What Camera Gear Should I Buy? Part One

As any photographer at any level that has been shooting for any length of time will tell you, the most common question you get is “What camera gear do you use?” or “What should I buy?”  Many people that ask me are referred to my photo gear page and this gets the job done.

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A Better Way to Bag Leaves

Do you have a worn out or useless garbage can?  Now you can breathe life back into it!

You’re thinking “Why have an article about leaf collection in the spring, Jason?”  Well, if you lived in Florida you’d understand.  See, the trees around here don’t drop their leaves when it is cool and the grass is dead.  They wait until things start to heat up, the bugs come out, and the grass is starting to get nice and thick to maximize enjoyment.

Normally, I try to wait until all of the live oaks have dropped all of their oak yak (blossoms) for the year (usually by Easter).  This year they have just been trickling down and  I couldn’t wait any longer or the grass would have gotten too long and the process would have been too painful so last weekend Melanie helped me get our yard nice and leaf free.  Full disclosure:  The magnolia in the front yard has already dropped over 100 more leaves in the two days since the raking occurred.

I have this old wheeled garbage can that long ago got hit by a car and lost its wheels.  It was very difficult to stand upright but I saved it because putting leaving in a can is much easier than leaves in a bag.  The bottom was getting so thin that it had holes in some places.  At some point I saw a handyman special where an old garbage can like this was turned into a useful garbage bag holder.  The beauty of this system is that the bag does not get vacuum-sealed in the bottom of the can, the can “grows” with whatever size bag you want to use, and the bag does not have to be stretched to fit over the lip of the can.  I now share that transformation with you.

Step One – Cut the Bottom off the Can
I used a regular old handsaw designed to cut wood.  I could have made the cut straighter but it still works great.

Step Two – Turn the Can so the top sits on the Ground and Insert a Bag
This inverted taper will make lifting the can off the full bag easy and it makes the whole apparatus more stable. Notice how much easier the bag goes over the small end of the can.

Step Three – Fill Bag with Yard Debris
The sidewalls of the can allow you to compact the debris with your foot or hands without stretching and weakening the bag.  The bag is allowed to expand out the bottom (the old top) of the can allowing for many sizes of bag to be used.  Plus, I got to say “debris.”

Step Four – Tie the Top of the Bag Closed 
I like to try and leave as much of the top open as possible to try and let some sort of biodegrading take place.  Jacksonville doesn’t allow us to just pile our leaves at the curb for collection so either you buy bags or have metric tons of garbage cans that are used just once or twice a year.

Step Five – Lift Can off of Bag and Repeat Ad Nauseam

Mud Run Miscellaneous

[Part Three of a Three-Part Article on the Mud Run]

All good things come in threes:  scoops of ice cream, The Lord of the Rings, the main galaxy morphological classifications and articles telling you everything you need to know to prepare for the Mud Run.

In this catch-all article I’m collecting anything that didn’t fit neatly into the training or what to wear categories.  So let’s continue with answering your questions and then summarize everything in a nice little checklist.

I’ve collected my equipment.  Should I train with it or save it for race day?  It is worthwhile to run about 3 miles in your team uniform before the race.  There is a big difference in wearing cheap boots with long pants and running shorts with weightless comfy shoes.  I wouldn’t do this more than once if your equipment is on par with most.  I know my boots tend to hurt my feet.  The point of trying it all out is to make sure it doesn’t fall apart too easily, doesn’t cause blisters, etc.

If you really want to get a taste of potential problems before the race, when you do your test run, do it near a pool, river or at least a garden hose.  Get wet.  Do your pants fall off?  Better get a belt.  Do the pockets fill with water?  Might need to poke holes in them.

What about right before the race?  Anything special then?  I’d recommend that you hit your longest run one to two weeks before the race.  Once you get into the week of the race, take it easy.  Moderate upper body and core stuff.  Limit your running to short easy runs of three to five miles.  Most importantly, don’t do any exercise two days before the run.  Be sure to eat well during this time.  No junk food.  Get plenty of sleep the night before the race.  The rule of thumb for running is that carb loading doesn’t do a lot if you aren’t running for at least an hour.  This course is tough to judge since you use your entire body and fast teams will finish in 45 minutes while mostly-walking teams will go for about 3 hours.  It probably wouldn’t hurt to eat something like a whole wheat spaghetti dinner the night before, but just don’t overdo it.  Avoid eating items high in fat or fiber that will sit in your stomach a long time.  Go to the event website and look at the results from last year.  The course may be significantly different than the previous year but it will give you an idea of where in your group of racers you might finish.

