This Gear Junkie’s guide to rockin’ a Ragnar Trail Ultra Race

Racing on trails is awesome, but running constantly for 25hrs on technical single-track between a team of 4 can get a bit tricky. Whether you’re racing on trails by yourself during the dark hours in a non-race, on a team for a Ragnar Relay, or in some wicked ultra race, there are certain things you’ll need to get you through it.

Here’s a list of my must-have items from this past weekend’s Ragnar Trail Tahoe race:

  • A high-quality headlamp: It’s gonna be incredibly tough to meander through trees, rocks, and single track without a well-lit path. Granted, the moon can shine pretty darn bright, but the chances of your race being on the same night as a full moon are confounded by potential cloud coverage and time-of-the-month.
    • Things to look for in a good headlamp are:
      • Brightness- the higher the lumens, the brighter the beam; aim for something above 50 lumens.
      • Comfort- running causes gear to do a lot of bouncing around, so make sure that the headlamp isn’t going to move around on your forehead. It’s inconvenient if the headlamp bounces off your head, and it is can be dizzying if the lamp isn’t rigid with respect to your head.
      • Weight- this kind of goes with comfort; the lighter the lamp, the less you’ll notice it. But also take into consideration what material is on the forehead-facing side of the headlamp. If there are ridges that you wouldn’t notice while wearing it over a hat, but will leave dents in your forehead when wearing it during warm summer nights, it’s probably not the headlamp you want. Some headlamps come with “cushioned” backsides, kind of like a rubber backing that you put on the bottom of chairs to keep them from scratching hardwood floors. So long as that backing doesn’t come off from sweat, somethign like that is probably going to work well, and it will keep the headlamp from slipping around your forehead.
      • Battery life- carrying extra batteries isn’t a big deal, but changing them in the dark can be difficult. Getting a lamp that is definitely going to last you through a night of running is your best bet. Most require AAA batteries, but there are a few newer ones out that are USB-rechargeable, which means lower weight and a perfect plug-in for your solar charger during the day. On that note, make sure to pick up a pack of extra batteries, use fresh batteries from the start of the race, and get lithium batteries instead of alkaline (lithium are lighter).
      • I rocked my husband’s Black Diamond Spot, which was pretty decent. I somehow lost my other headlamp, which was also a Black Diamond Spot, probably at the last Ragnar Trail race I did. Anyway, the brightness factor on the Spot was fantastic, but it did bounce around a bit more than I’d have liked, and the tighter I made the strap, the more uncomfortable it was on my forehead. Whatever, not a big deal. But, I’m looking to upgrade for next time to Sprinter by BD or Petzl’s Tikka XP2 Core.
  • An easy-to-carry- and easy to refill- hydration device: I packed my handheld Nathan bottle carry, but only carried this for the night laps when I needed more volume and somewhere to stash a candybar.
    • I ended up buying a Salomon Sense Hydro at the race from the local vendor, and I am totally geeked about it. It was super low profile, with the glove coming in three different sizes (I went with small), and the flask reducing in size as it empties. It was leakproof for me, but my teammate- Chris- bought one that had a pinhole leak  which was unfortunate. The nipple is bite-and-squeeze, and the 8-oz bladder harnessed by the straps across your palm as well as a loop around the nipple. It was also easy to refill at the aid stations throughout the course- in my opinion, it was not so far that you’d need a pack but it was too far to not take anything (especially during the daylight runs).
    • My teammates, Sean and Stephen, both used a hydration pack, both of which were low-profile. Sean refilled his between his last two loops of his final run. Stephen even went on a lap or two without a bladder in it; he just threw a bottle where the bladder goes and stuffed food in the pockets. Sean rocked the Salomon Advanced Skin S-lab Set, which made me envious. That’s on my wish list for long-ass trail runs or even my next ultra race, although I am not sure I’ll use one for a Ragnar Relay (the legs were never more than 3hrs at a time, with at least two water stops).
    • Along with carrying fluids, I hydrated like a fiend with Nuun all weekend, especially the day before and the morning of the race. Running at altitude can be tough, but it can be made a bit easier by hydrating well. In fact, I drink twice as much as I normally do before a run or a race whenever I’m at altitude higher than 6,000ft (Ragnar Tahoe started at 7500ft), and I make sure that its not just water to avoid hyponatremia.
      • Cherry Limeade is fantastic and, in my opinion, should be THE drink of Ragnar Trail races. For the early morning run, the caffeine kept me alert. I wish I had slugged it with me for the night run (I needed the boost of caffeine).  Fortunately for anyone who is racing, the Nuun gang sponsors Ragnar events (including the trail ones!), so there is an endless supply of Nuun for your bottle-filling pleasure (although they sample caffeine-free kinds, but they are still delicious!)
  • A good pair of shades:
    • Not only is a sunshade a good idea (which the GearJunkie crew brought along), a good pair of sunglasses is a must. I have been on the cusp of buying new shades for a while now; my Oakleys from 2010 in Team Trakkers green are beyond scratched, and the Tom’s sunglasses I bought for my wedding broke. So, at the airport in St Louis, I bought a pair of Maui Jim’s Sugar Beach. Sure, airport purchases are never a good idea, but the price wasn’t horrible (MSRP) and they are not knockoffs. I frickin’ love these sunglasses. And, they look fantastic, have great coverage, and are polarized. Make sure to try out your sunglasses before running on trails; sometimes, they can bounce around and might go flying off your head if you’re doing a lot of weaving in and out of trees on singletrack. These ones are fantastic; they are super light weight, grippy, flexible, and scratch resistant (Maui Jim’s prides themselves on making shades for surfers, so they are sea-water resistant. Turns out, sweat is a lot like sea water).

