A Primer for the Beginning Ultra Runner: Keep it Simple

We’ve received much positive feedback for Gary Dudney’s “Beginner’s Corner” series over the past few months. Several new runners have asked for an even more basic introduction, some seemingly overwhelmed by the many choices when it comes to gear, food, and drink. So, we thought we’d back up a step and offer a primer for the very beginning ultra runner.

It wasn’t always this complicated. When I ran my first ultra in 1980, these are among the things that hadn’t yet been invented: water bottles, waist packs, CamelBaks, PowerBars, GU, i-buprofen, Coolmax, S-caps, iPods, cell phones. And yet, somehow, people still ran ultras.

The argument from this corner is to stick to the basics, and to keep it simple. Some advice and some personal biases follow.

Shoes – We get a lot of questions about shoes. My advice is always the same: find a real running store (not one of those mall chains) staffed by real runners. Seek their advice on the type of shoe best for your foot and foot plant. Try on a bunch and pick the one that feels most comfortable on your foot. Avoid the $20 Walmart specials, which, for the most part, are not real running shoes.

Do you need a trail shoe? Not necessarily. Indeed, there are some excellent trail shoes (Montrail Mountain Masochist, Brooks Cascadia, LaSportiva Wildcat) out there. But most trail shoes sacrifice cushioning by making the mid-sole thinner. This gives you a lower-profile shoe and a better feel for the trail. But if you are out there for hours on end, you will probably find you need the cushioning. I suggest you find a good road shoe with a reasonably aggressive out-sole (Brooks Adrenaline, Nike Pegasus). Most of the trails we run on are not so rugged and rocky that a trail shoe is a requirement.

Be very careful about the current trend toward minimalism. It certainly is true that we would be better served by having stronger feet. But most of us are not Tarahumaras, and many of us are nowhere near bio-mechanically neutral. If you’re going to try running barefoot, or in Vibram Five-Fingers or New Balance 100s, start out with a mile or two at a time. As a group we are already large contributors to orthopedic specialists, and we should not be looking for new ways to increase that contribution.

Ultimately, it’s not the shoes, it’s the runner in them. You could put Geoff Roes in a pair of Jimmy Choo stiletto pumps and he would still beat most of us.

Gear – back in the old days a lot of runners used Aunt Jemima syrup bottles for carrying water, because they had handles built into them. You certainly don’t need to do that anymore.

At most races, the aid stations are maybe 5-6 miles apart. In all but the hottest weather you should be able to do this with one 20-ounce bottle. If you want to carry a bit of food, gels, salt, and other essentials, there are a number of great one-bottle packs. One of the best is called the Strider by Ultimate Direction. It has a medium-size pouch conveniently located on the front left side and a one-bottle holster in the back. Ultimate Direction says it is designed for women; pay that no mind, it is a great pack for men or women.

Need two bottles? Get a hand-held and add that to your one-bottle pack. Amphipod makes a great hand-held bottle system in an oval shape that fits neatly into your hand.

For long adventure runs where water sources are far apart, there are a number of bladder-type backpacks, with bladders varying in size from 50 to 100 ounces. This concept was first developed by CamelBak, and almost any of their packs are excellent. So, too, is the Nathan HPL race vest, which has two small pouches in front, making them easy to use. Most of these packs have storage in the back, meaning you have to take the pack off to get at stuff. I find the CamelBak’s wide-mouth screw-top bladder much superior to the Nathan’s roll-top bladder, and so have been known to put a CamelBak bladder inside a Nathan pack shell.

Clothing – Paraphrasing that character in The Graduate, I have one word for you: Coolmax. Coolmax is an engineered polyester weave that wicks moisture away from your skin. You should never run in anything else. Coolmax shirts will keep you dry, reduce chafing, and hold their shape well. Most running shorts have Coolmax liners. Many running hats have Coolmax sweat bands. Since you will be spending hours wearing this gear, this is one area that you should splurge. The finest quality Coolmax shirts are only slightly more expensive than the others. Look for products by Mountain Hardwear, Patagonia, Brooks, and SportHill.

Chafing – nothing is more annoying than chafing. It can ruin an otherwise great run or race. Chafing in some typical spots, like inner thighs, can be downright debilitating. A product called BodyGlide works great for this. It comes in a stick, like deodorant, and lasts for hours. For places where you want a more liquid-type lube (toes, for example), try Hydropel, the best petrolatum-type ointment going.

