Sarah Russell

Written by Sarah Russell

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9 Things You Need to Do Before Your First Ultramarathon

Your eyes have been opened to the ultramarathon world.

You have looked up “what is an ultra marathon”, you have converted 50k to miles to figure out just how much further an ultra is than a traditional marathon, and you have decided you would like to take up ultra running as a new challenge.

Know you know which ultra race you would like to do, and you are all signed up for your first ultramarathon.

That can be scary, right?

We think so!

We go from the comfort of our marathon training schedule to a whole new world of races.

You may not be starting with the hardcore ultra runners who are racing Death Valley, Cowtown or Badwater, but you have signed up for your first ultra, and the ultra marathon training so far is going well.

As race day suddenly comes into view, it is time to get those final preparations into place to be ready, and packing your kit for your first ultra can be a mind-boggling task.

Unlike a normal marathon or road race, most ultras tend to be on the trail and in more remote locations.

There’ll be fewer checkpoints and feed stations and much less support.  You’re expected to be much more self-sufficient and to take a certain amount of fuel, fluid and essential kit with you.

On top of that, your typical ultra will probably take you 6 hours or (much) longer. During that time you could experience a wide range of temperatures, weather conditions and even nighttime darkness. You may even be expected to navigate the route and take your own map.

You really do need to be prepared for all eventualities, and we want to make sure that you go to your next (or first) ultra race prepared, and confident, no matter what the race brings. So even if you feel like you stick out as the newbie, no one will notice as you have everything you need.

We even have a printable checklist with 9 things you need to answer before the race, so make sure you download it, and use it as you are in your ultra training.

Ready to get started?

Let’s do it:

Packing for an ultra marathon can be scary! You're out there for so long, what do you need to bring without weighing yourself down? Be ready for any race day situation with this ultramarathon guide. Elites and experts give their opinion, and make this an easy to follow guide.

What Do I Need to Pack in My Ultra Bag?

Firstly:

Remember the Golden Rule: When it comes to running ultras you literally cannot be too organized!

That said you don’t need to carry the kitchen sink either.

Getting the balance right is the trick to successful ultra running and your choices of kit, fuel and fluid will be very personal to you.

What works for one ultra runner doesn’t work for another. It’s only through experience, practice and experimentation that you find out what works, and what doesn’t.

So as you train for your ultra, use every run as an opportunity to test out various products, kit choices and experiment with food, fuel and fluid.

Start months in advance and keep notes as you go along, so when you come to packing for the race you’ve got a tried and tested list of items that you know you can trust.

That will give you confidence going into the race and will allow you to relax more beforehand.

Do your research

Before you start buying kit, do some research about your race. Get online, check the race website and any reviews and forums.

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Download your FREE Ultra Runners Checklist inside your Insider Members area.

Giving you an easy to follow, printable list of the 9 steps to follow as you prepare for your first (and every) ultra marathon.

Click here to access

Not a RunnersConnect Insider member? It’s FREE to join. Click here to get started

If you can’t find the answers, don’t hesitate to email the organizers and ask. It’s far better to be well prepared in advance.

Now:

The most important item to choose is your backpack.

Runners new to ultras often find it hard getting used to running with a back-pack, finding it uncomfortable or weighty.

How do I choose a backpack?

With practice and training you do get used to running with a backpack and there are many options available. Do some research and test out various packs to see what you prefer.

Start training with it months in advance to get used to it and load it up with what you expect to carry in the race.

It needs to be big enough to carry everything you need including some sort of drink reservoir or bottles, but most importantly it needs to fit well and be incredibly comfortable.

There is nothing worse than a backpack which rubs or chafes.

It might be ok for 13 miles, but after 30 you’ll soon find out where it rubs! So make sure it’s super comfortable.

Some ultra runners prefer a very lightweight pack and to be as minimalist as possible, others prefer to carry more kit and are more concerned about pack size.

Remember, we already found out that heavier runners are not at any major disadvantage in the ultra marathon, there is no such thing as “too big” to run an ultra.

Your choice/size of pack will be determined by the length of the race and expected conditions. In addition, if you’re expecting rain or wet conditions, make sure your backpack is waterproof.

I’ve run a few ultras in my time and I prefer to carry a heavier pack with everything I might need, rather than use a small minimalist pack and risk leaving something behind.

My favorite pack at the moment is the new Camelbak Ultra 4 Backpack with a 2 litre reservoir, it’s a great fit, lightweight, adjustable and just the right size for a typical 30+ mile one day ultra.

 What Do I Need to Pack in My Ultra Backpack?

Here are some of the items I might take

  • Rocktape – Cut into strips already
  • Compeed Blister Plasters
  • A mix of fuel – Energy Bars, Energy Chews and sweets (I prefer to take a variety of flavours and options as I tend to get bored of the same thing)
  • Electrolyte Drink – SOS Rehydrate and extra sachets to re-fill bladder or EnduroPacks electrolyte spray that can be used in any drink
  • First Aid Kit – Including bandages, crepe bandage, foil blanket, scissors, wipes, eye wash etc
  • Tissues/Wet Wipes
  • OS Map – I always take a map or the section of the map even if the route is marked
  • Waterproof map case if it’s wet
  • Mobile Phone – with spare battery or on-the-go charger
  • Sunglasses
  • Lightweight waterproof layer
  • Arm Warmers
  • Buff/Cap or Hat
  • Lightweight gloves
  • LED Lenser SEO7R Headtorch & spare batteries (if it’s a night race)
  • Bodyglide or Compeed Blister Stick
  • Immodium and headache pills
  • A plastic bag – for waste, wet clothes, used tissues, to protect items from rain
  • Sunscreen
  • Lip Balm

My final decisions about what to take on the actual day will depend on the conditions and weather.

