Friday, 8 July 2016

Review: Oakley Flak Jacket XLJ Sunglasses

Here comes the sun, doo-be-doo-bee...

...oh wait, it's gone again.

Such is summer in Northumberland!

As runners, we spend a lot of time outside. This means that the eyes can take quite a battering; high exposure to UV light can cause permanent damage. For trailrunners, there are even more risks: running through forests etc means constantly being on the lookout for an errant branch that might gouge your eyeball, and it only takes a single midgie on a kamikaze mission to bring me to a swearing, eye-wateringly blinded, halt.

This is relatively easily mitigated by wearing a good pair of sunglasses. I've experimented with all sorts, from an old pair of Ray-Ban "sport" sunglasses, which bounced around all over the place and left me with a pretty hefty bruise on the bridge of my nose(!), to dhbs with changeable lenses, to cheap knock-offs of Wayfarers, in true ultrarunner hipster style. None worked especially well; in fact, I'm not convinced that the fake Wayfarers technically worked at all... They may not have even offered UV protection! The dhbs were probably the best of the bunch, and certainly the most versatile, but they didn't stand up to even moderate use, so the quest was on. I was prepared to spend a decent amount of money, if necessary, but the glasses had to be right; eyes are important, man.

Things to look for

For me, the option of interchangeable lenses is worth having. In the winter, I'm very likely to be out running pre-sunrise/post-sunset but, whilst that will mean I won't have to deal with glaring sunlight, it doesn't remove the other risks such as branches, and even hail. At that point, eyewear becomes necessary primarily as safety-goggles. Lenses are assigned categories based on UV light transmission, according to the European standard:

  • Category 0 - 80%-100% transmission - for fashion, indoor use, or cloudy days
  • Category 1 - 43%-80% transmission - low sun exposure
  • Category 2 - 18%-43% transmission - medium sun exposure
  • Category 3 - 8%-18% transmission - strong brightness, light reflected of water or snow
  • Category 4 - 3%-8% transmission - intense sunshine for high mountains, glaciers; not for use when driving or on the road

Clearly, running at night in Cat 4 lenses is a recipe for disaster/hilarity, depending upon how you look at it and where you're running. With friends in a safe environment? EXTREME BLIND MAN'S BUFF!!! On a winding country road at 5am in January? Organ donor. For me, Cat 2 was likely to be enough for most use, as we don't get crazy bright sun up here and I don't spend any time on water or in snow, but the ability to swap out for Cat 0 or 1, or even Cat 3 if necessary, was high on my list of requirements.

I also wanted something bomber. Lack of durability is something that really annoys me when it comes to gear. Whether it's planned obsolescence or what, I don't know; I hope not, as I'd love to believe that the companies making trailrunning gear share the ethics of the majority of the trailrunners around, but I'm not naive. I do know that I don't have the kind of disposable income necessary to replace kit with quite the regularity that sometimes seems necessary and, more importantly, I object to such shenanigans on environmental grounds. Also, if I'm treating this as partly a search for safety goggles, then the eyewear needs to be robust enough to fulfill that function.
Finally, they needed to be wearable. Sometimes sunglasses seem to sit at a bizarre jaunty angle on my face, which is somewhat annoying to say the least. Bouncing around was a big no-no as well,as was bruising.

I knew that Oakley offered interchangeable lenses, and were generally well regarded for protection, so they were my first (and, if I'm honest, pretty much my last) stop. I did check out Bloc, but none of the ones I tried were swappable and they suffered from the jaunty angle issue. Oakley have the advantage of being pretty easy to get hold of in the UK, compared to brands like Julbo which, whilst seemingly quite popular, are harder to try. A trip to Cotswold Outdoor in Newcastle led me to the Oakley cabinet, which was stocked with a few models, one of which being the Flak Jacket XLJ with the Prizm Trail lens.

This seemed like a great idea, lens wise, and the fit of the glasses was pretty good; nice and secure thanks to the "Unobtanium" nose pads etc. I would have bought them there and then, except I was unsure whether to go for the XLJ lens or the standard size. Since Cotswold didn't have any standard size in stock, the guy I was speaking to told me to go off and try and get hold of a pair of standards to try. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to find any (it seems this is because Oakley don't actually make the Prizm Trail in a standard size) but, whilst looking on the Interwebz that night, I found the same glasses quite a bit cheaper from RxSport. I will usually make a point of buying the item from the store if I've had any significant advice etc, rather than going and chasing it down for cheaper via mail-order, and especially if the sales assistant is going to get some kind of commission. In this case though, I had only tried the glasses on in-store, having done a good amount of research myself beforehand, and the price difference was too great to ignore, so I went for it.

The next day, I got a call from RxSport letting me know that, whilst they were giving the glasses a final check before dispatch, they had noticed a scratch on the lens. They obviously didn't consider that acceptable, but that was the only pair in stock and they needed to order replacements from Oakley; when was the event that I needed them for, so they could do everything possible to get them to me in time? The Kielder 50k was still weeks off at this point, so I was very relaxed about a delay, but also very impressed by their customer service. I highly recommend RxSport if you're buying "optics" in the future.


The Prizm Trail lens is awesome; the trail really does "pop". It's not going to turn me into a world-class descender, but that extra contrast does just give me a bit more confidence to run fast on a technical downhill. The Unobtanium holds the glasses fairly securely initially, but once you've got a sweat on it's like they're superglued to your face. They're also really lightweight, and I haven't had any bruising from wearing them; I had them on for over five hours doing the Kielder 50k, with no issues. I do find the lenses fog pretty quickly once I stop moving, but that's going to be the case with a lot of (all?) glasses, and they clear very quickly when I start moving again. I haven't actually tried swapping the lenses out yet, as the Prizm Trail works for me on road as well. A cyclist may prefer to swap between Trail and Road depending on whether they're on the MTB or Roadie, as spotting a pothole early when you're moving at 30mph on skinny tyres is quite a good thing. I clearly don't run fast enough for that tiny difference in contrast to matter(!) so sticking with the Trail is fine.

The only negative really that I can find is that the lens is quite in-your-face; presumably because of the way it filters the light, it's a red colour ('grapefruit', according to Oakley) with some kind mirroring effect on it. Not subtle, to say the least. Because they're so good, I've been wearing them more and more as my daily sunglasses. Initially I was a bit self-conscious about them, but I'm starting to get over that, and embracing my X-Men-like appearance.

In summary, very happy with the Oakley Flak Jacket XLJ Prizm Trail. If you're in the market for a pair of glasses for trailrunning I highly recommend them. Regardless, it's worth taking the time to get yourself some decent eye-wear; protect those peepers, peeps.

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