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America’s Toughest Road Marathon

My calves are stiff. My body feels weak. It’s a few days after the National College Blue Ridge Marathon, but my muscles and bones are still reeling from the abuse.

Touted as “America’s Toughest Road Marathon,” the 26.2-mile course starts and ends in downtown Roanoke, Va. But along the way it climbs and snakes through its eponymous Blue Ridge Mountains above town, a journey that pits racers against more than 7,000 feet of total elevation loss and gain.

To gear up for the April 16 event, I cherry picked from my best road-running apparel and equipment. Weather at this year’s race — temps in the 50s, torrential rain — made the gear even more important than it otherwise would be for a marathon event.

Storm clouds were ever-present on the race, and wind was in intense. Indeed, I feared hypothermia at the start line, and to combat the elements I wore a thin merino wool T-shirt and a shell jacket.

Merino wool is something of a miracle fabric that’s warm when wet, yet it regulates with your body as you sweat or get too warm as well. My shirt, the $69 Balance T from Ibex Outdoor Clothing, was a crucial piece on this race.

Conversely, my jacket — a close-fitting biking shell — was the wrong tool for the job. I never intended to run in this top, but I grabbed it last minute after the forecast turned brutal. The jacket fit a bit too tight for running, though in the end it worked fine and kept me protected from the wind and rain.

On my feet, I ran in the Road-X 255 shoes from Inov-8 Ltd., a U.K.-based shoemaker. These unusual shoes have a minimalist design and a smooth, non-treaded sole. They weigh a third less than many road shoes.

In Roanoke, the Inov-8 shoes’ light weight was appreciated. Each step on a marathon is an effort, and if you’re moving less weight on each stride then you’re saving energy. It adds up over a long run.

But the tradeoff to light shoes is less padding or “support.” The Road-X 255s, which cost $110, have almost no cushion. I am a fan of this minimal style. Runners in need of more cush should look at another shoe.

On my legs, I wore fancy compression clothing from Salomon. The setup — including Salomon’s EXO SLAB II shorts and its EXO IV Calf “leggings” — proved to be a serious performance boost.

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