“You carry HOW MUCH?”
Another question I fielded as I started talking ultramarathons on this blog was, “What [piece of gear] do you use?,” “How much does your pack weigh?,” or the ever incredulous “You carry HOW MUCH?”
It’s no secret; ultramarathoners are gear monsters.
I do know some runners that are minimalists when they run. They are the stoics, the monks of the ultramarathon world. They, like I, believe that our culture has gone soft and isn’t used to enduring discomfort and a little pain to achieve a goal. However, they take this to extremes as I think there are certain items you need to have to complete a race. (The average course director has their say as well, mandating each person carries a minimum amount of water, flashlights, and batteries, or they don’t race.) On the far end of the spectrum, you get the folks who have every cool gadget, gizmo, and doo-dad you can possibly carry. More power to them, but it’s extra weight I don’t want to lug for the long haul.
What, in KR Paul’s inexpert but somewhat experienced opinion, is necessary, nice to have, and not needed? Let’s dive in!
First off, my credentials for those who are new: I’ve been an endurance racer for over ten years. I’ve run distances from 5k up to a planned 50k in March 2021. I’ve completed five Ironman 70.3s. And with my current spin up for the Mississippi 50 (50k/31mi) and Bataan Memorial Death March (26.1 mi), I’m logging 15-20+ miles a week, mostly on the trails. I’m also a woman, so my gear recommendations will be from that perspective. Male bodied friends, take my thoughts with a grain of salt, and I’ll try to be specific if something is a direct recommendation for those of us with hips, butts, and boobs.
The Necessary: If I forgot anything on this list, I can’t race.
Clothes: You could run naked, but you’d probably be thrown off the course. Hell, on hot days, I’m wearing as little as possible, but some clothing is still going to be necessary. If nothing else, what are you going to pin your race number to? I look for synthetic clothes, usually listed as “performance wear” or “wicking” because chaffing is horrible! I recommend layers on cooler days as a 50F starting temp can easily reach 80F by mid-day. Conversely, when the sun goes down, you’ll be back to 50F and need that long sleeved shirt again. Well cushioned socks are a must and NO HOLES. On hole over five miles is fine. One hole over 15 miles puts a hole in your foot that you will have to repair mid-race.
Ladies: You’ll need a high quality bra. Like shoes, this is one area I just don’t scrimp. For my A/B/C ladies, you can be less picky, as long as they hold the girls in place. For those of you who, like me, are double delightful and beyond, this is probably the single most important investment you can make. I prefer the SheFit brand because I can tighten both the chest band and shoulder straps. (Not a SheFit affiliate; they just make good stuff.)
Shoes: Rule number 1: get a shoe fitting from a reputable running store. They will identify how your foot strikes the ground and make a recommendation based on that. Be a good customer and buy the pair they recommend. You can buy the next pair on Zappos or Amazon or whatever, but get the fitting first and buy the shoe.
GPS: Some people might debate that GPS is only a “nice to have,” but I get way back in the woods and need something that doesn’t require my phone and will always get me back to where I started. For example, MS50 has almost no cell service at the course start and it’s patchy at best during the race. I need a GPS to tell me milage for my nutrition plan.
Headlamp (with spare batteries): If you are going to be running after the hours of daylight, the course director will probably require not only a flashlight but spare batteries as well. I have two knuckle lights I use for early morning runs on the road, but for a trail run, I need my hands. I highly recommend getting a headlamp. The beam will always point where you want it and it’s more steady when worn on your head than your wildly swinging hands. It also makes for an easier time grabbing snacks! 😊
Hydration pack: You must carry water. Non-negotiable. Unless you’re in a timed, looped course where you are back at the start every hour or so, you must carry your own water. I know some folks who use handheld bottles, but as with the light source, I want my hands free, so I like a vest style hydration pack this this one from Ultimate Direction. (It’s an older model, they have newer ones out now.) Plus… pockets for your snacks!
Nice to Have: If I forgot anything on this list, I could race, but it’s probably going to be a tough day.
Spare clothes/shoes: Many longer courses allow you to have a “drop bag” or, like MS50, will loop back by the starting point so you can access your car. After two or more hours slogging in wet clothes, it’s really, really nice to change into clean, dry socks and shoes. Can I make the second (or third) lap without them? Sure, but I’ll be miserable.
