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September 18, 2008

The Socks of Erised (Drymax Review)

"Sir - Professor Dumbledore? Can I ask you something?"

"Obviously, you've just done so," Dumbledore smiled. "You may ask me one more thing, however."

"What do you see when you look in the mirror?"

"I? I see myself holding a pair of thick, woolen socks."

Harry stared.

"One can never have enough socks," said Dumbledore.

- J.K. Rowling, from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

Three months ago, if you had put me in front of the Mirror of Erised wearing nothing but shorts and a running shirt, my answer to the above question would have been very similar to Professor Dumbledore’s; namely, I was just looking for a great pair of socks.

The magic of the mirror (hint: spell it backwards) is that it reflects not what is seen, but whatever the observer longs for above all else – and for me, during the times that I was logging upwards of 100 weekly trail miles, comfortable socks were very near the top of that list.

Unfortunately, I never settled on a brand of trail running socks that I liked. During my six-month buildup to Western States, I went through Wigwam, Thorlo, Balega, Smartwool, and REI brand socks, with varying levels of satisfaction (or, in most cases, dissatisfaction) over one aspect or another. When I finally toed the line at the Headlands 100, I wasn’t fully confident in any particular socks to see me through the task.

You know how this part of the story goes: over the next 23 hours, I got a lot of blisters, and ended up losing a couple of toenails.

So even though my season was over, I was still determined to find the magical socks that could prevent something similar from happening in future races. And that’s why, when an opportunity to try Drymax socks presented itself, I jumped in with both blistered feet.

I only wish I had found them sooner.

Before we get to specifics, there’s something else worth emphasizing: in previous reviews, I’ve espoused my pet philosophy of marketing to endurance athletes – namely, that companies are much better served by a grassroots word-of-mouth campaign using several talkative “spokesbloggers” than by paying big money for high-profile professional athletes or glitzy multimedia advertising. And over the past several months, that’s exactly what the Drymax company has done.

I had already heard of Drymax – and you probably have, too – but it wasn’t from a full-page ad in a magazine. Instead, I kept seeing references to them in endurance blogs, and online recommendations from triathletes and ultrarunners. Drymax has sponsored a handful of higher-profile athletes (including the women's winner of the 2008 Badwater Run), but for the most part, they’ve built up a following through blogs (in fact, they even have their own blog) and online forums and a willingness to put their products in the hands - more accurately, the feet - of the most demanding users.

Of course, this strategy only works if you have the product to back it up – and Drymax does. This is a company that clearly did its homework before jumping into the crowded running-sock fray, and the results are clear. (In fact, they went into complete overkill mode with scientific analysis and application for these socks; my shipment came with a 105-page hardbound book detailing the specifications and indicated use for the Drymax product line, complete with charts and graphs and research study references. I know, you think I’m kidding – so let’s get to the pictures.)

This package arrived at my house last month: a dozen pairs of socks, along with a handwritten note thanking me for trying them and writing a review. (I’ve mentioned how much I like handwritten notes, right?) That object at bottom center is the hardcover user’s manual; in the back are a handful of reviews from national publications - no surprise: they’re all favorable.

One reason for having such a huge instruction book is that Drymax offers a larger variety of performance socks than any company I’ve ever seen. There are 7 different styles for runners or triathletes (this doesn’t include those made for walking, hiking or cycling), and several styles are also offered in an assortment of heights – for example, you can order your version 3 running socks in crew, quarter-crew, mini-crew, or no-show models – and colors.

Although the variety is awesome, it’s also a potential downside, in that the shopping process initially seems to approach a Starbucks (“tall half-fat double shot mocha frappucino with no whip and extra syrup”) level of complication. If you don’t know exactly what you like, you may have to try a few different styles to find the perfect pair for you. Luckily, in my case, I was mainly focused on trail running socks, so the only thing I had to select was the color - and wouldn’t you know it, they sent me both gray and black options. To their credit, Drymax seems to realize this concern, so they’ve taken an extra step to keep folks organized: they stitch the model name and size into each individual sock.

