Though most runners find the 26.2-mile marathon a thoroughly challenging distance, there is an incredible subset of runners who are driven by the need to go even further. These brave souls often want to venture even beyond the 100-mile mark.
Ultramarathons cover at least 31 miles and typically extend far beyond that, with runners pacing themselves across multiple days. To run these distances, it takes more than a pair of running shoes and some race training. The best ultramarathon runners have special tricks, strategies and equipment that help them overcome these enormous distances. Here are just a few of their must-haves.
1. GPS Tech
Unlike during shorter races with a defined route and plenty of onlookers, many ultramarathons pass through rugged terrain with few markers and even fewer onlookers. So, while you’ll find support stations throughout, it’s pretty easy to get lost. That’s why ultramarathon legend Scott Jurek takes a GPS with him on his runs, especially those that lack traditional definition – like the full Appalachian Trail.
Bringing a GPS device on your ultramarathons isn’t just practical, it’s also a safety precaution. If you don’t know where you are, it’s hard to get help if you’re injured or ill. GPS helps keep ultramarathon runners within a safety net, no matter how far they go. With modern technology, carrying a GPS unit during a race can be as simple as the picking the right wristwatch.
Some ultramarathons last for days on end. Even if you’re well hydrated, you’re likely to suffer from unpleasant dry mouth. To combat this, some ultra runners bring mouthwash with them for an easy oral care routine. Since regular brushing and flossing is important for cavity prevention—but definitely inconvenient on the trail—a quick swig of mouthwash can bridge that gap while away from home. Did you know that athletes can take a carbohydrate-based beverage, such as a sports drink, and swish it around in their mouth for 5-10 seconds to see a positive energy response? This is likely due to receptors in the mouth that recognize the presence of carbohydrates. In some scenarios, the response is just as significant as actually drinking the beverage. This action can be performed both before and during activity, and is likely most effective when repeated over the duration of activity. It also appears to be most effective when carbohydrate storage is lower, such as after an overnight fast or late in a training session.
3. A Minimalist Backpack
During an ultramarathon, you essentially have to have your entire life on your back. However, few backpacks, even running or hiking packs, are designed for this level of intensity. No average knapsack will do. However, a minimalist backpack such as “The Grizzly” from Victory Sportdesign can hold your gear without slowing your down. This backpack features wraparound compartments and internal dividers so everything is easily within reach during your run. It’s also designed to be durable and has a no-bounce design that won’t place extra strain on your body while you’re grinding out miles.
4. Motivating Music
Some runners are staunchly anti-music, but when you’re traveling the long trail all alone, music can be welcome company. Four-time national ultrarunning champion Megan Roche relies on high energy music like Space Jam, Shake It Out by Florence + The Machine, and Bossy by Kelis when she’s running. Your own playlist should include songs you know can keep your spirits high and focus engaged mile-after-mile.
Have you ever head those old stories about people carrying baked potatoes in their pockets on the way to school to keep their hands warm? Well, that’s not exactly why ultra runner Sam Brooks packs mini baked potatoes on his long runs. No, Brooks uses these tiny potatoes as a replacement for the snack bars, gels and electrolyte beverages most runners consume. But wait—potatoes? Potatoes are actually an ideal ultramarathon food because they’re a simple carb that’s low in sugar and high in fiber, meaning a slow release of energy, plus plenty of potassium and sodium to rebalance lost electrolytes. And let’s be honest, they’re more appealing than energy gels! Brooks adds extra salt and butter to her potatoes to increase the sodium and calorie content.
Ultramarathon runners are a unique group of people, and their must-have gear is equally unique. It’s the only way to survive 100-mile runs, a race along the Appalachian Trail (2,200 miles), or races in extreme environments, such as the Sahara and Gobi deserts—and those are all real! So, you test on the short runs and apply on the longer ones. The only difference between ultramarathon runners and the rest of us is that a marathon is a short run for these outstanding athletes.