If you read the first part of our article, we covered some of the basics of preparing for your first ultra by looking at some of the considerations of time, mental preparation and basic training tips. While not exhaustive, it hopefully (and judging by the comments), helped some of you to think about what’s needed before you even press ‘Pay Now’ on your entry form!
In this second part, we’re going to look more specifically at some of the gear you need, particularly shoes, backpacks and mandatory gear for races. Unless your chosen race has regular, well-stocked aid stations, then gear will be a big consideration for your race. While not exhaustive, we hope this article will help you to understand what you need, when and why and provide some food for thought. It’s not gospel by any means – we’re all still learning. This is based on our experience over the last six or seven years and across countless ultras and training in Australia and abroad. We hope it helps and please add any of your own thoughts / advice and ideas too in the comments section. As always, keep it constructive 🙂
personal thing that we can’t tell you if it’s right or wrong, it’s about what feels right to you. The shoe industry has changed dramatically over the last five to ten years and gone are the days when a pair of Dunlop Volleys would see you through for the season – or maybe you still do use Volleys! But as the popularity of the sport grows, so too does commercialisation and with it, the marketing hype – which means increasingly complex gear. Shoes falls right into this category, but it doesn’t need to be hard. Just because a pair of shoes has some pretty colours and an ‘aggressive sole’ doesn’t mean to say you’re going to run a PB in them.
There are many things to consider with shoes, but we’re going to focus on four main areas to keep things simple. Again, it’s not exhaustive, but it should help guide you through the process a little better. There’s no point buying a pair of shoes because someone (including us!) said so on the Internet. Try before you buy is the golden rule here and remember that your feet are completely unique.
What the hell is ‘Heel to Toe Drop‘? We think heel to toe drop is important because it can have a big effect on the way in which you run and ultimately staying injury free. Of course, there’s a lot of marketing hype mixed in here with all the phrases such as ‘zero drop’, ‘minimal’, ‘maximal’ and so forth, so what does it all mean?
Heel to toe drop is the difference in height of the heel stack to the toe stack – sounds pretty straight forward? Well it is really… If the heel stack is 20mm and the toe stack is 12mm, then the heel to toe drop is 8mm. Does this matter you might say? Well to some extent it does and here’s why. A few years back, the minimal bandwagon joined the running circus and the story goes that the lower the drop i.e. less than 3mm, the more suited the shoe is to a mid-to-forefoot strike. This in turn is ‘said’ to encourage greater running efficiency, but ‘could’ also place an increased strain on your achilles as it has ‘further to drop’ to the ground.
The higher the drop, it is ‘said’ that it’s more inclined to provide the setting for a heel strike, which ‘some say’ leads to more inefficient running. Think of a car moving with a hand brake on. However much of our day-to-day footwear (think work shoes) have a sizable drop and thus we’re rather preconditioned to larger drops – hence when people shift to a lower heel to toe drop, issues can occur.
It’s highly likely that the brains of ‘shoe experts’ are already doing over time here such is the can of worms related to this topic. There’s no right or wrong here, just some personal experience. I prefer a lower drop because I do believe that the mid-to-forefoot style of running is better suited to me and because I used to suffer from chronic shin splints, thus moved to this style of running in a bid to help get rid of it. But what I will say is that the style of ‘foot strike’ you employ and then the subsequent shoes you buy should be best suited to how you wish to run. Therefore work out which is going to be more comfortable and best suited to your style of running.
Comfort – The ‘comfort’ of your shoe is important, whether you’re racing a 10km bush thrash or 240kms through the forest. For the shorter races, you can get away with less protection underfoot simply because you’re not out in the bush all that long for the feet to hurt – but protruding rocks will always be an issue! The more you’re out there, the more your feet will start to ache, which is all about how much cushioning you want. Some people prefer less cushioning because they like to feel ‘connected’ to the trail. Others couldn’t careless about that and just want a ‘buffet-car’ experience with their shoes, however this could affect the levels of stability in the shoe.
Some shoes have what’s called a ‘rock plate’, which is essentially a piece of material in the shoe to help prevent your feet from bruising when you tread on rocks and alike. However the more protection in your shoe, the less flexible it is likely to be and less ‘feel’ you may experience too.
On a personal level, I prefer shoes that have a certain amount of trail feel to them as I believe it allows me to adjust and respond my running accordingly. But likewise, I don’t want to be feeling every single rock and stone that could ultimately impact my race. Stability is something else that’s pretty important to think about – have a read of this if you want to know more.
It’s a fine balance, but I’ve found these shoes to be pretty awesome at doing that job.
What’s an outsole? The outsole is the tread on the bottom of your shoe. Why does this matter? Well, the type of outsole on your shoe will be important depending upon the type of terrain you run on. If you’re choosing a highly technical race with plenty of loose rocks and rugged terrain, you’ll want something that can grip, which is why we tend to see many shoes feature ‘lugs’ on the bottom to aid with this. If you’re running on pretty ‘flat’ fire trail with firm footing, you can get away with something that almost resembles the bottom of a road shoe.
That’s not to say that you can’t use ‘flat’ outsole shoes on rugged terrain, but having the extra grip sure will help you.
What about shape? Finally the shape of the shoe is also very important – which again comes down to the size and shape of your own feet. If you have wide feet, there’s very little point in trying to squeeze them into shoes that are known for being on the narrow side. Certain styles of Inov8s, New Balance and indeed Salomon shoes can be narrow. Altras for example are shaped like an actual foot, with a wide toe-box to allow for movement within the shoe.