What about race day itself?  Have all of your gear fire-manned the day before so all you have to do on race day it put it on.  Get your timing chip on you boots and walk around.  This is your last minute check to make sure you have everything and it all works.  Leave your jewelry and anything else extraneous at home.  Get to the starting line an hour before you plan to run.  It is usually more of a madhouse than most of the Jax races so it will take some time to find the start.  Be sure to have eaten a couple of hours before you run.  Be sure to drink some water (maybe 8-12 oz) about 30 min before you run.  I don’t like to stretch before I run.  If you do, don’t forget that.  After the race I’ll do my stretching.  When it comes time to line up remember where your team might fall in the pack and be courteous and line up there.  Think you are faster than about half the teams?  Line up at the midpoint of the group not the front of the line.  Expecting to walk?  Start at the back.

What about finding my team before the race?  This is a real weak point of this event.  There is no central info center or check-in place.  People will be wandering around.  Your best bet is to meet up with your team off site and ride to the event together in one vehicle.  Be sure that everyone has a mobile phone with them the day of the event before you meet.  This way whoever is late can update everyone else.  Of course, don’t take your phones from the meet-up place to the run.

What about during the race?  You will find that even in the competitive division there is much less of a serious tone than other races.  Do your part to keep the event upbeat and fun.  Cheering for other teams is normal.  Assisting other teams on obstacles is always good.  I have been pleasantly surprised at how often one team following another will steady a cargo net, grab a rope swing, etc.

What kind of goals should I set for myself?  Consider setting two goals for yourself.  That way you have more chances to win and more potential positives to build on.  If this is your first organized event, commit to training on a regular basis and attempting the course on race day.

If you’ve done something like this in the past, maybe a 5k or played a sport before, perhaps your goal will be to complete the race and maybe to try and do it in a certain time.

Are you already physically fit?  Maybe you should have a time to beat and a place you are trying to finish.  For example, this last year we had a time to beat and we wanted to finish in the top ten.

What about pictures?  It is almost a guarantee something hilarious is going to happen while you run.  It would be nice to capture the moment.  Apparently there are official photographers for the event, but in the two times we’ve run, they’ve never photographed us so I wouldn’t rely on them.

Get a disposable waterproof camera, a waterproof clamshell for your point n’ shoot/mobile phone or have a friend photograph you.  I strongly recommend the last one.  They can photograph you before the start, at the start and then walk or run the course in reverse until they find your team.

Be sure to get before and after shots.  The Original Mud Run usually has a nice big banner/backdrop on the side of the finish line structure that works great for this purpose.

What about after the race?  If you think you placed in the top three, check with a race official.  Since they have heats going all day, they do awards throughout the day shortly after the third team finishes for each heat.  Don’t forget about your beer and food.  Stick around for a while and cheer people in to the finish.

Now I’m back home.  Do I just throw away these mud-infused clothes?  It is going to be a little work but your clothes are completely salvageable.  Here is my three step process:  1. Lay everything out on your driveway or parking lot and spray it with a full-blast hose.  Get all the chunks and piles out.  Take the insoles out of your boots before you spray them so you have access to all the nooks and crannies.  2.  Fill a big bucket with hot water and soak all that stuff.  I put Oxyclean in with ours.  Amazing how much more dirt comes off right?  3.  Assuming nothing feels gritty anymore, I put everything but the boots in the washing machine.  I wash them until they smell clean (they will never look completely clean again) and then dry them.  This may take two trips through the washing machine.  4.  I wash the boots separately from the clothes making sure that the insoles are separate from the boots.  Our dryer has a little shelf attachment so I can set the boots in there to dry without them tumbling.  I keep the heat on medium to try and prevent any of the boot glue from releasing.  When they are mostly dry I take them out to air dry the rest of the way.

Will I ever get all of this dirt off/out of my body?  Believe it or not, it will be easier to clean your clothes.  Expect to have dirt in your ears and under your toenails even after you shower.  It is just one more funny thing to talk about with your teammates when you see them next.

Jason’s Mud Run Checklist
Training
1.  Running is the key to a fast time.
2.  Run hills or stairs.
3.  Upper body and core exercises will help but are secondary.

