Okay, so my buddy asked me what he should get for his drop bags for his first 100 miler. Instead of trying to respond in the same medium in which he used to ask the question (text message), I decided to come on here and make a post because it's a common question, especially for first time 100-mile runners.
Something I've noticed is that people like to pack everything, including the kitchen sink. This is easy to do on your first 100 miler because the adage is "it's better to have it and not need it, than to need it and not have it". However, if you don't have it, you don't have to waste time trying to decide if you want to use it. I compare it to when I used to mountain bike quite a bit, and I went from a multiple-gear derailleur bike to a single speed. It's quite liberating not having to decide what gear to be in while approaching a hill. You just grit your teeth and go. Sometimes I think just gritting your teeth and going is the best option, especially in ultramarathons.
Okay, so let's start with the basics. What will you need to run 100 miles? Well, what do you need to run 30 miles? It's probably a lot of the same stuff, but just more of it. And to make it easier, let's compare it to running 30 miles AT NIGHT, because you'll likely be running in the night during your 100.
Usually when I run 30 miles at night, I know I'll need the following:
water (usually a handheld for me, but sometimes a pack)
headlamp and batteries
lubricant (body glide, aquaphor, etc)
So the above is pretty much the bare minimum, and really all that is required to run 30 miles at night. In fact, it's all that's required to run 100 miles as well. (Unless you're Rob Krar and can finish before sundown). Okay, now when you extend the distance from 30 miles to 100 miles, some things can happen. So let's go back to the list and expand a little bit on each item.
Many people like to wear trail shoes that are a half-size to whole size larger than what they would wear on the roads or in a casual shoe. This gives your foot some room to breathe and if there is any swelling (due to either constant pounding or electrolyte/water imbalance), it gives your foot room to grow. You don't necessarily need a second pair of shoes for 100 miles. I've finished three 100's so far, and I've changed shoes on two of them. My most recent 100, I wore the same shoes and socks for the entire race.
However, I still had a second pair available in a drop bag in case I did want it. And it was the same size as the pair I started in. Sometimes I tell people to have a pair that is a size larger than the pair you start in. If you're feet swell considerably, or if you get some bad blisters and you have so much tape on your toes that you need the extra room or a bigger shoe, it might be nice to have that bigger shoe. So at some point in the future I might get a size 13 for drop bags (I run in 12.5), but for now, I'll just take my chances with what I have. I should add that I don't normally have many foot issues. I might get a small blister here or there, but nothing crazy like some of the stuff I've seen at ultras with other people's feet.
Recommendation: Pack a second pair of shoes in a drop bag, and if possible, make them a half-size larger than the shoes you start in
If you run sockless, I don't care. Obviously this doesn't apply to you. Move along. For those of you that wear socks... well, let me back up real quick. A friend once told me that "you have to take care of your spots! Food, Fluid, and Friction!" So I slightly modified what he said and changed it to the five F's: "Food, Fluid, Friction, Feet, and Food".
So your feet. The shoe situation is handled. Socks. If your feet get wet, you can keep running, but if you're prone to blisters, you might want to stop and change your socks. Sometimes it's worth changing them for that fresh-sock feeling. It'll take three minutes to change them, but when you're traveling 100 miles on foot, it's worth it to take those extra minutes to make yourself comfortable. Being uncomfortable can be detrimental to your mental outlook which is more than half of the battle.
Recommendation: Pack two pairs of socks in your drop bags. (I like to lightly powder the socks in advance so they're easier to get on and help keep my feet dry)
This will encompass clothing in general, not just shorts (because sometimes you need more than just shorts). On a hot dry day, a pair of shorts is plenty. However, if it's very humid, the sweat that is soaked into a pair of shorts can create chafing that is downright NASTY. Same with a shirt/singlet/bra. (I assume it's the same for bras.. ladies, care to chime in?). You'll likely be fine with one pair of shorts, one shirt, and one bra for the entire race, but these items are so small and light, why not pack an extra of each?
Also, it might get cold. If you're running the Oil Creek 100, then you better be prepared for anything! Even if it doesn't look like it will be cold, when you're tired, it's dark out, and you're in the middle of the woods by yourself 80 miles into a race and you're walking a 25 min/mile pace just barely making cutoffs, you might feel cold in weather that otherwise you would not consider cold. Got it? So if there's the chance of it being chilly, pack a long-sleeve shirt. There's always the chance of rain, so pack a nylon jacket. If there are multiple drop bag locations and you don't want to spend hundreds of dollars on multiple jackets, pack a poncho or garbage bag with holes. Jackets don't have to be fancy. Walmart has Russel/Starter nylon jackets for $20 that'll do just fine in keeping you relatively dry and warm on a cold wet night.
Also, gloves and a hat/buff are good items to have as well. Cold fingers and cold ears can ruin your day!
