I’ve been asked before now, what do you need to take with you on trail races, or long ultras? – An excellent question, as these events tend to be predominantly off-road and weather conditions in this country can vary greatly and not always predictably.
Firstly, I find it quite funny when people choose to ask ME about all this stuff, mostly because of my well documented and solidly proven status as a complete moron.
However, it did dawn on me that by making every mistake in the book along the way, I will have surely inadvertently picked up a few things. So here it is! My take on what equipment and nutrition is needed for those long, off-road races…
Frodo Tip #1 – Less is More!
As someone who ran up the country carrying a rucksack that weighed almost 3 times what it probably needed to; let me tell you what a difference weight makes after a while – A lot.
It might sound really obvious, but don’t try and carry the kitchen sink. It weighs LOADS and the plumbing is particularly complicated to keep operational throughout the course.
Bear in mind that most of these races are well stocked with food and drink; normally every 8 miles or so for the ones I’ve been in. I normally find that a litre of water is the maximum you’ll ever need.
Sometimes the mandatory kit list will include some sort of emergency food. A simple chocolate bar would suffice normally. Unless you really want to, I personally don’t see the point in carrying any more food than that.
It’s common sense really, but just think about if you’re REALLY going to need something, before you put it in your bag for carrying with you.
Frodo Tip #2 – Mandatory Kit.
Make sure you do bring all this. Again, it might seem obvious, but these races don’t always kit check you, so you might feel like you can get away without certain items you know you won’t need. Like who needs a whistle and a compass in this day and age? I’ve got a phone with GPS… yeah, I also remember being lost in the Scotland Borders with a dying phone battery and no phone signal. These things can happen, and let’s be honest, I realize it sounds a lot like I’m contradicting my previous tip, but how much does a whistle, compass and basic first aid kit weigh? A few grams? Might as well throw that in.
Frodo Tip #3 – Headtorches and Waterproofs.
These are two things I have tried to cheap out on at various races, and I still honestly think you can despite advice I’ve read from other blogs, but be aware you won’t like it.
These are two areas that most ultra-runners will tell you to spend your money on. I personally don’t because I’m quite poor, so let me just tell you of my experiences running with budget ones. Running at night with a £4 headtorch is a lot like running down a narrow corridor with your eyes squinted. It’s not great, but just about does the job. If I’m lucky, I can sometimes run alongside other runners and scrounge a bit of their light.
Now waterproof jackets can be a contentious subject for a few runners. I maintain that I can run in any conditions with either a basic, wind-proof jacket, or a cheap (almost waterproof) anorak for if it starts tipping it down. For some runners however; particularly those that live in mountainous areas, a good waterproof jacket is a MUST. A good waterproof jacket will have ‘sealed/taped seams’ (a term I had explained to me at the NDW100 this year, which means water can’t get between the seams). It should also be light and breathable so you’re not just sweating buckets and becoming just as drenched. There are so many really clever Gore Tex type materials and things out there that do just this; just check them out, but bear in mind, the best ones don’t come cheap!
Frodo Tip #4 – Trainers.
This is where you’re maybe as well asking someone else, or better yet, ask loads of different people. There’s no right or wrong answers when it comes to footwear. I personally get by with the cheapest pair of neutral trail shoes I can find. These also do me for my road races as well, but that’s just me.
The one thing I’d say is unless it’s only a light trail race, it’s well worth getting a pair of trail specific trainers just purely for the extra grip on the rocky, muddy paths.
Frodo Tip #5 – Enjoy the Company of Other Runners.
So you’ve made it to the start line. Excellent! I’ve successfully convinced you to take the sink out of your bag and place it back in the kitchen at home. You’re prepped and ready to race…
You’re possibly now feeling a few pre-race nerves. It’s quite normal, particularly if it’s your first race of this kind. You’re worried about navigation perhaps, not sure how long you’ll be out there. Best piece of advice here is talk to a few other the runners. They always have something to say and it will probably put your mind at ease. These longer races are often as much social events as they are competitive. It’s surprising the things you can learn as well and often inspiring enough for you to line up your next race.
Frodo Tip #7 – Become Voluntarily Bad at Counting.
The longer the event, the more you can get inside your own head that you’ve just ran 3 miles out of 35; that’s not even a tenth of the way there yet. Stop it! Learn the art of ignoring what’s ahead; learn to round up to make things suit you and best of all, you can always just lie to yourself: ‘3 miles… Brilliant! That’s almost 5… That’s the best part of a fifth of the way there and I’ve only been running half an hour’. Then when you reach 5 miles, you have to think of a new lie to tell yourself. Try to only focus on the numbers that suit you and above all, try to stop yourself from calculating your ETA based on current pace. It never ends well.
Frodo Tip #8 – Eat!
As I mentioned earlier, most of these events have food and drink stations every few miles. So unless your name’s Jonny Runner and you’ve an eye on winning, why not stop for a couple of minutes enjoy some guilt free snacking. This also doubles up as breaking the race up into smaller mini-races within the race.
I personally don’t take gels and things with me very often on these races, as I don’t train with them so don’t see the point. However, don’t take my word for it on this. My way is not for everyone. I do sometimes carry Clif Bar Shotblocks for a caffeine and sugar kick on the move when I’m struggling to focus.
Frodo Tip #9 – Tactical Walking.
There are two scenarios in my head during these races where walking is perfectly acceptable for me. The first one is towards the end of a long race; I’m very tired and I just want to break up the miles a bit by maybe throwing in a minute or two of walking. Who cares if you’re doing a 12 minute mile at this stage? … No-one! exactly!
The other scenario is when on a particularly hilly course, you reach the bottom of a ludicrously steep bit. If you’re not feeling it, there’s no shame in walking these parts. Even the pros have to walk some of these slopes. Enjoy a bit of guilt-free walking to the top. Lean forwards, get your hands on your knees and power up just like the elite mountain runners do. At least that’s what I’m doing in my head.
And finally, tip number 10 (Or 9 if you’re actually keeping count)
Frodo Tip #10 – Enjoy Yourself!
I’m guessing if you’re reading through my site, that you are probably not an elite runner (if you are, then I apologise, but seriously, what ARE you doing here?). Well assuming that you’re not an elite runner and there’s not a lot riding on the outcome of this race; you’re probably there because you want to be. It’s a fun day out, you meet loads of new people, it’s a scenic route, it’s FUN! When you get tired in the later stages, remember to remind yourself of this; you’d be surprised what a difference it makes.
So that’s my lowdown on how to get through a long, trail race or ultra. I’m learning new things with every race I do and I’m certain that you will too. Most people learn these things a lot quicker than I do, so I suppose to finish, I’ll end with this little nugget:
‘If I can do it, surely anyone can’
‘Long distance running is 90% mental… The other 10% is in your head’
Cheers for reading, I’ll be back with my report from the ‘Gritstone Grind’ ultra in Cheshire just after the weekend 🙂