Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Another pair of legs, a review of the Leki Micro Vario Trekking Poles.

Without my Leki Micro Vario Ti Cor-Tec Trekking Poles, I don’t see how this flatlander from North Texas could’ve finished my latest Mountain excursion at the Kat’cina Mosa 100K in Utah.  By the end of the Kat’cina, my arms and shoulders were just as shot as my legs, requiring every last ounce of strength from my whole body to traverse the entire rocky 62 miles and 17K+ ft of elevation gain/loss, squeaking in at the last hour of the race.  I probably would’ve fallen too behind the cutoffs at mile 40 something on their tough climbs in the exposed mid-day heat without a pair of sticks to leverage myself up, or badly twisted an ankle on the rocks without the poles to balance myself when my legs were too fatigued to do so on their own.  I’m not always the most dedicated runner, I’m not out there doing tire pulls while wearing a 20 pound weight vest on a weekly basis, I get discouraged and lazy like a lot of runner’s do about training for difficult races, but the burning desire to experience incredible adventures in the High Country like Kat’cina has always driven me, or should I say guilt and cajoled me into my getting my butt out of bed at 5 in the morning to put in the Yeoman’s work to at least have a chance at completing these races; a chance isn’t good enough when it comes to these Mountain Ultras though, I needed an advantage in an extra pair of legs, and that’s what brought me to rely so heavily on trekking poles over the past few years.

Last year I had signed up and gotten in for the Wasatch Front 100, a legendary Mountain Hundred Mile in Utah, with 27K+ ft climbing and descending; living in North Texas where the hills barely crested 100ft, I naturally freaked out about this.  Not really knowing how to train for such a Monster of a race, I gambled it all on training almost exclusively with Trekking poles on those stump hills we have down here, and taking advantage of my strong suits of extreme stubbornness, and a love for mindless hiking up Mountains, it’s the closest I get to a State of Zen.  In the process, I broke two Black Diamond Ultra-light Trekking poles by abusing the ever loving crap out of them, thank god for REI’s return policy; afterwards a friend recommended I try out a pair of Leki’s, a pricey German import, and I’ve been trying to kill them ever since.  I got the heavier Aluminum version of the Leki Micro Vario just two weeks before Wasatch, because I was wary of Carbon Fiber’s reputation of shattering when struck laterally on it’s shaft (like how my Black Diamond Carbon broke when I fell on it against a rock); they felt sturdy and rock solid on my first few trial runs with them, but coming in at nearly twice the weight (18.5 ounce per pair) as my old Black Diamond Carbon’s, I was very concerned about carrying them for a Hundred miles over the punishing Wasatch Front Mountain range.

As you can read about that ignominious day at Wasatch on my Race Report, I DNF’d at Mile 61 after over 23 glorious hours of huffing it over those gorgeous Mountains.  I came away from that race knowing I had made a lot of mistakes in my approach and execution of the race, but mainly that my beat up shoulders and arms were just not use to the trekking poles; a few hard months of training wasn’t enough, maybe if I had another year to break my shoulders in, I figured.  Regardless of the DNF, I was impressed at how well the Leki’s performed on those rugged Mountains, they were so solid that I had absolutely no fear of placing down as much force as I could on the poles, as I climbed Mountains and endless ridgelines, practically pulling myself up thousands of feet at times with just my arms when my legs felt dead.  With the Leki’s, I felt no Mountain was high enough to climb, until my whole body fell apart anyway by Mile 50 something, but if I could just get use these poles, who knows what will be possible in the future.