For those rub spots that you can securely tape over (heels, arches, etc.), duct tape works great. Leukotape works even better.

Oh yeah. Don’t forget to put a Band-Aid over each nipple before your long runs. Weirdly, the Band-Aid brand doesn’t seem to stick very well. Try Curad or Walgreens.

Food – Any way you slice it, when you run for more than about three hours you will need to ingest 200-300 calories per hour to keep your blood

sugar in equilibrium. Doesn’t sound like much, but this can be hard to do, especially if you are racing hard or if it is hot. Most races have a variety of food to offer, but often you don’t really know what you’re going to see when you arrive at an aid station. Almost all races have PBJs. It is the perfect running food, just the right mix of carbs, fat, and protein. A full PBJ sandwich has about 500 calories, so if you can get a half-sandwich down every hour or so, you’ll do just fine. So, rule number one in the “keep it simple” concept is to get next to PBJs.

I have had a long-term love affair with Vanilla GU. Energy gels come in all sorts of flavors and consistencies, some might be slightly better formulated than others, but all of them are mostly maltodextrin, an excellent energy source. Personally, I find I like almost all the flavors when I am fresh, and almost none of them when I am tired. But Vanilla GU, for me at least, is the gift that keeps on giving. I’ve consistently been able to choke one down when needed almost anywhere, anytime.

Having said all of that, food intake is one area where there is a very wide variety of approaches. A few do only energy gels. Some do calorie supplements like Boost or Ensure. Others use moderately high caloric drinks like Hammer Nutrition’s HEED. Many use some combination of food and gels. Since you will be doing a number of long training runs, this is an area where you need to experiment and find out what works best for you. But if you can do PBJs, you will never need to hunt for something to eat at an aid station.

Drink – there are a number of great sports drinks that provide electrolyte replacement. Some offer a decent amount of calories as well. Races will almost always provide an electrolyte drink. Almost all of them are reasonably well formulated. If you can tolerate a wide variety of flavors, by far the simplest thing is to use whatever is offered. I’ve seen runners waste lots of time by carrying special powders and stopping to mix them. If there’s only one drink you can tolerate and the race is offering something else, then go ahead and carry your own powder. But it should be a last resort.

There’s one other great drink that is sometimes overlooked: water. It’s always available and always tastes good. If you do drink only water, you will want to add some salt along the way. Which brings us to. . .

Supplements – in the spirit of keeping things simple, I’m only going to offer up a couple of suggestions. The first is salt. In the way old days, we sometimes used those little packets of salt found at fast food joints. Gagging them down was not pleasant. Somewhere along the way, Karl King got the idea to put salt in a gelatin capsule. You get all the benefit without the gag reflex. There are now a variety of salt products out there, but King’s original S!Caps are still the gold standard. You’ll need one capsule every couple of hours or so, more often if it’s really hot.

One other thing you might try is a relatively new product called Vespa. It is a naturally occurring amino acid complex that enhances your body’s ability to metabolize fat. For longer runs you take one package about an hour before your run and then one every 4-5 hours throughout. You will still need to take in some calories, but Vespa will cut your caloric needs by about half, making it much easier to ingest all the calories you need. If you’re one of those folks who struggle with getting enough calories down, this product is for you.

Disclaimer – the opinions above are mine, based on my own experiences. As they used to say in car commercials, your mileage may vary. The one thing I think we can all agree on is that you can leave the Aunt Jemima bottle in the kitchen.

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John Medinger

John Medinger is the former publisher of UltraRunning magazine and continues as correspondent at large. A retired investment banker, he had previously worked as a business development manager and as a chemical engineer. He holds degrees from Oregon State University and MIT. John took up running in 1974 and ran his first ultra in 1980. He has now completed more than 130 ultras – most of them in California, but also in places as diverse as New Zealand and Scotland. Never an elite runner, he was somewhat faster than average early in his career but now finds himself materially closer to the back of the pack. He is the founder of the Quad Dipsea, and also founded and continues to direct the Lake Sonoma 50. He has served on the Board of Trustees of the Western States 100 since 1992. (Photo by akabill).
  • raw ultrarunning

    Hey there Mr. Medinger.
    Very nice and informative article.
    Just a small correction: S!Caps capsules are all vegan (cellulose) – not gelatin as mentioned in the article.
    Best of wishes,
    Martin @ Raw Ultrarunning