Hat/visor: Many of the courses I’ve run are trails through wooded areas and a hat/visor is unnecessary for keeping the sun out of your eyes. However, you’ll occasionally have the one stretch through an uncovered gravel road where you’ll be missing that cool shade on your face. One caveat: in cold weather racing, a hat is necessary.
Sunglasses: same as the hat/visor. I don’t need it, but it’s really nice when I hit those sunny patches of the course. Or a mess of spider webs. But let’s be honest, I’m a middle- to back-of-the-pack runner; someone’s always catching spiderwebs for me on race day!
Headphones: These are the borderline between “nice to have” and “unnecessary.” I don’t hear headphones on trails. But if I’m doing any training on the road, which is typical as I ramp up into race day, I need my tunes.
Gloves: I buy the cheap $1 knitted pairs from Walmart or the Dollar Tree. Use them for the start of a cold race and throw them away at the first aid station.
Bodyglide/Vaseline: This will become necessary by the end of the race, but enough aid stations have them that I don’t usually carry my own. That said, if you have many, many miles between aid stations on your course, carry a small baggy of your own.
Sunscreen/bug spray: Is my body incapable of running without either of these? No. Am I going to look like a lump, bug bitten lobster the next day without them? Yes. YMMV, make smart choices here.
Small med kit (in your drop bag): Your feet will get chewed up. Your shins and shoulders will get branch whipped. Your body will take a pounding and you will undoubtedly need tape, gauze, band-aids, and Vitamin M (ibuprofen) at some point. Good aid stations will have what you need, but I keep a small kit in my drop bag and carry a small plastic baggie of band-aids in my vest.
Tampons: Friends who menstruate, training and racing at this level will mess with your cycle. I carry two tampons in a baggie because you never know what will happen. Friends who don’t menstruate, you don’t have to carry them, but maybe be a pal and have one available for a friend. Or, use them to plug the hole you just punched in your thigh when you ran into a jagged log. (Yeah, I’ve seen some shit.)
Gaiters: I ran my first six or seven years without gaiters. I don’t plan on wearing them for MS50, but it’s a go/no-go item for Bataan. Gaiters will help keep sand, sticks, rocks, etc. out of your shoes. On wet/muddy courses, I don’t want them, but on sandy courses like Bataan or running here locally, I need them.
Unnecessary: I don’t carry it, rarely carry it, or it’s just plain goofy.
Trekking poles: Ok, ok, I know. Some people really love them. Especially if you’re going to be running where it’s mountainous or rocky, they’re helpful. But for me, I like having my hands free and I haven’t found utility for them based on my local terrain and race terrain. YMMV
Expensive running apps: Sure, you can drop a ton on an app that will track every mile, climb, water intake, food intake, and ounce of sweat exuded. Or you can just run and see what works, then log your miles on a spreadsheet. Or in a notebook. Or don’t log. Seriously, most of this is running by feel. I do have Strava and Garmin Connect, but mostly because I’m hyper-competitive (see: my two week long running duel with Angry Staff Officer), but I don’t find much utility in having a ton of data. Plus, they kill your phone battery and most courses are too remote to get good cell service mid-race.
A coach: Oooh, I’m gonna get feedback on this one! Does a coach help? Yes. Can they help you improve your time? Yes. Are they a good resource for when you first start out? Yes. Ok, that said, coaches are DAMN expensive so unless you are using your coach as a really good accountability partner, there are enough resources on the Internet that you can teach yourself what you need to know. The rest is holding yourself accountable and following the plan you create. When it all comes down to it, your coach isn’t running these miles, you are. If you didn’t put in the work, it’s not your coach’s fault. On the flip side, if you PR a course, you’re still the one who put in the miles, not your coach.
Now that some of you are ready to grab your torches and pitchforks, I’ll remind you, these are all recommendations based on my experience, not hard and fast rules. YMMV
How much does it all weigh?
Ok, for those of you who’ve set down the torches and pitchforks and are still with me, I bet you want to know how much all this gear weights. The answer is, not as much as you think. My shoes, clothes, hat, sunglasses, and GPS don’t generally weigh more than five pounds altogether. My vest, food, and water range from five to ten pounds depending on how much water I add.
Update: You can find the gear list for my last three races at the bottom of each race report
BUTS Bearly Ultra: A cold weather, very hilly course in the foothills around Birmingham, AL
Bear Bait 25K: A cooler race with flat but technical (read: rooted) trails in Pace/Milton, FL
Mississippi 50k: A full ultramarathon that spanned cool to warm weather and a non-technical, mostly flat course with multiple creek crossings.
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