A few months after the Wasatch Monster chewed me up and spitted me out, I started looking for redemption, and that’s when I remembered another Mountain race in the Wasatch Mountains further south down the range, the Kat’cina Mosa 100K Mountain Run, with practically the same distance, climbing, and extended 23 hour cutoff as I faced during the miles I covered at Wasatch Front 100; I figured I had a good chance at it, especially with another year’s worth of training.  Regularly training with the Leki Micro Vario’s now, I had my share of success during races in 2016, but also quite a bit of failures in close DNF’s (though not all attributable to the poles), my shoulder’s just wouldn’t stop aching while using them past 20-30 Miles.  A few weeks before Kat’cina, I was doing a self-supported hike up and down Pike’s Peak in Colorado with a friend as a training run, while carrying 70oz of water in my Hydration Vest with extra gear and food for the self supported trip, I had a “duh” moment when I finally realized I was carrying way too much weight on my shoulders during races that was killing me (I normally wear the same vest in races, but with less gear).  

For Kat’cina, I ditched my heavy 70oz Hydration Vest, in favor of my old Nathan Minimist 50oz racing vest, and wore an additional 20oz water belt and Fanny Pack (don’t laugh) to distribute as much weight as I could off my shoulders and onto my midsection.  For my shoulders during the race, it felt like I was taking off a heavy weight vest all this time, and for the first time after using the Leki’s for over a year, they finally felt like an extension of my arms; I had effectively grown another pair of legs over those Mountains.  For 62 incredible miles at Kat’cina, I was able to effortlessly (for the most part) climb up 17K+ ft of Mountains, and keep upright going down some treacherously steep, loose, and extremely technical down hills with the aid of my Leki’s; all without shoulder pain, making the Trekking poles so damn fun to use, while challenging myself to one gut busting Mountain climb after another.  I had gotten part of my revenge on the Wasatch Monster by slaying it’s little sibling Kat’cina, and now I have my sights once more on the 100 Miles of Heaven and Hell over the Wasatch Front Mountain range.  

At the finish of Kat'cina Mosa 100K, rocking my Wasatch shirt, Leki poles, and, err, a fanny pack...  Oh, if the RD is reading this, did buy the print before I screen-shotted the photo, fantastic race again, btw!

All during the 62 brutal miles of Kat’cina Mosa, I put the Leki Micro Vario’s through the ringer, as I pressed down on them with all my strength repeatedly to propel myself up Mountains, and fell on them hard against rocks several times, but the Leki’s survived unbowed, unbent, unbroken as they carried me across the finish line. The Leki’s resilience isn’t the only reason why I love these trekking poles, they’re a joy to use and manipulate on the fly, with three options to grip the poles depending on terrain; as the photo’s below show, you can grip them regularly for the majority of use, palm them going down steep hills (and be able to adjust the length of the poles quickly as well), or hold onto the textured black grip running down the handle for particularly steep hills or climbing over large obstacles like boulders.  Also, the handle themselves, Aergon COR-TEC, are wonderfully ergonomic and I have never blistered once while using them.  The only con I can see for the Leki Micro Vario is the weight, especially if you’re use to Ultra-lights, at 18.5oz per pair for the aluminums, but if you’re willing to spend more, they have a lighter Carbon model, and a newer version with shock absorbers; the latter of which I’m particularly interested in as a second pair strictly for use during races.  

Long legged beauties, they are..
Regular grip, molded perfectly to your hand.  They came with straps attached, but I cut them off, since I never used them, and they just got in the way.
Palming them for steep downhills.
Adjust shaft length on the fly.
This grip option was helpful on the extremely steep Manitou Incline at Pike's Peak.
Folds down compactly, fit's in your carry-on luggage.

I compare using Trekking poles as having four wheel drive on the trails, allowing you to unlock your upper-body strength to power up tough climbs, and provide better balance on the trails when needed. They also relieve a ton of stress from your quads, knees, and feet, and during long climbs (and steep downhills!), your legs can actually start to recover while you're working your arms more; the Leki Micro Vario's does this job well, without fear of breaking. Whichever Leki’s you use choose, you can’t go wrong, as their toughness and versatility will see you through whatever Mountains that stand in your way. With the Leki's in my hands, the Mountains no longer seem so intimidating to this flatlander.  

Bonus pics I took at the Kat'cina Mosa 100K course, enjoy!