Journey to 100k: Putting my best sock forward

As an ultra runner prepares for his first 100K, he tests out a variety of sock brands for their comfort, durability and more.

As I prepare for my first 100K race, the Ultra Race of Champions (UROC) on May 12, I am spending more time evaluating all of the little things more so than in training for previous races. I will be putting more thought into my gear and nutrition and what I need to have a successful debut at the distance.

My previous longest race is 50 miles, which was the American River 50 in Folsom, Calif., which I did last spring and have another one scheduled as a training run for UROC. That 50-miler is the Big Turtle in Morehead, Ky. In my first 50-miler, I did not use a drop bag because between the aid stations and what I could carry, I felt confident that would be sufficient. And it was.

The 100K, however, might be a different story. I would expect to be on the course for at least two, if not four, hours longer than my first 50-miler. UROC offers six drop bag locations at its nine aid stations, not including the finish line.

UROC is still 14 weeks away, as of this writing, so I have plenty of time to practice both nutrition and gear. The 50-mile Big Turtle will be an excellent practice run. For now, I am leaning toward having a small drop bag where I can stash an extra pair of socks, shoes and maybe some nutrition that the aid stations won’t have.

Previously, I have not given much thought to socks. On race day, I’ve picked out a pair and often used compression sleeves. (Note: I am an ambassador for Swiftwick compression socks and sleeves. I have purposely left Swiftwick off this list for two reasons: (a) because I don’t want to have any appearance of a conflict of interest; and (b) these brands are not compression focused, so they would be in a different category.)

The five brands of socks I have tested are Injinji, DarnTough, Drymax, Smartwool and Balega. It is notable that there are different styles of socks tested here. I’m not attempting to compare one sock to another, just provide an overview on each one that I have tested and whether I would consider it a brand I would use for training and racing.

In order of preference, here is how they rank:

Injinji

  • About the sock: Injinjis are well-known for being “toe socks,” which allow the toes to splay out. The theory suggests that with the toes not rubbing against each other, runners will be less likely to experience blisters.
  • What I like: In addition to the unique approach to the toes, the Trail Midweight Mini-Crew rests slightly above the ankle, covering and protecting the heel. It has a double elastic cuff that prevents dirt, pebbles and other trail menaces from getting in. I have worn these socks the most often and have not had a bad experience in them yet.
  • What I don’t like: Getting Injinjis on and off can be a struggle sometimes. It only takes an extra minute to get all the toes line up in order to slip the sock on. However, after a long run or race, one may not be in the best shape to contort his or her body to remove the sock. Still, it’s a minor inconvenience for the quality and comfort that Injinjis deliver.
  • Outlook: In most of my long-distance races, I have worn Injinji socks and have not encountered any issues. The socks have performed well, especially in races that involve heat and water crossings – the ingredients for blisters. I would expect to wear Injinjis at UROC, especially once I get a good understanding of where the water crossings are located.
  • Check out the Injinji Trail Mini-Crew here

Drymax

  • About the sock: The Drymax Trail Run 1/4 Crew Socks are comfortable and designed to protect the foot from the dangers of the trail.
  • What I like: On one of my first runs in the Drymax socks, I purposely ran through a puddle. The socks felt like they dried immediately, thanks to Drymax’s arch band and breathable mesh panels on top that help keep feet dry and repel moisture. Also, there is a noticeable padding underneath, which acts to support the bottom of the foot.
  • What I don’t like: In various online reviews, people have pointed out that the socks’ sizing is off. I did find them to be a little big as well, however after going through the laundry a few times, the socks’ fit is on point.
  • Outlook: There is a lot to like here. Of all the new brands to me, I prefer Drymax for the reasons stated above. I will definitely be putting them to the test during training, and if all continues to go well, they will accompany me to UROC with a pair of Injinjis.
  • Check out the Drymax Trail Run 1/4 Crew here

Darn Tough

  • About the sock: Darn Tough Endurance Merino Light Cushion Crew Socks feature Merino wool that helps keep feet dry and comfortable whether you are running in August heat or January cold.
  • What I like: The socks are comfortable and offer protection from sweat, debris and water. Darn Tough has created increased breathability with a set of vented panels.
  • What I don’t like: There really isn’t anything about Darn Tough that I don’t like, it’s just that the feel, comfort and moisture control of Injinji and Drymax are better all the way around.
  • Outlook: I really don’t have a problem with Darn Tough socks. I will continue to wear them – and be confident in their performance – as I train. But at least for now, I will only be using them for training runs.
  • Check out the Darn Tough Endurance Merino Light Cushion Crew Socks here

Smartwool

  • About the sock: The Smartwool PhD Run Ultra Light Micro socks stay true to their name. They are light, so light in fact, it’s easy to forget you are wearing them.
  • What I like: The mesh helps wick away moisture and creates a very breathable sock, which is incredibly comfortable. It’s like slipping your foot into, well, a soft slipper.
  • What I don’t like: I don’t trust them going through water crossings. What makes them so light and comfortable doesn’t seem to qualify the socks as something I can rely on through wet conditions.
  • Outlook: At this point, I believe these socks would be suitable for a trail race in the summer, up to a half marathon. Since I have not had the opportunity to test them in mild weather, much less summer heat, the jury is still out on whether they would work in longer races. As we head toward spring and summer, future tests may make me a believer in them for longer distances.
  • Check out the Smartwool PhD Run Ultra Light Micro here

Balega

  • About the sock: The Balega Enduro V-Tech Quarter comes with an arch support system with compression bands that provide a quality fit, without being too tight.
  • What I like: The socks are comfortable and the mesh construction allows the feet to ventilate properly. Yet they are still warm enough to provide protection when the temperatures cool down.
  • What I don’t like: After only a handful of runs, my toe poked a hole through the end of one of my Balega socks. I don’t remember how many miles I had on them but I would guess 15-20 miles, not nearly enough for there to be an issue with the sock. I won’t be buying another pair any time soon.
  • Outlook: Hard pass. Not for the 100K or any other race or training run for the foreseeable future.
  • Check out the Balega Enduro V-Tech Quarter here




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