First Aid Priorities

One thing I don’t compromise on however is first aid. As a trained first aider, I feel responsible to take a full first aid kit in case I need to tend to a fellow runner in need.

Ultras can be remote, marshals are spread out and if a runner was hurt or injured it could be a while before help arrived.

I can’t bear the thought of not being able to provide help just because I didn’t take my kit. I’d recommend that if you know first aid or if you’re medically trained, then take kit with you just in case.

What Do Expert and Elite Ultra Runners Take in Their Bag?

In order to get some professional advice, I asked two ultra running experts for their views and to share some of their secrets.

Keith Godden, Ultra Runner and owner of The Ultra Marathon Running Store.

KeithGodden

Keith is an incredibly experienced ultra runner, organizer of the Grand Union Canal Ultra (145 mile non-stop ultra from Birmingham to London) and also now supports and advises other ultra runners through his online shop, The Ultra Marathon Running Store which sells everything you might ever need for an ultra.

What would your advice be to a new ultra runner about what to pack in their bag?

Some can find packing their race pack to be a somewhat stressful task. Instead of thinking what you ‘should’ carry, think deeply about your own personal preferences and needs and include those.

Make a list as you go along and avoid deciding what to include at the last moment if you can to make for a more relaxing few days before your race

What is the priority when packing your bag? 

‘It’s important to accept that runners have different priorities.

Some like to carry as little as possible with the smallest and lightest they could get away with. Others like to carry the kitchen sink, with a little extra ‘just in case’ stuff too.

If you weigh 90kg and the choice of pack or equipment makes a 500g difference in weight – does it matter? Comfort and confidence in your choice would be more important.

Ultra kit can be expensive… how can you do it cheaply?

Use your own common sense and buy the best quality you can afford.

Decide what to buy based on a technical feature or clear benefit that appeals to you as opposed to its brand name or price tag.

What would be the 5 ‘must have’ items for every ultra runner?

  • Chafing cream. Be proactive and apply to all your sensitive areas before the run to help keep a smile on your face all day!
  • Your favorite energy food. Experiment during training runs to find a selection of foods that you will look forward to eating. If you love Monster Munch, include some extra in your drop bag in case you could stomach nothing else late in the race.
  • Toilet roll and wet wipes… for the obvious reasons
  • Capsules that you can swallow or tablets or powder you can add to your water bottle or bladder 
  • Bottle, flask or reservoir. Choose your method to carry liquid based on some experimentation. Ease of drinking, ease of access and getting the bottle back into its pocket, ease of refilling, ease of cleaning, reliability of that device, comfort, weight, cost – all are factors to choose the best method of carrying fluid for you.

Mimi Anderson

There isn’t a better person to ask about what to pack for an ultra than the UK’s most decorated female ultra runner Mimi Anderson.

Mimi Anderson

Mimi has run ultras all over the World, holds 3 World Records, has run the 1957km long Freedom Trail in South Africa and is the only female ever to complete the iconic Double Spartathlon which she did in 2015. What Mimi doesn’t know about ultra running isn’t worth knowing.

You’ve run numerous ultras all over the World in all conditions. What’s the one item you’d never run without?

My waterproof jacket.  

As well as keeping you dry the waterproof can also be used to keep you warm should the temperature suddenly drop.

If you could only pack 5 items, what would they be?

  • A lightweight but good waterproof jacket
  • Two head torches (the second one is a smaller backup torch),
  • A space blanket
  • Hat/gloves
  • An extra mid layer
  • Mobile phone.

Do you prefer bottles or a hydration bladder and why?

I prefer bottles as they are easier to fill up at the check-points and also easier to keep an eye on how much water you’re drinking.

What advice would you give to a first time ultra runner about what to pack in the bag?

Most races will have a compulsory kit list but this is very much the minimum.  

It’s well worth taking a few extra pieces just in case your race doesn’t go as you had planned.

Is there a specific way to pack ?

I run with a Salomon S-LAB Sense Ultra.  

The kit that I need to get hold of easily I put in the side zip pockets, my waterproof I place into the pocket at the back so it’s easily accessible and my other kit such as medical and mid layer I place in a lightweight waterproof bag and put in the top pouch of the pack.

Snacks, water & backup torch are carried in the front pouches.

What have you learned over the years? What’s the most important thing to consider when choosing items and packing?

When choosing an item it’s important to firstly ensure that it’s fit for purpose, so there is no point buying a waterproof jacket that is only “water resistant” it just won’t work and you could end up on a race soaked to the skin with hypothermia.  

Weight is important to consider as you will be carrying it with you for the duration of the race, but don’t skimp on quality over weight.  

Test everything out before race day to check that it works, the pack is comfortable and you can easily access everything while running.  If something doesn’t work, try out a few other options until you feel comfortable.

What’s the bottom line?

Ultimately however packing for an ultra is a very personal process, it’s only through experimentation and trial and error in training that you’ll find out what works for you.

Plan ahead, start practicing months in advance and have faith in your decisions! Good luck.

RunnersConnect Insider Bonus

Download your FREE Ultra Runners Checklist inside your Insider Members area.

Giving you an easy to follow, printable list of the 9 steps to follow as you prepare for your first (and every) ultra marathon.

Click here to access

Not a RunnersConnect Insider member? It’s FREE to join. Click here to get started

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References

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