      Shades, handheld, tank top, and buff. All awesomesauce and ready to rock the singletrack. Photo by Gear Junkie/Sean McCoy.

  • Get a buff: Let’s be real; Sweat in the eyes is annoying. I switched between a Gear Junkies and a Salomon buff all weekend, and it kept the sweat out of my eyes. I also learned all the cool things you can do with a buff (no pun intended), like make it into a toque or headband or neck gaitor. More importantly, you can get it wet with cold water before you head out on a run so that you stay cool (also, wet your shirt/shorts with cold water to keep your temp down).  I cut off about 3 inches from the end of one to make a sweatband, which was awesome, and soaked it before both my daytime runs. Now if only I had one with birds on it…
  • Recharging station: I love my Goal0 Nomad 7 solar charging panels, and it was awesome having it to keep my phone charged. I also stole some solar juice from Sean’s bigger charging station, and the USB compatibility is awesome for digital needs. The Ragnar Trail events have Suntrap Solutions for phone charging, but if you don’t want to worry about a que and want to charge your stuff at your camp site, look into getting a solar panel of your own.
  • Dry-wicking clothes: Running three times (or 6, if that’s how you roll in an ultra relay) in 24 hrs can be pretty gross. I brought a variety of running clothes in case my shirt/shorts didn’t dry in time for my next leg, and so I had something dry to run in for the night leg (standing around waiting for the next runner in wet clothes is uncomfortable). Salomon gave Chris and I, as winners of the sweepstakes, a pair of shorts and a shirt. I also brought along a Oiselle tank and a pair of Roga shorts. The Roga shorts were clutch for the long leg, when I was out there for 3 hrs, because the pockets are huge and have zippers- I didn’t lose any of my nutrition and I didn’t lose any of my trash after eating it. The tank was long and comfortable, which kept me from getting chafed by the number belt, and it dried super fast between legs (I ran in it for two of the three legs). As soon as I was done running, I changed everything I was wearing and laid out my wet clothes to dry. Fortunately, Tahoe was dry and I could put my stuff out on the parking lot (since that’s where we camped), but it might be worth bringing something to hang your stuff on just in case.
  • Good pairs of running shoes (note the plural): I ran three times, and each time I ran in a different pair of shoes. I started with the Salomon Sense Mantra. I was hesitant to run in these shoes, because they kind of reminded me of a “grandma-walking-shoe,” but after doing a lap with a lot of sandy downhill sections, I was impressed. My only complaint was, because they were a minimalist shoe, there wasn’t a lot of support in the forefoot for steep downhill terrain. But, that’s not what they are made for; they are a good all-around singletrack shoe. It’s pretty damn hard to find a shoe that’s made for downhill. I ran my midnight lap in the Brooks Cascadia 7. As much as I love Brooks, I finally realized in this race that the Cascadias are not for me. I ran in them at Leadville when pacing a MegaTough teammate, and I’ve run in them tons on singletrack in Michigan and Missouri, but I always seem to roll my ankle. I think I need a lower profile shoe for trails. Anyway, my third lap, I ran in the Salomon Fellcross 2, which comes out in September. These were, hands down, the best show I’ve run in on trails. Super grippy, super light, and they hugged my feet perfectly. There was no toe-smushing, or slipping feet on descents, and there were no rolled ankles. And along with the shoes, don’t forget socks: I wore a different pairs of Merino blend socks from Fitsok on each leg, and the ISW were my faves.