Equipment
1.  Head – if vision is good then nothing – if vision is bad then disposable contacts
2.  Chest – water shedding polyester technical T – Target, Dick’s Sporting Goods, etc.
3.  Legs – long durable water shedding pants – 100% nylon hiking pants with mesh pockets – maybe a belt – REI Outlet, Gander Mountain, etc.
4.  Socks – non-cotton – slightly taller than boots – REI, Black Creek Outfitters, etc.
5.  Boots – over the ankle lightweight aggressive lug – Rack Room Shoes, Target, etc.
6.  Team Name and logo – screen print it – think about it before you go online to register
7.  Sunscreen – waterproof
8.  Plastic bag – garbage bag big enough and strong enough to hold your soaking wet gear
9.  Change of clothes – everything (underwear, socks, shoes, etc)
10.  Two crappy towels – one to dry off with – one to sit on for the ride home.
11.  Glasses and eye rinse stuff – after the race toss the contacts, rinse your eyes, wear your glasses

Other Tips

  1. Give your equipment a test run before the race.  Get it wet if you are hardcore.
  2. Have a training plan that allows you to rest two days before the race.
  3. Don’t eat high fat or fiber foods the night before the race.
  4. Have all of your equipment tested and laid out the night before the event.
  5. Look at results from the previous year to get an idea of where you might finish in your heat.
  6. Don’t eat once you are within an hour or two of your start time.
  7. Have your mobile phone with you until you meet your team.
  8. Meet your team at an off-site location and ride to the race together.
  9. Slob on your sunscreen.
  10. Get to the race an hour before the event.
  11. Drink some water about 30 minutes before you run.
  12. Line up according to where you think you’ll finish in your heat.
  13. Have a friend photograph you before, during and after the race.
  14. This is not a serious event.  Remain upbeat and have fun.
  15. Don’t be afraid to cheer for other teams and help them during the race.
  16. Drink beer and eat.
  17. Hose, soak and wash your clothes and boots.
  18. Tell war stories of the race and prepare for next year.

You can find all of my other mud run articles here.

What to Wear for The Mud Run

[Part Two of a Three-Part Article on the Mud Run]

Thanks for the tips on how to train for the Mud Run, but what do I wear?  Well, let’s start from the top and work our way down.

Head Wear nothing.  DON’T wear glasses, sunglasses, goggles, hats, headbands or anything else on your head.  You will almost certainly go completely underwater several times and are just asking to lose anything like this.  Neckties and capes might make a fine fashion statement but safety nerd me sees them as a choke hazard.

Wait, what if I’m blind without my glasses?  Join the club.  I wear a pair of disposable contacts during the race.  Afterwards, I make sure to have a bottle of saline to flush my eyes and my glasses in the car.  I’ve just closed my eyes before dunking my head during the race and it has worked fine so far.  I do have to admit if mud works its way under the contact is isn’t fun, but I don’t know a better option other than Lasik.  Goggles would be a disaster.

Ok, let’s continue with the list.

Chest Some guys go shirtless and some women wear a sports bra.  These are usually the folks that are photographed the most.  The vast majority of people wear a team shirt.  I recommend a technical T (polyester) instead of cotton (alternate Amazon link).  They stain just as bad as cotton (a badge of honor) but they dry a lot faster which means they have the potential to weigh less during the race.  On top of that, they are cheap and durable.  You can get them in a multitude of colors from Target for about $7 at the time of this writing.

Technical T Sheds Water Quicker

Legs If you are running an Original Mud Run event (like the Jacksonville MS Mud Run), you will be required to wear long durable pants.  Do not be tempted to purchase cotton military/camo pants.  Those things turn into lead bricks when they get wet and the pockets fill with water.  You’ll sound like a kid’s swimming pool and be 10 pounds heavier after the first water obstacle.

Instead, I recommend something that doesn’t absorb any water at all.  Our team uses 100% nylon hiking pants.  They are extremely lightweight, absorb no water, and the pockets are mesh on the inside.  We’ve worn them multiple times hiking and through two Mud Runs and they show zero signs of wear.  They come with a nylon webbing belt (handy for keeping them around your waist instead of your ankles).  They are cheap too.  We got ours at REI’s Outlet website for about $14.  You can currently buy the exact same pants at Gander Mountain for about $20 (alternate Amazon link).

100% Nylon Pants – Tough & No Water Absorption

NOTE:  If you do end up with water-trapping pockets, you can either poke holes in the bottom of them or remove them completely.

No matter how tempting, do not tie or velcro the drawstring at the bottom of your pants or, worse, duct tape them closed.  Water will work its way into your pant legs and will remain trapped making lovely ankle weights.

Feet Get socks taller than your boots but as short as possible.  The taller the socks, the more water they’ll hold when wet and the heavier they’ll be.  We wear hiking socks that are made out of a blend of different kinds of fibers.  Some folks like 100% wool.  Whatever you do, avoid cotton socks as they will promote blisters.

