Depending on the distance, the time of year, and the location or terrain, the gear needed to contribute towards a successful ultra marathon finish may vary. Having run over 45 ultra marathons within the past 14 years, I have had the (un)fortunate, and quite painful, luxury of experience to learn from and confidently understand those subtle nuances of running on the trail and in the mountains…for very long periods of time. The following is a general overview of my racing experiences and opinions with regard to the 100 mile ultras I have run in that time frame. This is merely a suggested guide to help with what can be, much like an ultra itself, a very long and rugged learning curve.
When preparing for your race, it is necessary to spend some time studying the course, especially the aid stations and the distances (as well as the terrain) between each. Is there crew access? Are drop bags allowed? These questions become more important the further the distance of the race. Strategically placing (and leaving behind) gear and nutrition makes the running experience much more ‘lighter’ (i.e. more enjoyable, in that you will carry less).
Throughout the years, and I was guilty of this in the beginning, I have noticed a large number of runners that race with unnecessarily large packs. This tendency often arises from the mindset of a “just in case” scenario, of anxiousness and nerves with regard to the precipitous “unknown” of a long day in the mountains. Not only do excessively large packs begin to feel heavier the longer your running experience does last, but they can become a proverbial “weight on your shoulders” that may effect your running posture, your comfort, your mood, and even your desire to continue.
From my experiences, it helps to utilize the offerings of the aid stations. Learn to and become comfortable running with only what you need for 8 to 12 miles. Or rather, become confident training with more than you need and racing with less. A handheld water bottle (or two, if hot) is more than enough water to run that distance comfortably.
The following represents the gear with which I have had experience–mostly what has worked and some that has not. Again, a lot depends on the context of the run in which you are participating.
Keep it simple. I am a huge fan of Patagonia Trail running clothing. Exceptionally well-made, with breathable and quick-drying fabrics that float on your skin, they know how to make clothes that you can run in…for a very long time. Shorts with pockets are a must, especially in ultra marathons. Pockets provide quick access to any nutrition you may want to carry, a place to stash your gel wrappers, sandwich crusts (2012 LT100 race report) or even that Barred owl feather you just have to pick up. I once carried a really cool piece of quartz I found during a race…for 20 miles…in my pocket! As far as a shirt goes, I like to be cognizant of the seams. Hours of movement in one shirt, depending on the environment, can cause some chaffing–especially if involving a pack…or wear nip guards.
It is good to run in lightweight, easily shed, layers. Apart from your (base layer) running shirt, I prefer just a second long sleeve running tee as my next layer. Lightweight and packable, it can easily be wrapped around your waist while running, should you need to shed.
Last fall in the mountains of northern Utah, it rained for 16 hours straight while I ran the Bear 100. The first 14 hours were dry and hot, but every runner knew there was a cold front approaching, and, as the dark clouds swallowed the setting sun, it began. A rain jacket helps….to some extent. But learn to accept the elements because you will get wet, be wet, and your feet will stay wet. Just pretend you’re a kid again, embrace the mud and playing the rain! That being said, I wore a trash bag over Hope Pass at the Leadville 100 in 2008 …because it was bluebird at the Twin Lakes aid station and I didn’t bring my jacket with me. Ha! Mountain weather. Approaching tree line, the temperature dropped 20 degrees, the wind was paralyzingly cold, and graupel pelted my bare skin numb. Luckily, the llamas (well, their human caretakers) were handing out giant black trash bags to unprepared runners at Hopeless aid station. I’ve never been so stoked to look so stupid in my life!
At anywhere form 4 to 10 ounces, a good lightweight jacket will not weigh you down and can easily be packed to the size of your fist. A couple of quality options in this category: Patagonia Houdini (or more water-resistant Alpine Houdini) or the Outdoor Research Helium (or Hybrid Helium). Both are excellent, nearly weightless and pack to the size of a couple of energy bars.
hat/gloves I always run with lightweight synthetic gloves if the temperature is below 60F. They provide a excellent body temperature regulation for a wide range of temperatures. A lightweight merino beanie is critical for pre-dawn starts, nighttime shuffles, and high mountain passes as well. Although, be mindful as, 13 miles into my 2010 Leadville run, I stopped to use the trailhead porta-potty at Mayqueen and, forgetting I set my beanie on my lap, watched with amusement, as I experienced the conflicting emotions of being both relieved and anguished. Lesson…always have at least two beanies!