  • Camp-site essentials:
    • Ice
    • A cooler with cold drinks (including cola, coffee [like Starbucks DoubleShot], and maybe even beer)
    • Calorie-dense snacks (Picky bars, almond butter, chocolate, you know- the good stuff).
    • A piece of paper or a spreadsheet to write down lap times, to keep you and your teammates sane (so they know when to wake up, mostly). The ultra team offers less flexibility; at least in the regular team, the person running two legs before yours can wake you up when they hand off to the runner that’s before you.  With an ultra, you can still do that, but you could be up for about 3+hrs before its your turn to run. Having an estimated time to run is nice for extra shut-eye, especially when the miles add up.
    • A large towel (to dry off with, to clean up with, to sit on the ground with, to wipe your face with, to keep yourself warm at night with, to take swimming, whatever, you’ll need it)
    • A camp chair
    • Pitch your tent in a shaded spot or bring along a shade tent (your tent will get hot)
  • And of course, last but definitely not least, camping gear:
    • Tent- I’ve had a two-person lightweight tent for years that I bought from Cabela’s. Their stuff is made just as well as the “brand name” stuff, but it’s significantly cheaper. I have an older version of the XPG 2-person tent, and it is super easy to put up (takes me by myself less than 5 minutes) and it is easy to keep organized inside. If you’re car-camping, then a bigger, heftier tent would probably be fine, but if you have to fly to the race, go for a lighter tent (that is easy to pack in your luggage). Depending on your teammates, you can coordinate sharing a tent as well; Three GearJunkie folks slept in one tent (albeit, it was a 6 person tent). There’s no reason that everyone needs to bring their own tent, especially if you don’t mind getting close with your teammies.
    • Sleeping bag- Again, I have a Cabela’s XPG bag (15degrees).
    • Sleeping pad- this is essential, especially if you find yourself in a situation like we had at Tahoe where the camp site is under construction and the racers have to set up camp in a parking lot. I have a Thermarest, some teams brought blow-up air mattresses, and the Gear Junkie guys even off-the-shelf’d some pads from Walmart (which, as it turns out, were pretty crappy). Both for comfort and for keeping the heat in, definitely bring a sleeping pad with.

Have you done a trail relay or a trail stage-race before? Did you race as a regular or an ultra team? What gear did you find to be essential for surviving the weekend?

2 thoughts on “This Gear Junkie’s guide to rockin’ a Ragnar Trail Ultra Race

  1. I did the Ragnar trail experiment and totally agree with the multiple pairs of shoes. You never know when rain, snow, sleet, copious amounts of sand, or a shoe malfunction is going to hit, and messed up shoes would not be fun to step into for the last leg or two.

    Depending on conditions and preference, it’s not necessary to have trail shoes but it can be quite helpful. I ran in both and feel more comfortable/stable in the trail runners, not to mention the soles usually help with traction.

    I would add a camera recommendation, since these races are always held in beautiful locales. I ran with a simple Canon point-and-shoot for one of the three legs and it worked just fine.

    Lastly, a bike might be helpful depending on your proximity to the start line. As these races get more popular, the camps will keep expanding and it might end up being a 1/4 mile jog to the start. Groups with a bike can get around quicker and prevent a runner from wasting too much time at the line while the next guy sprints from the site.

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