Hiking Socks – Thick – Not Too Tall – No Cotton

Again, assuming you are running an Original Mud Run event, you will be required to wear over the ankle boots if you plan to run competitively.  For 2011, they allowed non-competitive teams to run in shoes instead of boots but I don’t know if this exemption will be permanent (everyone had to have boots in 2010).  Whatever the case, you want to wear boots

But why do I need to wear boots?
1.  It’s part of the rules.
2.  Ankle support.
3.  Aggressive treads give better traction.
4.  Shoes will get sucked off your feet and eaten by the mud.

I’ve lived in Florida for many years and I was unaware of just how sticky the mud can be around here.  In some of the deeper mud obstacles it feels like you are dragging small children that are actively trying to pry your shoes off your feet.  Do everyone a favor and wear boots so you don’t have to stop and dig your shoes out of the mud.

You can go with combat boots but there are much cheaper, lighter and more comfortable options available.  You don’t need world-class hiking boots or bomb-proof work boots.  Think high-top basketball shoe with an aggressive tread for gripping slippery ground and you are shopping in the right direction.

We purchased ours at Rack Room Shoes for about $13 on sale.  Others have had success at Target.  This is not world-class footwear by any means but it has held up for two runs.  Admittedly, the super cheap insoles have started to dissolve now that they have been washed twice but they are still functional and will be used again next year.

Cheap-o Boots – Light – No Break in Period – Over the Ankle

Do not wait until the last minute to buy your boots either.  For the last two years, places around town have sold out in the weeks just before the race.  We had one teammate who had to resort to a pair of leather steel-shank work boots.  Those things weighed more than Melanie and my boots combine and they blistered her feet so badly that she was more comfortable running in her socks.

What about esprit de corps?  That definitely factors in to your clothing.  Unlike most other races in Jax, costumes/uniforms are the norm not the exception for the Mud Run.  They don’t have to be expensive.  Just come up with a name and a look that reflects the spirit of the team.

We’ve always taken the cheapest route with a white shirt that has our team logo screen printed on it (do it yourself) but some teams will wear an entire matching uniform.  They range from the serious police and fire fighter teams to the silly.  We’ve run with guys in business suits and a man and woman team dressed as bride and groom.

On a personal note, because the race is “dirty” folks feel the need to come up with extremely crude names.  Maybe I’m becoming an old man, but when I see names that aren’t even a play on a crude word or sex act but are the actual words verbatim, I’m not happy.  Spend just a little time thinking about your name before you sign up and I think you’ll come up with something much funnier than team “Hey, We Smell Like @#$%.”

It bears repeating.  Figure out your team name before you go online to sign up for the race, Mr. Team Captain.  I imagine that a lot of people don’t think through the fact that they are going to have to provide a team name when they are registering until they are halfway through the process and then they pop in the first thought that crosses their mind.

Ok, Mr. Sensitive.  I’ll work out my team name before I sign up.  Any other gear to consider?  I strongly recommend wearing good waterproof sunscreen.  You’ll also want a complete change of clothes, a plastic bag for your dirties and two junky towels – one to dry off with and one to sit on for the ride home.

I suppose you could wear gloves but you don’t really need them.  Your knees will probably get a little chewed up when you crawl around but kneepads would just get in the way.  Leave them at home.

If you’ve got some favorite piece of equipment for the Mud Run that I’ve not mentioned, be sure to list it in the comments below.

The third and final installment will be coming soon.  I’ll wrap things up with a few miscellaneous tips for the making the most of the Mud Run.

You can find all of my other mud run articles here.

Trekking Poles

You can read about how my opinions of trekking poles were changed on our Virgin Falls hike.  I don’t consider myself a gearhead.  You might call me that but I won’t claim that moniker.  Well, not completely.  I appreciate things that work well, but I’m not the guy that has to have the latest and greatest.

That said, I thought hiking or trekking poles were a gimmick to suck money out of people.  I mean, I’d used walking sticks before (and hated them).  How could this be that much different?

I borrowed my brother’s poles, a pair of Leki Summit Antishock Trekking Poles, and loved everything about them except the locking mechanism.  It is a twist lock system and twice while the pole was planted my hand turned unlocking the pole.  It was mostly just slightly annoying but in the wrong situation it could be downright dangerous.  I loved that they had cork handles.  I wouldn’t have thought this would be a big deal but I didn’t get blisters or the warm spots that turn into blisters after using them for an entire day.

Also, they had a shock absorbing system that seemed worthless.  It didn’t really help and just added complexity.  I could actually imagine a time when the inner springs might get loose and hit the pole.  This could be maddening on a long otherwise quiet hike.

Based on this, before my next big hike I plan to buy a pair of Black Diamond Trail Ergo Cork Trekking Poles.  They are lighter weight than the ones my brother had, have cork handles and a cam locking system that seems much more secure than the standard twist lock that most poles have.