Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Prepping for an Ultra Marathon

This post will be all about preparing the right gear to run a successful Ultra. Of course, the most important thing is to find what works for YOU. I have spent the last few years crewing & pacing my husband in Ultra Marathons.  We have changed strategies many different times. I am sharing with you what we have discovered works best for us!

STEP 1: Understand the course! You have to pack very differently for each course. Know the difference between:

·         Looping course These courses allow you to return to the finish line a number of times while you loop around the course. The advantage of looping is becoming familiar with the course; you know what is coming. I actually prefer loops in trail running, while others find it kind of boring to repeat the same loop. This type of course has been said to lead to more DNF’s  (Did Not Finish) because it allows the runner to come back to the start line and stop there. This tends to be the easiest course to support because your crew can hang out in a central area while the runner loops and comes back.  During the looping course we load up a big, plastic, storage bin thing with all the gear. Depending on the distance of the loop, this may be the only gear we have. If the loop is longer, we will pack a small bag to be dropped at a different aid station. The small bag must always have batteries, extra head lamp, maybe special fuel options, and some Body Glide. If you need a new pair of shoes, you can bust out a few extra miles to get back to the start line/headquarters…but if you run out of batteries, or it becomes dark sooner than you expected, then you don’t want to have to wait till you get to your crew box for support.  We learned this the hard way while pacing Emz at her 100 mile Cold Water Rumble last year. She had to run in the dark for 4 miles till she got back to the loop turnaround where the crew was all waiting.

·          Out and back  These races start at one point, run a certain distance to another point, then turn back to the original starting line. An out & back will require more drop bags. Your crew may still carry a box if they the course allows crew support at aid stations. My dad and I crewed Nate during Utah's Squaw Peak 50 Miler. There were lots of aid stations that didn’t allow crew support. There was no vehicle access to many of the stations because it was in the Rocky Mountains. Nate had to be sure to put things he might need in small drop bags to the stations crew was not allowed at. Most races have very well supplied aid stations! In fact you truly can get away with bringing nothing, and only using the stuff the race provides. But if you are at all picky about fuel, it really is best to be prepared! We have run races that have run out of water at aid stations! Crazy things can happen. It really isn’t hard to throw a small bag together of a few necessities. Many times our drop bags go untouched. But its so nice to know you have what you need just in case!

·         Point-to-point  This type of course starts at one place, and ends at another with a pre-determined distance. I personally like this type of course best while road running. Trail running is so much more technical, so I do like the loop so I know what is ahead. While road running, I can look up and take in the views. I like to see different scenery during the course.  Many runners like this course because if you get half-way and decide you want to be done, then what are you gonna do? Turn around? You may as well finish! Ultras don’t have vans driving along side of you giving you the option to throw in the towel and ride to the finish. To be prepared for a point-to-point Ultra. You must find out how much access your crew has to seeing you, and pack accordingly.

STEP 2: Do your research! Find out how many miles are between aid stations. Know what type of fuel the stations will have. You don’t want to try anything new on race day! My very first marathon (Saint George Marathon in 2005) I just used whatever gels they were handing out. I had never tried that brand before. I had no idea how my stomach would handle it. And I wasted too many minutes in the outhouse with GI troubles! I still managed to get under 4 hours, but what a waste. Lesson learned, I now only fuel with items that I have tested during training. Luckily, most Ultra races have lots of different options at their aid stations. The longer distances require more calories, so it is nice to have the variety! Now you can absolutely show up for a race empty handed, not knowing about the course or aid provided. We have all done it! However, if you have trained your ass off for months, and this race is an important one for you, then DO YOUR HOMEWORK and BE PREPARED! You will have a much better chance of being successful by doing those things.
It’s all about the storage tub!
          A 50K-50mile distance will not usually require as many things. Generally these distances don’t require a shoe or clothing change. As long as you are racing with shoes that you know work for you and clothing that you know won’t rub weird. The 100k-100+ mile races would require lots more times in your storage box. With all that being said, an Ultra in extreme temperature (really hot or cold) it would be smart to be prepared with more support in your box.  We used to only use duffel bags for our drop bags. We found it frustrating riffling through, digging for the item you are looking for. You want to get in and out of aid stations as quick as possible. These tubs are nice because even if you don’t need that huge space, it is very easy to see exactly what you are looking for. BONUS, if you can close the lid and sit on if for a bit if needed! It really is nice having something to sit on if you need to change out your socks or shoes. I don’t know about you, but I don’t love dirt sticking to my sweating butt or getting into places where you don’t really love dirt to be. Short shorts don’t always protect those areas!
·         Extra socks and shoes
·         First aid kit. Nate took a hard fall in his first 50k and had to wait 20 minutes in the aid station waiting to get patched up. Bring your own stuff, save lots of time!

·         Fuel of choice

·         Extra batteries, head lamp, and a hand held light

·         I like to pack change of clothes and flip flops for post run. Nate doesn’t usually mind riding home sweaty.  But we both like to get those shoes and socks off and slip into some sandals.

·         Extreme temps:
            *Poncho, rain gear, gloves
            *Various fueling recourse: fuel belt, hand held, and fuel vest. This isn’t always necessary. But in really hot races, you can’t always be sure your vest won’t chafe; Even if it usually doesn’t give you problems. Running 50 miles in Arizona’s 100 degree temps mean you need your options. Chaffing sucks! And sometimes you just get sick of your hand held and want to switch it up. My motto is, if you MIGHT want it, and then pack it! So there you have it! Never hurts to be prepared!

Does anyone else LOVE this Magic Stuff? It may just be a mental boost, but some times that is just what you need!

Couple pair of shoes for longer races

Draw string drop bags for the other locations

Portable cooler with wheels. Nice to have extra water just in case. We have seen Aid Stations run out before. Also nice to pour water on your head if you need to cool down, without worrying about wasting good drinking water.


  1. This is a great summary Michelle! I think it's important to remember that the race directors can't account for every little thing so it's best never to assume they will have something on race day - whether it's food, medical or clothing. You're point is totally clear...if you *think* you might want it, BRING IT!

    Hope you're doing well and healing up.

  2. Thanks Trevor! You are def one of my inspirations when it comes to Ultra running!