As the summer fast approaches, many of us around the country are getting ready for a big goal, destination race, or simply for yet another long one. And as the newly “qualified” ultrarunning tribe, you wonder: what do I take with me to make sure I have enough to help me but not too much to distract me?
That that is the key challenge – “enough but not too much”. Back even when I started a dozen years ago the aid stations provided little besides water, soft drinks (some kind of combination of pop soda and Gatorade) and maybe a few cookies and chips if you’re lucky. And that was OK. The devices to carry fuel supply on/with you were also cumbersome and the fuel itself hadn’t become so tightly packed (and various). Yet, of course, folks ran, and ran well.
Now it is absolutely possible to go into a race up to 100 miles in distance and bring nothing beyond a water carrier (either a water bottle or a CamelBak). There is a full spread at the table! From all kind of pop drinks, electrolyte replacement drinks, sweet foods of M&Ms, PB&Js, and cookies (at least 3-4 kinds and even home-made), to nuts, various chips, boiled potatoes, grilled cheese sandwiches, soups of many names, and I am not even getting into a third of the list. Yet we keep dragging our own stuff and stuffing our own drop bags.
There are certainly reasons for that and a smartly organized drop bag can save your race. First of all, some of us have certain food intolerances or preferences tested out on training runs and other (sometimes a little shorter) races, and we’d like to have something that does not upset our stomachs, gives us perking lasting energy and lifts our spirits. Secondly, as we enter into races 50 miles and more and especially over mountainous terrain, that often means the time spent out there and the conditions (temperature, sun/rain/clouds, altitude) vary greatly, and we need to be prepared. If we’re talking some of more ragged 100km races and certainly 100 mile races, we absolutely surely hit the night time, what means warmer clothes and a light (whether a headlamp or a handheld). Also, for some races there are stretches of longer distances between aid stations where you need to carry more water than in other stretches at the same race, and you may want to pack an extra disposable water bottle for that.
So, let’s start with the bare minimal.
Frequency of Drop Bag(s) Access
Depending what you’re racing with as a water carrier, estimates how much “food” so to speak you can carry with it/you at once. If two handheld water bottles is all you take, the pockets in those bottles will probably only fit four gels, plus maybe the pockets on your shorts for another 3-4. Depending how many gels you take per hour, this combination will take you through 3-4 hours maximum (plus whatever you pick off the aid station table). Meaning every four hrs (depending on your speed, 15-20 miles) you’ll need a drop bag with re-supply. If your choice for water is a CamelBak (either company, I use the word as a simple description of a pack with a bladder in) – there are many more opportunities to carry your fuel with you for 6-8 hrs, extending the need for the drop bag all the way to 30-40 miles now.
What to Put Inside
So, now let’s focus on what to put inside that bag(s) every 20 or 40 miles.
Your choice of fuel
Personally, I prefer gels as they are easier to carry, you can fit more with you at once and cut down on amount of drop bags. They also deliver fast energy of known caloric capacity, they are easily “delivered” and digested and they don’t go bad. There are all kinds of “chews”, energy bars and other pre-packaged foods which are also great choices for many for the same reasons – easy to carry, known calories, BUT you’d have to chew on those (and as time goes in a race, chewing “capacity” is reduced, as well as your stomach’s ability to process harder foods), and they are bulkier than gels. However, they are still great choices. Yet another camp of runners uses liquid calories, which is as awesome as gels. You pre-package them yourself in little Ziploc bags for known serving size and carry them with you from aid station to another. When you re-fill your bottle or bladder, you simply dump the package in.
It gets harder if you choose to run with “real food”, and lately there are many who advocate this. Of course we each have our own ways, and there is nothing wrong with running with a little sack of boiled sweet potato, a banana and an avocado/turkey sandwich, but remember when packing a drop bag, the real foods go bad! That means if your next re-supply is at mile 40, and you’re racing in Texas, your turkey may potentially cause you a salmonella infection, or at least tummy distress and diarrhea. That said, unless you’re running Cactus Rose 100, where you deliver your own drop bag to each and every aid station, do not pack the cooler with your avocado! Drop bags get all piled up in a truck of a volunteer which gets loaded and unloaded by a volunteer (who, by the way, is often a normal human being, not necessarily a Silvester Stallone, and may be your fellow injured runner), and the space for organizing those drop bags is not that great. Be mindful! But I’ll get back to it. So, if you’re all for real food and now are aware that it does get spoiled, think potato chips, uncut avocado, a can of refried beans (ask Craig Thornley and a slew of Oregon ultrarunners for that one), maybe some kind of pre-made soup in a can, nuts, etc.
Whether you take Endurolytes, Succeed!, MetaSalt, or Salt Stick electrolytes, count approximately how many you’ll consume between your drop bags according to your own needs (and count for the maximum potential time you’ll spend running those 20 or 40 miles just in case) and put a little baggie in your drop bag for the next stretch. I like to put a small can of Tomato or V8 juice in my drop bag – it has more Potassium than any capsule (good for heart muscle signal reception via opening K/Na channels and for muscle contraction), gives me a different taste than sweet gels, and breaks the monotony. I was taught that in my first ultra, have done it ever since, and give this advice to anybody and their brother.
