Journey to 100K: Picking the right vest for ultra marathons

In my buildup to my first 100K, one of my largest issues is determining which vest would be best. During my previous ultras, I have worn a model from Orange Mud, a pack that rides on the runner’s back and has single or double bottles.

But for this longer race, I didn’t want that weight on my back for what could be a 12- to 14-hour day. My preference would be to have a vest where I could use bottles (I am not into bladders) and have a decent amount of storage for nutrition and other necessities between aid stations.

Over the last six weeks or so, these are the three vests I have been testing (in alphabetical order by company name):

o Nathan Fireball Race Vest

o Salomon S-Lab Sense Ultra 5 Set

o Ultimate Direction Jurek FKT Vest

Appropriate vests for the courses

This spring, I will be doing my second 50-miler as a build-up to my first 100K in May. Both races – the Big Turtle 50-miler in Morehead, Ky., and the Ultra Race of Champions (UROC) in Virginia offer lots of elevation change. About 8,000 feet of gain and the same descent for the out-and-back Big Turtle and 9,000 feet of gain and 8,000 downhill for the point-to-point UROC course.

Both courses feature an appropriate amount of aid stations. However, between Mile 17.5 and Mile 33.3 at Big Turtle, there is only one aid station – at the Mile 25.4 turnaround spot. Given that it will be mid-April in Kentucky, the weather could be warm, meaning I will need to carry enough water to get to the next aid station before and after the turn.

The options

Salomon S-Lab Sense Ultra 5 Set

Let’s start out with the smallest but lightest vest, the Salomon S-Lab Sense Ultra 5 Set. It is available in black, blue and red. Sizes range from extra small through extra large.

This vest is compact but allows the runner to stash plenty of trail necessities. Salomon designed it with thin mesh material that allows male trail runners to wear the vest shirtless while females can wear it with a sports bra. Note: It hasn’t been warm enough for me to test it that way, but it feels soft enough from the touch to wear it this way.

  • Hydration: Two 17-ounce soft shell flasks sit in the front pockets. These are easy to access but a little difficult to drink from while on the go. They are easy to fill up as the lids unscrew easily.
  • Comfort: This vest is incredibly comfortable. The straps that connect the vest around the runner are easily adjustable and stay secure even when hitting top speeds.
  • Storage: Very adequate and a smart use of side pockets, though they can be a little difficult in accessing when the vest is being worn. I was able to stash quite a few items of various shapes in the front and side pockets. A front zippered pocket by the right shoulder is a perfect size for car keys and credit cards or cash. There is a back pocket without a zipper. I wouldn’t trust leaving anything in there that I really need as it could come out unbeknownst to the runner. Overall, I wasn’t able to get as much gear stashed but then again this vest is designed for speed long long races.
  • Verdict: This is a great vest for training runs and races up to 50K, perhaps 50 miles depending on the runner’s comfort level and the number of aid stations on course. If the runner chooses to utilize drop bags, this vest may provide enough room to get by for a 50-miler. Still, for longer ultra distances, it doesn’t have enough space for jackets or other items that a runner might need when the sun goes down.

Ultimate Direction Jurek FKT

The Scott Jurek vest makes excellent use of multiple pockets, allowing for plenty of storage in the back but enough easily accessible areas in the front to allow the runner to grab a gel, phone, nutrition or something else while on the go. It comes in gray and white styles in sizes small, medium and large.

  • Hydration: The vest comes with two 20-ounce ergonomic FlexForm bottles, which can easily be pulled out and used or refilled. There is room in the back for a 2-liter reservoir (sold separately).
  • Comfort: The vest is comfortable and stays in place during trail runs. I have encountered some shoulder pain during my longer runs but that could occur regardless of which vest I happen to be wearing at the time.
  • Storage: The Jurek model was able to pack away the most gear and nutrition of the three tested vests. It has seven pockets of various shapes accessible while wearing it. There are two absolutely genius pockets are the bottom of the vest that are great for storing a pair of gloves in one, and a pair of socks in the other. The other front pockets allow for a phone, keys, nutrition, gels and more. Also notable: For those who use trekking poles, there are front-access pole holders that allow you to stash your poles when not needed..
  • Verdict: This vest is a clear winner, although that should not come as a surprise since an ultra running legend helped design it. This vest will support runners who will be out for a significant amount of time and could be facing inclement – or changing – weather conditions. Being able to stow a jacket – and more rain gear – in the back could prove to be a huge benefit for those looking to explore the mountains. I see no reason why this vest would be unable to support its runner in 100-mile races in most conditions. It would also be an asset during FKT attemps, or long unsupported runs.

Nathan Fireball Race Vest

The minimalist vest is bottles only, no bladder. It comes in Bluestone (dark gray/bluish) and Cockatoo (teal, light gray). One size fits all.

The adjustable vest means runners of any size can use it. However, the straps that connect the vest can be somewhat inconvenient for a smaller runner, who has lots of useless strap. There is a way that the unused strap can be rolled up and tucked away. But it’s not something I would want to personally deal with adjusting during a long race when I am removing or adding layers.

  • Hydration: It comes with two 12-ounce insulated flasks with push-pull valves. A 1.5-liter bladder is available to purchase separately and stash in the back.
  • Comfort: The vest is comfortable and it stays put even when ascending or descending hills. Nathan incorporates mesh on the back to trap and wick away moisture, decreasing the odds that the runner is chafed.
  • Storage: There is room in the front for basic essentials like gels, other small nutrition, car keys, etc. One flask pocket has a small exterior pocket that could hold a gel or car keys. The dedicated phone pocket on the left shoulder fits up to an iPhone6 (my iPhone8 did not fit). The vast amount of storage space is at the back of the vest. I was able to fit a lightweight running jacket inside – and it would have fit even with a bladder in the back. However, I much would prefer to have more of the additional gear I would be bringing on a long run in a place that would be easier to access.
  • Verdict: This vest would be ideal for training runs in conditions that could change. For example, when the runner sets out on a multi-hour run with a chance of storms in the forecast. Having a light, comfortable vest with the security of rain gear, hat, gloves or other such items in the back would make such a run less stressful. However, given that few items will be easily accessible in the front, I would shy away from this vest for races. It should be noted that the Nathan vest offers reflective trim, which is a good safety feature.

My conclusions

There is a lot to like about all three of these vests.

As for my two ultras during the first half of this year, I will likely choose the Ultimate Direction vest. It has by far the most cargo room and its bottles are easy to pull out for drinking or refilling.

While the Salomon vest is amazing, I am going to be more comfortable with having more storage. But when I find myself at the starting line of a 50K once again, I will likely be wearing the Salomon vest.

The Nathan vest has a lot of pluses but I believe I would find myself choosing it for long training runs, or perhaps when I am exploring a new area and need storage for emergency uses. It’s a solid vest, just not at the top of my list.

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