If there's the possibility of it being very cold, pack a pair of tights and maybe another, heavier long-sleeved shirt. If you're very slow and there's the chance it'll be cold AND rainy, pack a pair of wind pants. It might sound crazy, but like I said.. if you're at mile 80, it's cold and wet and you're tired and hungry and feel like absolute crap.. a pair of wind pants might mean the difference between making you feel just comfortable enough to not drop out.
Recommendation: One extra pair of shorts, singlet/shirt/bra. Long sleeve shirt. Nylon Running Jacket or Poncho. Gloves. Hat or Buff. Tights.
If there's a chance it'll be very cold, an extra long-sleeved shirt, a pair of windbreaker pants, and heavier gloves.
Obviously water will be available at the aid stations, so you'll just need a way to carry it. How close together are the aid stations? Will a handheld suffice? If you're using a handheld, how will you carry your food? These are some considerable considerations to consider.
What if you're carrying a pack, and the hose breaks on the bladder? What will you do? What if you fall on your handheld and it breaks?
Recommendation: Pack an extra handheld in your drop bag.
They'll have these for you at the aid stations. Oh, you can't survive without Ensure or Tailwind or your organic agave chia concoction that'll probably cause you to shit yourself? Pack it in a drop bag.
Recommendation: Pack a few food items that have a ton of calories and is something you'll enjoy and will lift your spirits when feeling down. If you rely on gels/clifshots/etc, pack some extras of those in case the aid stations run out. Also, an empty ziploc bag is nice to have on you while running so you can fill it with food at the aid station.
"Anton and Geoff just fills their bottles and goes. It's very disturbing."
Don't be that idiot that forgot his/her headlamp or their batteries died because they're the same ones they had in there from the end of their last race. Find out when sunrise and sunset are, and plan accordingly. Think of the worst-case scenario as far as pace goes, and figure out where you'll be on the course at that time. Put the headlamp in the closest drop bag. If there's another drop bag up ahead, put batteries in it. Know how long your headlamp's batteries last. If your batteries last four hours and you expect to get through a 10-hr night on the same set of batteries, don't be surprised if someone hits you on the head with a tack-hammer.
Also, carry a backup light. Things break. My backup light is a tiny single LED keylight I carry in my pocket. Is it optimal? Nope. I hope I never have to use it. But it's enough to keep me moving until I reach my drop bag where I know I'll have another full-size backup light.
Oh, by the way, running at night prior to race-day is recommended. Don't make me get out the tack-hammer again!
Recommendation: Pack a main headlamp and a backup. Carry both. Have extra batteries available in later drop bags. Be aware of sunset/sunrise times.
Lube up!!! Chafing can ruin your day! Apply your favorite lubricant prior to the race, and reapply at regular intervals. Chafing is like an STD: the best treatment is prevention! I prefer Body Glide, but if chafing begins, then I'll switch to Aquaphor because Aquaphor is good for healing as well! Most ultras will have vaseline/petroleum jelly available at the aid stations which will do just fine.
Recommendation: Put your favorite lubricant in your drop bag.
Extra Stuff (consult your doctor, don't sue me, k thanks):
Tums, Ginger - some people have stomach issues and find relief with these items.
duct tape (good for blisters.. the safety pin on your bib works fine for popping them)
band aids (good for blisters)
Tylenol (see below)
Caffeine (5 hr energy, caffeine pills, Redbull. These items can be helpful.)
Electrolytes (S-Caps, Salt-stick, Endurolytes, etc)
Bug Spray (if you have itchy mosquito bites, wiping mud on them helps provide relief)
Toilet Paper (paper towels in small ziploc bags work great)
Pain Relief... Okay, I will quickly discuss this as it is a often controversial subject. First of all, I highly recommend NOT using any NSAID such as Naproxen (Aleve), Ibuprofen (Motrin, Advil), or Aspirin. The negative effects of using NSAIDs during endurance events are numerous.
You can read about it here. (summary: bye bye kidneys)
Tylenol, or Acetaminophen is generally found to be safer. I haven't found a ton of research that shows Acetaminophen to be especially dangerous during endurance events. However, as always, acetaminophen carries a high risk of overdose and should be used sparingly and with caution. I personally pack acetaminophen and if I get bad pain during an ultra, I will use it. This is by no means a recommendation to use it, and you should consult your doctor.
A few other things:Your drop bags should not be ginormous. Use courtesy and common sense. A small gym bag or backpack is fine. Don't use giant rubbermaid containers. Some poor volunteer has to lug those from the start to the aid stations and back. You don't need a ton of stuff, so your bags shouldn't be all that big. Also, if your bags are not waterproof, anything that you want to keep dry should be in a plastic bag. Drop bags are often in exposed areas and can be rained upon. Oh, and of course, label your drop bags. Most races want your name, bib #, and the aid station that the drop bag is going to.
That's about it! Good luck, have fun, and keep it simple. Just keep moving (nice and easy), take care of the five F's, and be sure to EAT EAT EAT!
*This entry is subject to change if I realize I forgot anything.