As you go up the mountains and the day winds down, the temperatures often drop and sometimes they drop drastically. You want a windbreaker as a minimum because it can serve you often better than a long sleeve shirt and those fancy sleeves. But, both long sleeve shirt and sleeves are totally acceptable if that is your thing. If the morning is chilly, I often start with sleeves, then pull them off and stuff them somewhere (even in a waistband of shorts) until I need to take them out again. Therefore, my “warm clothes” collection usually has a windbreaker only. A suggestion on the windbreaker/rain jacket – have one with a full zipper. It is much easier to put it on/peel it off at will, tie around waist when the need is over, even put it over your CamelBak for short durations of time. And your ability to put your arms above your head may be hindered greatly later in a race.
That said, if we are talking about a 100 mile race, and especially one in the mountains, more clothes might be required in your drop bags. A hat (Smartwool is thinnest and warmest I found, NFI). A pair of gloves. And maybe even some kind of long pants (I leave those only for serious high altitude 100 mile races and for those races where I know the weather at night is expected to be below 30F and/or rain and other precipitation is coming – check your weather forecast!).
The clothes we talked above are EXTRA. Now that does not mean that if you’re running a 50 mile race in low-land and a blizzard is not about to hit you, you absolutely never have to pack anything else. There is rain, too much heat/humidity, and simply some of us prefer to have a fresh change if we’re out there for some personal “too long of a time” to be nasty.
What do you keep in a drop bag in those cases?
Extra pair of socks, of course! Your feet get wet, whether from rain falling from the sky, creek crossings, or high humidity of Southern regions and this causes you blisters – by all means put a pair of socks, some kind of wipes and whatever you use to lubricate (if you do)! Sometimes that fresh pair feels so good after hours of your feet being all sweaty and stinky, even if for a few minutes only. Just remember, the time you spent changing socks (a much more involved process than pulling a rain jacket over) has to be justified (like, preventing a death march due to blisters or crinkled wet feet).
A pair of shoes
Personally, in my 12 years on ultras, I changed shoes once (at my second 100 mile race) – and even then I didn’t need that. But some like to have plans for a dry pair after all the creek crossings in the race are over with, or before the night section starts, or to begin the race in lighter shoes, and continue in a more supportive pair. Whatever strikes your fancy, but again, think about benefits versus time spent changing, as well as the fact that your feet might have adjusted by now to a certain “fit” and a new pair (unless it’s the same brand/model, just fresh/bigger size) would feel odd and cause more problems than help. If you put shoes in a drop bag, but feel OK in the pair you started – don’t fix if it ain’t broken!
If the day was hot and sweaty and the approaching night is going to be cold, it is not a bad idea to do a “full body swap”, even underwear (depending on your modesty and surroundings at the planned aid station). At least a top layer ( a t-shirt), when dry, feels good and helps preserve body heat.
As I said above, if your race takes longer and you have even a slight hint of going into darkness before the finish line, or if it is a 100 mile race, pack that light! Pack one, a smaller version, early enough for the chance of a bad day, and one brighter and better version for when you know for sure you’ll need it. And pick both of them up! Handheld or headlamp, doesn’t matter. Many also pack extra batteries – I, however, prefer to have an extra headlamp. Changing batteries at night when fingers are swollen and/or cold and the brain function is low might be tricky. Swapping a full headlamp is much easier to operate.
That includes your extra electronic devices (another iPod? Garmin? Watch?), baby wipes to wash your face, blister kit, known chronic injury help (knee brace if your knees go out after a long time running, or ankles, etc.), anti-chafing creams/sticks, and I am sure you’ll come up with more stuff (although I highly recommend not to).
Packing and Organizing Your Drop Bag
Now to the fun part!
Allow me to introduce you to a mess called “Drop bag station drop” at Rocky Raccoon 50/100 mile back in 2011…now compare to the Meister, Karl Meltzer’s drop bag on the right.
Please notice the huge garbage bags, travel suitcases and duffel bags used for drop bags. Yes, I was one of the volunteers trying to lift them, sift through them and organize them by numbers. I pulled my back doing it! Another negative of having a humongous elephant for a drop bag – How can you possibly find anything in it? When you run 30, 50 or 70 miles, your brain is extremely glucose deprived and doesn’t really think clearly – so, you often either overlook what you may need, or can’t find it, or spend a lot of time digging through.
Here is what I recommend. First off, a drop bag should be a SHOE BOX size. Secondly, it is nice to have a drop bag that is CLEAR – you can see through without digging in and taking everything out. You can use either 1 Gallon Ziploc bags or Clear Plastic Boxes. Third, I prefer to have drop box to be DISPOSABLE – once you pick up what you put in there, you can dump it in the garbage and forget about it. This helps when you’re done with the race and we often either want to get home or simply forget to grab it. And last but not least, it should be WATER-PROOF in case of rain, dirt and other stuff.
If you pass through an aid station two or more times, use ONE drop bag but inside it put two (or more) separate smaller drop bags (for example 1 Quart size Ziploc bag) with obvious marking on which one to use first (ex: small clear bags labeled “20M” and “41M”, and then I put them inside a bigger bag).
One more thing on your drop bag – MARK IT CLEARLY and have it stand-out for YOU. I use bright orange duct tape to put my name on it, my bib number, and an aid station name. Lots of colors are sold these days, choose one that is not common and is popping up amongst the sea of stuff.
Enjoy your run!
– Olga King