Written by Kurt Dusterhoff - http://cotswoldrunning.blogspot.co.uk

After a few difficult races in the heat, I'm really looking for a good warm-weather alternative to my Salomon race vest.  I love its soft flask bottles, but could really do without the way it seems to prevent me from releasing any heat.  Given that I was born and raised in Texas, struggling in the heat is a bit embarrassing, so I really need to sort it out.  I confirmed at Rocky Raccoon last year that, as anyone with an ounce of intelligence would assume, carrying handheld bottles when you're not used to it will tire you out pretty quick.  But, I also decided they were a good option, so decided to look into some small handhelds to see if I really want to go in that direction.  I spent a bit of time playing on www.ultramarathonrunningstore.com and bought a couple of the Inov-8 RACE ULTRA 0.25 Soft Flask Handhelds.   I've taken these on a few training runs, ranging up to three hours, to get a feel for whether I would want to use them on an ultra.
 
Free and easy with a couple of small bottles.
The bottle:  it's a simple 250ml Hydrapack soft flask.  So, aside from colour and branding, it's the same construction as the similarly-sized Salomon flasks, or the standard Hydrapack ones you can get on Amazon.  It fills with fluid, you screw on the top, you drink the fluid, and there's no sloshing sound.  So, what do Inov-8 bring to this little party?  Essentially, they bring a couple of mesh pockets and some bits of compression string.  There's nothing complicated.


Nice breathable gel-sized pocket on one side.
The larger of the two pockets will fit Clif, Gu, or Power Bar gel packs (or similar short, wide containers).  It's not great for TORQ or High-5 or other long, thin gels, but it will do. The gel sits reasonably comfortably in the pocket, but I've found I really just prefer to have it empty so it breathes.


Smaller, key/salt-tab sized pocket on the other
I do, on occasion, use the smaller pocket to hold my keys when I go out.  They fit perfectly, and stay quiet since it's a fairly small pocket.  It's not big enough for most gels.  If I am carrying my keys in the small pocket, it gives a bit of rigidity so I can use the pocket as a handle if I get tired of having the bottle against my hand.

Comfort

As handhelds go, the Race Ultra is a fairly comfortable setup.  The compression string gives some flexibility in sizing.  I find the flask gets a little awkward once it's below half full, because it feels very different to when it is full.  After a bit of time to get used to it, though, it's not really a big deal.  I did notice after a sweaty 3hr run in the mountains last week that I did get a bit of prickly heat on my hand.  With the skin directly against the bottle, I'd suffered a some irritation.  Possibly a slightly looser fit on the day would have helped that, but it's something to consider, since there's no need to constantly re-adjust your hold as you run.

Usability

In an event where you're going to be refilling often, these are as useful/problematic as any other soft flask solution.  The aperture is a tad small, so you should expect spills on your hands (not altogether unpleasant, if it's hot out and the spillage is cool water).  Like all other Hydrapack soft flasks, these suffer from a rather cool phenomenon in that when the lid is replaced on a wet bottle, water can leak out through the lid threads when the bottle is squeezed.  It's quite cool to watch, but would be irritating on a cold day.  If you're planning to refill rarely, then none of that's an issue.
 
With two flasks, it's easy to stay balanced, and they aren't big enough to get in the way much when negotiating gates/stiles or opening gels.  If you have to do something fiddly, it's easy enough to slip off and on without messing about resizing the cords.  With a few gels in my shorts pockets, and possibly a couple in the handhelds, I could quite happily enjoy a 50K with these.
 

Summary

I wouldn't describe the Race Ultra as the most feature-filled handheld solution, but it's certainly a light one.  If you like your race kit stripped-to-the-bone, then these are a good way to go.  They're comfortable enough for at least a few hours, and are a good size to carry.  I'll keep using mine on training runs and they're high on the list if I head back to Rocky next year.

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