Drop what? A drop bag is a foreign object to any runner who does not run farther than a marathon. To an ultrarunner, a drop bag is your savior. Well-placed drop bags can even replace a crew for the more experienced ultrarunner.
The purpose of a drop bag is to store gear and supplies that you will likely need later in a long race, such as a fifty or one hundred miler. If you plan to be out on the trail for twelve or more hours having a place to stash some things is very very useful.
I spent about two hours organizing my gear into drop bags yesterday. Salt Flats 100 allows drop bags at every aid station other than number one, which is ten miles into the race, that’s right the first aid station is ten miles in. That may come as a huge surprise to any marathon runner who has a aid station every one and a half to three miles during their race.
In order to pack your drop bags responsibly, there are some things you need to know about your race such as elevation, likely weather conditions, and the aid station food and drink selections. Without this information you will be packing things you don’t need or not packing something that you do need. You can’t carry everything you may need out on the course. And, even if you could, you really don’t want too. It is better to have a drop bag at every aid station than care unnecessary gear especially in the later stages of a race.
Elevation gain and loss changes your gear requirements. It influences temperatures and the technicality of the trail. It affects your speed and the thus the time you will be reaching particular points in the race. You need to be able to calculate about the time you will be reaching each drop bag to be able to include necessary items. The drop bag you will reach just before sun down needs to include things like a flashlight or headlamp. Possibly a jacket and long pants, if it is an early or late season mountain race. Might there be snow at the higher elevations? Or river crossings requiring you to change your socks multiple times during the race? Is there an extreme climb where trekking poles would be helpful, but you don’t want to carry them through the flat sections? You need to look over the elevation map and consider what you might need at each point in the race.
Weather conditions changes your gear requirements. In the desert, it is hot during the day and below freezing at night. The sun beating down on you is unrelenting. Wind changes things as well, think about keeping dirt and other debris out of your eyes. Wind can drop the temperatures even on what would otherwise be a perfect running day. Rain creates mud and excess water, in addition to sopping wet clothing, it could change your shoe choice or pre-race foot preparations. Heat and a dry climate can cause chafing issues requiring glide or some other type of lubricant for bodies or feet.
Food and drink supplies change your supply requirements. Ultra-aid stations have a buffet laid out for their runners. You will find various candy choices, a trail mix or two, chips, fruits, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and during the night hours soup or other warm foods. Drink options are just as extensive, water, Gatorade, heed, EFS, there are a bunch of them out there and it all depends upon who is sponsoring the race. There is generally salt tabs and some type of gel. It’s a good idea to check on the race website or contact the race director to find out what is going to be there. If it is something you don’t use, you have two options either test it out to see if you can tolerate it or bring your own supplies.
The Salt Flats 100 has approximately 5500 feet of climbing over the entire race, so relatively flat for a 100-mile run. The weather conditions are pretty much ideal, 40-70 degrees Fahrenheit with the possibility of thunderstorms. I will have drop bags at miles 31, 50, 57, 67, 81, 90, and 95. My crew will be meeting me at each aid station other than the 90 where no crew is allowed. I pick up my pacer at mile 81.
No matter how well you plan, you have to expect the unexpected. I have learned this not only in ultrarunning, but in parenting too. Being a single mom of two teen boys, the unexpected tends to happen so often that it loses it chaotic feel. One of the most important things you have to also accept and be willing to do is completely scrap the entire race plan on the fly and just deal with things as they come up. If you are too tied to your plan, it can and will wreck your race.
So train for six months, plan all you want, organize and reorganize your drop bags, have a million and one meetings with your crew and pacers and in the end be ready and willing to throw it all to the wind. Only then you are truly ready to run an ultra.