Socks I ran my fastest, and only sub-25 hour, Leadville 100 in 2009…without wearing socks. The weight saved by not wearing such unwieldy bags of unnecessary excessive feet-swaddling comfort was tremendous. Kidding. Yes, I did not wear socks but that was at the height of the “Jesus-ness” of Born To Run minimalism and/or sandal running. Then I discovered Swiftwick socks…and my running experience was changed forever. Very thin and seamless, they shed moisture quickly. They do not shift, bunch, nor have I ever gotten a blister while running in them. And with styles from below the ankle to compression lengths, they can be worn year round. In my opinion, the perfect running sock. Highly recommended. Try to plan to change your socks at least two to three times during a 100-miler. Do not underestimate the morale-boosting effect of having crisp clean socks while running all day.
Trail Running Shoes Easily the most important and often the most obsessed-over piece of gear for ultra runners, the types of shoes for running 100 miles seem as varied as the stars in the night sky. Your feet will take a beating. It is necessary to find the shoe that works for you. Unfortunately, that may mean trying several different brands and styles…at once. The shoe that you train in should be the shoe that you run your races in also. I prefer a lighter, medium drop (4-6mm) shoe, with ample protection under foot. I am a forefoot runner and like the responsiveness of such a shoe. At the moment I am running in the Hoka Huaka. But again, shoes are a very personal decision with many runner-dependent factors–i.e. foot strike, gait, weight, style, etc. The shoe that seems to work for your daily 8 mile run may not translate well for 60 miles in the mountains. You need at least TWO pairs of “go to,” broken in, good trail running shoes for a 100 mile race. Much like the socks, mentioned above, fresh shoes, especially before the sun sets, are a wonderful thing. Begin to collect that quiver of trail running shoes. And you will know you are a seasoned ultra runner when you have more pairs of trail shoes in your closet than you do silverware in your kitchen drawer…
handheld As previously mentioned, I ALWAYS run with a handheld water bottle. It has become an extension of my body, a necessity of habit that is almost as important as my shoes. The habit of accessible hydration, whether necessary or not, provides confidence to continue and provokes the potential for furthering your explorations while pushing those limits of what is defined as “comfortable.” Of course heat, time of day, and other factors play a role in this decision but, on average, one 20 ounce handheld bottle can get me at least 8 miles. When training, I often ran until my water was gone. I have been using Ultimate Direction handhelds for the past 14 years, simply the best for running with water in your hands. I prefer to run with a handheld water bottle whenever possible, as opposed to a pack or vest.
pack/vest This is a varied and opinionated topic. In referring to a “pack/vest”, I am referring to a hydration system that often uses a bladder, tube, and mouthpiece system. Although, in recent years technology has allowed many companies like Salomon to evolve this system into a more secure, comfortable, and lightweight “vest” system that doesn’t require the often excessive shoulder and waist straps that can be irritating on longer runs. Either way, they allow you to carry more water and more “stuff” with you on your run–which definitely can be a bonus, but can also be unnecessary. I try to avoid using a pack unless I know the circumstances will tend to favor having one. In other words, the circumstances in which a pack is helpful are : 1) a long training run in which a reliable water source will not be readily available and it is necessary to carry A LOT of food/nutrition 2) A race in which the aid stations have a substantial distance between them–a substantial distance being 9 or more miles. Often though, a pack may become a security crutch, especially when just starting out with ultra-distance running. Over-packed with a platoon of gels, band-aids, salami, bananas, Vaseline, the “cadence-crickets” of a small bottle of half-full Advil, extra socks, iPod, pepper-spray, and a copy of Infinite Jest, some people feel more comfortable with their “stuff”. It is not necessary. Running is a simple pleasure–keep it and your pack that way. Four excellent brands to consider when looking for a running pack/vest: Ultimate Direction, Nathan, Salomon, and UltrAspire.