While there are indeed plenty of factors to consider with buying running shoes, half the fun is working some of this out for yourself. I’ve gone through hundreds of pairs of shoes and I still couldn’t say that I’ve nailed it down to one pair. You’ll use different types of shoes for different races and switch between brands. This is a good thing.
Backpack / Hydration
After shoes, if you’re doing a big ultra 100kms+, your choice of backpack is a big one. Your first consideration should be size/capacity i.e. how much gear do you need to take? Having raced at Australia’s TNF100 four times, it’s amazing to see just how big some of the backpacks are when most people could fit their gear into something half the size. My theory is that the bigger your bag, the more you’re going to fill it. If you want to race fast, then minimal is the name of the game, all while balancing that with staying safe on the trails and making sure you’ve got the proper mandatory gear to help you should an issue occur. Never, ever compromise on this kind of stuff – it could save your life one day.
Backpacks these days have come a long way. Not only are they better fitting and more suite to our body shapes, but the manufacturers are using feedback from their runners to further enhance and design these things better. The main use for you pack is going to be to carry your food and water, therefore you need them in accessible places while you’re on the move. There’s nothing more annoying than having to stop and take off you pack when you need food, or trying to train as a contortionist to reach your hand around to the back of your pack and undo a zip.
When it comes to hydration, there are basically two options, you either use a bladder which fits in the back of your pack, or most modern designed packs have space for two bottle holders at the front of your pack. As part of your race planning, consider how much water you’re likely to need between checkpoints and what impact that may have on your ability to run quickly and efficiently. By that we mean that generally speaking, it’s more efficient in terms of balance load to have bottles on the front of your pack. That means you have a carrying capacity of 1.2litres if you use two 600ml bottles in the front pouches of your pack. If you have a long way to travel between checkpoints i.e. between 2-4 hours, then you’re probably going to need a bladder in the back of your pack to carry multiple litres of water.
You’ll also want somewhere to store your food too, so make sure your chosen pack has pockets at the front to get all the calories in that you need for each leg of your race. Again, the same rules apply here with water – if it’s a long leg, you’ll need more food which means carrying anywhere up to six to eight gels, think about where you can store these.
Likewise mandatory gear storage needs to be a part of your thinking process too – has your pack got enough space to get everything in? Is the pack cleverly designed with various pockets to store items such as thermals and waterproofs? Will you need to carry walking sticks for part of your race, and if so, can you store them easily on your pack?
Most of all though, does it feel comfortable on you and fit your body shape. The same rules apply here as they do with shoes, go with what’s right for you.
For the most part, you hope that the weather for your race is going to be fine and that you’ll have to carry minimal gear. But for some of the bigger races in more of the mountainous regions of the world, having essential gear is obligatory. With The North Face 100 coming up in Australia in a few months, mandatory gear is hugely important and a big factor in your race. No-one likes to carry gear, myself included, but it’s done for a reason – to help save you in an emergency. One of the biggest issues I think I see on the trails today is the lack of accountability and responsibility that people take for themselves.
Most of us come into trail running having spent time running on the roads and in races where you do not have to think. Trail and ultra running is entirely different and the golden rule when entering the sport is that you are 100% completely accountable for yourself. Race directors implement rules and procedures for a reason, but ultimately it comes down to you. No greater example of this is a recent Facebook thread I’ve seen in the last day or so for a major race and the possibility of rain on the day. The objections and excuses surrounding a simple act of having a waterproof rain jacket were staggering. Trail running doesn’t believe in excuses, only what you do on the day.
Generally, most mandatory gear lists for races consist of having a set of thermals, a waterproof jacket and pants, a fleece, a whistle and compass, an emergency food supply, maps and a hat or beanie. The balance you need to strike here is having appropriate gear for all weather conditions versus carrying hugely bulky items. Waterproof jackets for example come in all manner of sizes and dependability. There’s no use carrying an extremely lightweight jacket if conditions are going to be bad. While you might pass the gear test, you could find yourself in severe trouble if it’s not appropriate for the conditions. If you know you’re going to need to use it, make sure it’s seam-sealed and that it will keep you dry.
Likewise fleeces and thermals too (silk is a very good material for thermals, plus it’s lightweight and compact too) – the golden rule is that they need to do the job they were intended to do first. Considerations around size and weight come second.
With regards to maps of the course, again there’s a reason you have them – it’s so you can use them. Make sure you know how to read a map and if you’re unsure about the course, study the map beforehand to give you a sense of where you’re going and your surroundings. Look for landmarks and break the race up into sections. Again, most races will have course markings, but some don’t and this is part of their challenge. Take responsibility for yourself and your race by not getting lost and then blaming someone else for not marking a section – no excuses!
If you’re racing the North Face 100 in a few months and you’re still looking at what to use, this article here could help you along your way. The really important thing however is that you train again and again with your gear so that you know it intimately. Don’t try anything new on the day if you can help it, and practice running with all your gear a few times before your big race so you can gain an appreciation of what it feels like to be carrying everything.
And with that, good luck if you’re running your first ultra soon! We hope the articles has helped you along your way with your decision making and provided some pointers for you. Our golden rule however is one of the oldest sayings in the ultra world…
“Listen to everyone and follow no-one”