For example, these are the maximum protection running/triathlon socks that I wore in the Big Kahuna triathlon last weekend. I mentioned that only had eight toenails that day, didn’t I? During the race, I didn’t spend one second worried about foot discomfort – I just put them on in T1 (yes, I wear socks on the bike), and never gave my feet a second thought.

These are the trail running socks I had been dying to try – along with one more detail worth pointing out. See that writing on the top?

All of these socks are made in the USA, baby. Call me biased, but that has to count for something nowadays.

When you put the socks on, they feel unusual at first, and maybe even a bit tight - in the same way that compression shorts feel strange when you’re used to wearing loose shorts. The socks are designed to fit like compression garments for your feet – which, in addition to helping wick moisture, also helps keep gravel and pebbles from the trail away from your ankles. The socks also feel thinner than cushioned socks, but according to the website, they utilize a high-density padding in key areas that adds protection without extra bulk.

One minor criticism of the socks is that the sizing is somewhat unconventional. My foot is a size 11, which normally places me smack in the middle of most brands’ “large” range of 9-12. With Drymax, 11 is the beginning of the XL size, which was the first size I tried, and it felt slightly big. Although I still use XLs without problems, the L size is a better fit for me – so my suggestion is to double-check your fit, and try on a pair if possible before purchasing (or if you're buying over the Internet, buy two sizes and return one).

The bottom line here is that ever since my 100-miler, Drymax socks are all that I’ve worn, and I’ve been extremely satisfied with their performance. I could go on and on about the moisture-wicking technology onboard, how well they score in comparative studies to other brands, how durable they are, or how they’ve been tested in all sorts of extreme conditions – but all of that stuff is on the website and blog, and I’ve already rambled way too long. Suffice it to say that they are extremely comfortable, and keep your feet incredibly dry. Best of all, they don’t even irritate the beds of my missing toenails during my hilly trail runs.

Of course, my real test for these socks will come next spring and summer, when I use them for my high-mileage training weeks and tune-up races, and ultimately for the Western States Endurance Run in 2009. While I can’t guarantee that I won’t have any foot-related problems there, I can at least know that I have the best possible protection to help me make it through 100 miles again.

My introductory comparison to Professor Dumbledore was inaccurate in only one regard: I’ve never had a problem getting enough socks; rather, my desire was to find the perfect pair for my ultrarunning exploits. Now, I feel like that problem has vanished; if I stood in front of the Mirror of Erised today wearing my race-day ultra uniform, I’d undoubtedly look down to see a nice pair of Drymax trailrunners upon my feet.

* Drymax socks are available at Wilderness Running Company for $11.50, minus a 10% discount if you use coupon code R&R10.

**See other product reviews on sidebar. If you have a product to review, contact me at info@runningandrambling.com


Rick Gaston 9/17/08, 11:09 PM  

You like them huh? I just got a couple of pairs from Olga, a gift when she and Larry came by for the Headlands Hundred, you know that race where you totally kicked a**! Anyway I've been running on them but I have yet to race with them. I'll try them out at the Skyline 50k this weekend. I don't know, I've just accepted lost toenails as an inevitable part of running long distances and since I've discovered duck tape I haven't been picky about my socks as long as they were synthetic. However, good to know you endorse this brand, I'll give a pair the race test. They're not cheap though from what I heard. If I like them I might have to go without a few perks to buy a dozen of these super socks.

Danielle in Iowa 9/18/08, 7:13 AM  

Unlike Steve in a Speedo, you didn't even have to dunk your socks in the toilet to get a whole bunch of freebies from Drymax :-)

mweston 9/18/08, 8:15 AM  

I was suprised that you didn't mention Injiri as a brand you have tried. They have worked for me, at least up to 50 miles (my longest so far).

Donald 9/18/08, 9:02 AM  

Hi guys -

Rick: Zombie Runner sells them for $11.50 - that seems about the going rate for most other brands as well. But I agree, the costs can add up when you're buying a whole supply.