headlamp I ran my very first Leadville in 2005. A good friend of mine, let’s call him P, paced me from Winfield to Fish Hatchery. After making it back down Hope, across the river, and into Twin Lakes, we picked up our headlamps…As we climbed out of Twin Lakes onto the Colorado Trail, P suggested that we see how long we could go without using our headlamps. Hell yeah!…and I knew exactly what he was referring to. See, P was a friend from college and at that college a group of us would, in an “altered state,” go run in the woods, barefoot and half-naked, without headlamps…at night…and trust me, we had no idea what “trail running” was then. Unbeknownst to us at that time, these tendencies would become somewhat more mainstream twenty years later with the whole minimalist running movement thing. Anyway, as we ran through the darkening dusk at 10,000 feet, we passed several other groups–scaring the living shit out of most. “Thought you were a freaking bear chasing me!” or “Damn it, I thought I was hallucinating…oh well” were common responses. For almost two hours, we ran into the night before turning on our headlamps…Wow, and when we did…it was so much easier! Go figure. Novel idea during a 100 mile ultra when you feel like crap and your brain hurts because, well, because everything does…
Nutrition This may be the hardest advice to give someone in that so much of this is dependent upon experience and personal preferences. You must eat FOOD when you run a 100-miler. But what that food is should never be surprise…In 2007, I picked up a pacer, that I did not know–someone that had just moved to Leadville and recommended to me by another friend. Well, just 2 miles into his pacing duties, as we are shuffling towards darkness, he pulls out a small-speckled-brown-shrink- wrapped-stick-looking-thing…tears it open, takes a bite, proceeds to shove into my face, “want a bite!” It smelled like the insides of a pancaked possum baking on a summer backroad in the bayou. I immediately hurled. “Shitake Mushroom Jerky! It’s awesome…I’m vegan!”, he smiled. My puke smelled better. The next ten miles were quite difficult.
It is necessary to “train with food” when training for ultra marathons. With 100-milers, you will need to eat food at some point and it should be food with which you are quite familiar. That being said, the crap that can be appealing at mile 85 at 2am after being awake for 22 hours…is rather odd and hard to, well, prepare for. Pickles, peanut butter pretzels, Ensure, rice, mangoes, BACON, gummi worms, Mountain Dew, anything-but-a-gel are some items that have found their way into my mouth. And then there are those moments when trying to place a slivered crumb of potato chip inside your mouth is about as pleasant as accidentally kissing your great grandmother…on the lips…at the family’s Thanksgiving dinner gathering…Anyway, nutrition for ultras requires as much practice as the physical act of running. By all means, begin your training with gels. Experiment with brands. There are some excellent newer companies and products. GU, Huma, and V-fuel are some of my favorite. Skratch Labs makes an excellent hydration mix that is, by far, the easiest on the stomach. Train with food, run with food, run while eating, eat while running–it is critical and necessary. Plus, you get to become familiar with the identification of the contents once they reappear.
**Caveat Emptor ** It is necessary to note that the gear alone will not get you to the finish line (no matter the technology of the fabric, the GPS strapped to your wrist, or the shoe). Preparation is found in experience…and experience is gained through the triumph of adversity. Blisters, nausea, cramps, fatigue, pain, etc. are all part of that experience. Embrace it, acknowledge it, and move forward with the confidence that it is only a brief moment in the experience towards completing the task at hand. It is simply moving from point A to B as efficiently and effectively as possible…at that moment in time. Nothing more and nothing else. Therefore, enjoy yourself, the trail, the scenery, the people, and the crazy ridiculous crap that may occur when running an ultra. Laugh. A lot. The gear is great and will help ease the lows and propel you during the highs…but, in between, it is all you. Rock/Creek can at least help you prepare for that ultra.
Related reading: Check out Brian’s Q&A with RootsRated