addition to providing the vest used in this review, Ultimate Direction have generously donated one Size Small SJ Ultra Vest 2.0 as a blog giveaway. Just follow the instructions below to enter. Good luck!
Disclaimer: The SJ Ultra Vest 2.0 is a media sample provided free of charge by Ultimate Direction.