How to Pack for an Ultra

By Alfie Pearce Higgins. Posted: October 07, 2017

How to pack for a 400km Ultramarathon...

Part of the beauty of running lies in its simplicity. Grab a t-shirt and some shorts, chuck on a pair of trainers and you are ready to hit the road/trail.

But some races require a little more planning. Earlier this month I took on the 400km Ultra Gobi in China. Having completed the race in 2016 I knew the importance of being properly equipped. Excel spreadsheets were created, kit was endlessly weighed and repacked and my spare room (in fact, most of the house) was overtaken - in short, a level of faffing usually reserved for triathletes.

After both successes and failures in various ‘super-ultra’ distance races here are my six top packing tips:

1. Take real food.

The Ultra Gobi rules require a minimum of 25,000 calories, 2,000 of which must be carried at all times while the rest stashed in drop bags. To put that into perspective I would have needed to take 100 Mars Bars, 320 boiled eggs or 3125 cucumbers (to clarify, I didn’t choose any of these options).

Balancing taste and melt-ability with weight pose a constant trade-off but it’s vital to have enough variety over a long race. Sweet and synthetic supplements can only go so far. This year I opted for a Firepot based diet, supplemented by homemade cinnamon buns and Jelly Beans.

2. Wear comfortable clothes.

If you’re going to wear something for up to 100 hours it had better be comfortable. Temperatures in the Gobi can range from +35C in the day to -10C at night and snowstorms and flash floods are not uncommon (the organizers threw in a 3500m peak for good measure). Clothing, therefore, needs to be flexible, comfortable, durable and, of course, look good (even if for large stretches it will only be seen by the occasional camel).

For a believer in short shorts, Iffley Road’s Pembroke provides an excellent option with useful pockets and minimal chafing. Meanwhile, the Hove long-sleeve top is breathable and warm enough to deal with temperature fluctuations and can comfortably work with a pack. And all outfits are of course improved by a French foreign-legion-style sun hat.

3. Don’t rely on technology.

Navigation is a key part of many ultramarathons. These days most runners use handheld or wearable GPS gadgets which can be very convenient when one wants to keep moving. The desert at night can be a disorientating place and I have seen runners leave checkpoints exactly the way they have come.

However, technology is always prone to failures. Batteries run out, screen break or, as happened in one case, gadgets inexplicitly switch to an incomprehensible foreign language. It is always worth, therefore, carrying a good old map and compass.

4. Take ear plugs.

One would have thought that after 40 odd hours of running falling asleep would not be an issue. But heavy doses of caffeine, sugar, and adrenaline, combined with noisy rest-stations can make dozing off tricky.

In a competitive race, it is vital to make the most of any rest time and earplugs can make all the difference. The winner of this year’s Ultra Gobi, the indefatigable Dan Lawson, slept for just one hour out of 71.  

5. Make sure your pack fits.

I recently had to upgrade my OMM 20l pack and it was an emotional experience. Over eight years my pack had been with me across several deserts, up countless mountains, and down a few rivers. It had lost all its colour and worn out in several places but it had been a loyal companion.

A pack that doesn’t fit can cause serious back issues, including spectacular welts. Pocket configurations, straps, and fastenings meanwhile are a matter of personal taste but one that runners often feel strongly about.

6. Pack a toothbrush

While checking my mandatory kit at this year’s Ultra Gobi the organizers were amused to see a toothbrush in my pack. I had to put up with various jokes about this being an attempt to impress the camels along the way with my minty fresh breath.  

But after 60 hours cleaning one’s teeth can be a rejuvenating experience. To save weight I would recommend stealing hotel toothpaste tubes and cutting the handle off your toothbrush. Some runner went further with electric razors, combs and even make-up being stashed in drop-bags.

Best of luck with the packing!

You can follow Alfie’s progress in various ultramarathons on Instagram @jogonalfie.

(Images - Lloyd Belcher Visuals)

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