10 must-haves for your first ultra marathon

by lachicaruns on

My friend Brandess Wallace is one of those always-smiling, cheerful people. And yet, she’s inherently dangerous.

That’s because she uses that charming personality to get you to do things like sign up for your first marathon…or a — gasp! — ultra marathon. That’s 31 miles, or 50 kilometers. On trails. In Michigan. In September. (For those of you who don’t live in the Michigan tundra, the temperature could very well be 80 or 20 degrees. On the same day.)

The beautiful Brandess.

The beautiful Brandess.

That’s how I found myself signed up for the Run Woodstock Ultra. And why Brandess was kind enough to create a list of ultra marathon must-haves. Here’s today’s Guest Chica post:

  1. Headlamp. Many ultra races start before daylight. Having a headlamp is important for preventing injury and staying on course. You can find ones that are very inexpensive ($5-10) all the way to lamps that cost near $200.
  2. Gaiters. Gaiters are small coverings that fit over your shoes to prevent dirt and rocks from entering. This may not seem that important, but pebbles can feel like boulders during trail races. Also, while sitting down to shake out pebbles is easy at the start of a race, 25 miles into a 50K sitting down can mean the difference between muscles seizing up — or not.
  3. Hydration Vest/Hand Held. Though ultras are known for having a multitude of fueling options (yay, potato chips!), it is still important to carry your own fuel, especially during the summer. In addition to carrying water, I use my hydration vest to carry extra gels, snacks, salt tabs and my phone.
  4. Neck Gaiter/Buff or Scarf. I always wear a running buff around my neck during long trail races. They are great for wiping sweat/dirt/bugs out of your eyes during the run.
  5. Visor/Hat. I like to wear a visor instead of sunglasses during trail races because they keep the sun out of my eyes without hindering my ability to see roots and such on the trail. Sunglasses often become too dark for me to be confident in my footing.
  6. Wool Socks. If your ultra has some water crossings on the course, wool socks will be your best friend. The wool wicks the water away from your body. Wet, damaged feet can mean the difference between finishing and a DNF (that’s did-not-finish) for an ultra runner. Take care of your feet. I wear SmartWool socks for all of my ultras and have rarely gotten blisters, even after waist-high water crossings lasting over half a mile.
  7. Trail Shoes. Some ultra trails can get very technical. Trail shoes will help you gain proper footing, especially if the trails are wet and muddy. Choose a shoe that is the equivalent of your running shoe. Meaning that if you usually run in a stability road shoe, then you will probably need a stability trail shoe as well.
  8. GPS Watch. This is not really essential. In fact, unless you have a time limit to make, I would suggest not even bringing your GPS because the GPS signal can get spotty in the woods, plus trail miles sometimes feel much longer than road miles. Glancing down at your watch every few minutes and realizing you haven’t run that far because of trail switch backs and such is going to get frustrating. Lastly, you’ll be out there for so long that your watch will probably end up dying before you finish…trust me.
  9. Drop Bag. Let me share with you the wonder that is your drop bag! Your drop bag is filled with any of the supplies you think you may need to make it to the end of your race. It is a bag of your choosing; some people use big, black trash bags, others use Rubbermaid totes. I have used large back packs, travel bags and small drawstring bags depending on the distance and my needs at the time. That could include a change of shoes; socks; moleskin/Band Aids; baby wipes; painkillers; BodyGlide/Vaseline; deodorant/Febreeze; batteries; and a camera.
  10. A Carrot. Drop bag locations are usually put somewhere late in the race (anywhere from mile 17-23 or farther). The most important item in your drop bag is your “carrot.” This is the one thing that will help you get to the end if you are in the deepest running funk ever. For my bestie, Shannon, those items are a can of Diet Mountain Dew and a bag of Funyuns. For me, those items are a bag of Fritos and a supply of gummy bears. Most of the time I don’t end up needing them, but when I do…it is like an oasis in a desert. Find what your items are and make sure you pack them.
brandess with shannon

Brandess, at the end of her first ultra marathon with her bestie, Shannon. She has since done six more!

I am so glad that Brandess was nice enough to share her very-thorough ultra marathon survival list, because I now have five months to figure out what my carrot is. (Who am I kidding? It’s going to be a bag of Mega Stuf Oreos.)

How about you? What item or two would get you through an ultra marathon? Do you have anything to add to the list?

Written by: lachicaruns

My name is Gisgie. It's pronounced geese (like the birds) and gee (like the letter). Now that we've met, I'm glad you're here. I'm an injury-prone runner who manages to find reasons to keep coming back to the road despite ongoing challenges. Most recently, I've struggled with piriformis syndrome. I'm currently winning. Most days.


Chris Hornburg

I am going to get started next month getting all my supplies. I loved this info!!!!! Thanks!
Doing my first Ultra this September (I hope).


That’s great to hear. I am considering upgrading a few of the items I already have, but am following Brandess’ advice to forget the watch.


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