One of the questions I get asked a lot is what do I take with me when running an ultra? It’s a good question, and through trial and error, I’ve found a formula of ultra gear that works for me.
Having the right gear is pretty crucial in my experience, and can make the difference between getting over the line and a DNF. In extreme circumstances, it can also mean the difference between life and death. When running an ultra, there will almost always be a list of mandatory equipment which you have to take, and I’ve included those generic items within this list, as increasingly, a lot of people are doing self-initiated adventures, outside of organised events. If you were running a desert race or a mountain race, more specific ultra gear may be needed. This list isn’t an attempt to cover all scenarios but is a general list for an average ultra, and one which has seen me through just fine.
All items in this list are what I have tried and tested personally, and I have not been given any of the items for review purposes – I’ve bought each and every item based on my research.
Ultra gear – what I wear
Running top. I find that one with a small collar helps to stop the straps of my race pack chafing on my neck and shoulders.
Race shoes. I’ve tried different brands of off-road running shoes and found the combination of durability, comfort, weight and value for money of the Inov-8 brand to be second-to-none. The shoe I’ve used on all of my races of 50 miles or more is the Inov-8 Roclite. The 295 version, in my opinion, is the best. I have used the 280 version, but the cheaper materials used on the upper part of the shoe meant that they didn’t last as long, ripping along the sides, and had to be chucked after the inaugural Limestone Way Ultra 2016. Having said that, they’d be a great option for a flat ultra, like one of the many canal races that are out there in the UK. I’ll be getting a pair of the Inov-8 305’s before my next ultra
Socks are a vitally important choice. If you’ve found a pair that work for you, stick with them and take several spare pairs – one in the pack you’re carrying, and one in each of your drop bags. I use Inov-8 Race Elites.
Shorts. After a groin issue on my first 100-miler, I decided that I should take all the help on offer regarding support for my legs, so I got myself a pair of these Ronhill shorts, which combine a compression inner with a regular outer short, all in one garment. A great purchase at a really good price, they are now a mainstay for any distance run I do.
Buff. A buff is great for all weathers, but I especially love the warmth it helps to keep in your body once the night sections of a race kick in. An extra piece of comfort like this can do wonders for your mental state after 70 miles of running…
Gaiters. If the race you’re doing is over loose gritty stoney trails, then a pair of gaiters could be a great addition to your ultra gear. This pair is designed to work with the Inov-8 range of shoes and will stop most of those annoying bits of debris getting inside your shoes.
Race pack. I’m a bit of a geek when it comes to bags for running. I’ve had a fair few over the years, but the one I will always use for Ultras is the Ultimate Direction Scott Jurek Ultra Vest. I really cannot recommend the pack highly enough. It’s strong, comfortable, surprisingly spacious, easily fitting in all my ultra gear. The included bottles have a very wide mouth opening at the top, which really speeds transition through aid stations when refilling. The bag I link to is the model up from the version I have, but once mine has run its last race, I’ll upgrade (the new one has trekking pole holders and is lighter than the older version). If you need one with more space, the Anton Krupricka version holds 11.5 litres of gear, and the Peter Bakwin 16 litres!
Race watch. Unless you’re super fast, a 100 miler is going to take around the 24-30 hour mark. As such, it was important for me to have a race watch that had a battery life to last for the duration. After much research, I settled on the Suunto Ambit 3 Peak. And I couldn’t be happier with my choice. It looks stylish, isn’t too big, is extremely comfy (even on my skinny wrists!), it’s waterproof, has route navigation and the battery does last for 24 hours or more (depending on which GPS settings you have on). The Ambit 3 Peak also comes with a chest strap heart rate monitor, which is immensely useful for training in heart rate zones. A truly great piece of ultra gear kit, and one I’m very glad I made the investment in.
Ultra gear in or on the pack
Base layer. Whatever you generally wear. I have a cheap one right now, but will get a merino wool version when this one is worn out.
Waterproof jacket. It’s important on many races that these are fully waterproof (with sealed/taped seams) and wind proof. I use a Ronhill Vizion.
Walking poles. I didn’t take any on my fist 100-miler, but would never have got round if another amazingly kind runner hadn’t leant me theirs. After much research, I got a pair of Mountain King Trail Blaze Trekking Poles (check which size you’ll need).
Gels I use the High 5 gels. These are my emergency rations, should I have eaten all real food and am in need of some help!
Map – whichever map(s) you need for your race.
Whistle – often on the mandatory kit list, this could save your life if you get into difficulties. The race pack I use has one built it and is accessible at all times.
Compass. Just in case your race watch does die and you need to know where you are.
Phone. Part of the mandatory kit list for almost every race. I use a Sony Xperia Z5, as it has a long battery life and takes amazing quality photos (a lot of the photos on this blog were shot with it).
Water bottles (1 litre in total) – as part of my race pack.
Spare shoe laces
Spare batteries – for head torches. I carry these from the start in case I miss them in the drop bag. It’s one less thing to worry about.
Haribos and salted peanuts – although the check points are usually well stocked with edibles, I like to take a few small, light extras, just in case.
For drop bag
Drop bags can be left at certain checkpoints in a race. Generally, they have a size restriction, so what you can fit in them is minimal. I’ll generally leave my head torches in the drop bag to save myself having to carry them for the day section, and then spare essentials are the order of the day.
Socks. Yep, more socks.
Head torch 1 – I’m geeky with these also. I use the Petzl Nao as my main light, as it has good battery life as well as bright and customisable lumen settings.
Head torch 2 – A back-up is required on many mandatory kit lists, in case the first one breaks. The LED Lenser is a brilliant torch. I love how the light can be super-focused down to a tight beam with an amazing distance – perfect for picking out reflective trail markers on the other side of dark, murky fields!
Haribos and salted peanuts (you can never have enough)
For bag at finish
Thick jumper – my body temperature plummets after I stop running, and even in summer, I’ll need a thick jumper.
Jeans for keeping the legs warm
Sleeping bag – in case you’re waiting around for a bus to take you back to the start and need some kip.
Cheeky beer or two!
Note book to jot down any thoughts or feelings.
DON’T be put off!
It looks like a pretty long (and expensive!) list, and the very last thing I’d want is to discourage anyone from entering an ultra due to feeling they don’t have the right equipment. You can start with the essentials for you, and then add kit over time. When I ran the Atlantic Coast Challenge in 2010 (3 coastal marathons in 3 days, from Padstow to Lands End), I ran in a pair of old road shoes, which had cost me about £30; my usual road running clothing (none of which was expensive); and with a cheap rucksack / camelback on my back, which together probably cost me about £40. And I got round just fine. Chances are, if you’re a runner, you’ll have most of this gear already anyway!
But, as the distances increased, comfort and practicability became more important to me, which is why I invested in some more specialised ultra gear. Of the items listed above, if I could’ve had any of them at the start of my long distance racing hobby, it would have been the Ultimate Direction race pack, the Suunto watch, along with the Inov-8 shoes. If you have any questions about gear, I’m more than happy to help. Drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll do my best to advise.