Weston: Thanks for the reminder about Injinji. I received a sample from the WS committee (Injinji's a race sponsor), but I still haven't warmed up to the individual toe thing.

Danielle: Steve's video was awesome - that was one of the sites I was referring to in the post. Thank goodness I didn't have to step in my own toilet!

Thanks for your comments.

21stCenturyMom 9/18/08, 10:09 AM  

Donald you are the King of Swag. I don't no anyone who has gotten as many free samples as you- well done!

I'm almost out of socks (they all have holes) so I'll try a pair out thus proving your view on successful marketing. I don't depart with $11.50 for a pair of socks easily but I have a half marathon coming up.

As for the toenails - in addition to cutting them short you need to use an emery board to file from the top of your toe toward the floor. It keeps them from catching on the socks over and over and over which is a large part of what kills them. Do you think the ones you lost will grow back?

Rick Gaston 9/18/08, 12:30 PM  

Donald that's not bad, a friend had told me they were $18 a pop. I'll tell her.

triguyjt 9/18/08, 6:53 PM  

spokesblogger!!! I love the term.....

and I love the fact that you were plugging the made in the usa factor....nothing to sneeze at!!!

Darrell 9/18/08, 7:12 PM  

Something new to try the next time I wear a hole in the toes of my fave PowerSox.

olga 9/19/08, 10:02 AM  

Drymax socks are sweet, I really like them, and I don't endorse easily either. In fact, I rarely rave about things (bad me), so hopefully my commnets on those blogs that do give praise to Drymax will serve the purpose. I just suck at writing promos:)

robtherunner 9/19/08, 5:30 PM  

Man, I guess I need to start raising up in the ranks of blogger athletes, or become more entertaining in my posts. I could actually use some free goods. I do have a pair of Drymax that I had to pay for and I like them, however, they are just a plain white version and I have no idea what sport they are truly meant for.

Anne 9/20/08, 1:34 PM  

It sounds like the socks have come a long way since I bought a pair about four years ago at a marathon expo. They truly kept moisture from seeping through, but man did they burn up your feet. Felt like I was running on hot coals on a long, long run. Glad to see they've evolved for the better.

Gretchen 9/21/08, 1:52 PM  

I have to confess that I didn't actually read this post, but had to remark on your Mirror of Erised analogy. I can't believe I never made the connection with reading it backwards, and I am a huge Harry Potter fan. Seriously, I feel like a total loser. If I looked into the mirror, I would see me, except my name would be JK Rowling. ;)

Annette 9/21/08, 5:53 PM  

There's nothing like finding the perfect sock. Just when I thought I'd found it, the company changed the sock. (Kinda like running shoes, huh?) Anyway, I'll have to check out your endorsed sock. Sounds like a good one. :)

Rick Gaston 9/22/08, 11:01 PM  

Update: the socks felt great the whole time at Skyline to the Sea 50k and no blisters.

Drymax Sports 9/23/08, 10:00 AM  


The socks you purchased 4 years ago were either V1 or V2 which used the same moisture transfer system (hydrophobic Drymax against the skin and hydrophylic Cotton away from the skin). We are now on V3 having changed the outer layer to a wicking polyester so it is far more durable and moves the heat better. V4 will be introduced soon with an new and innovative knitting technique which will allow our light socks to be even lighter and stronger.

Often times our socks are perceived to be warmer but they are just alot drier. When your feet are soaked they do get an evaporative cooling effect but they also soften and are far more susceptable to blisters.

Jamie Donaldson wore our socks from start to finish at her dominating Badwater race this year where we measured temperatures up to 124 degrees and she had no foot issues.

This is a very counter intuitive technology that once is understood makes perfect sense.

Also, I don't believe we were making lite-mesh and hot weather socks 4 years ago.

Anonymous,  9/27/08, 12:33 PM  

I read your review - ordered a couple of pairs. I tried them out today for 25 and LOVED them!!!!!
Thanks for the tip!

I think I do like them better than Injini.

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