We’re still six months away from the rifle blast signaling the start of the Leadville 100 mile trail run, so it may seem a little too soon to be making a bunch of decisions about gear. But in reality, this is the perfect time to start thinking about what equipment you’ll need in August in Colorado. Any ultra runner worth their salt tablets will tell you that the biggest mistake you can make in a hundred—aside from starting too fast and, obviously, accidentally running the race in wooden clogs—is trying out a new piece of gear for the first time on race day. As training starts to ramp up, using long runs and prep races as a testing ground for equipment you may want to use on the big day will go a long way towards ensuring success.
So what, exactly, should you be testing out and packing for race weekend? A comprehensive list of everything you’ll need (or at least need to consider) can be overwhelming—I’m getting tired just thinking about it. Here is a great starting-point packing list for runners, pacers, and crew. You might not need everything on there, but you should at least think about each of these categories and items beforehand and decide whether or not they’re important/useful to you. If so, start planning now to test out various options before race day comes. Let’s think about some of the most important pieces of gear you’ll need to consider.
As with any other piece of gear you’ll use, there is no substitute for personal comfort. Above all else, your race-day shoes should be a make and model that you absolutely know are not going to cause you problems in terms of blisters, chafing, or discomfort. Selecting your shoes just because they’re what you’ve seen elite athletes wearing is a mistake. Make sure you’ve run plenty of miles in your model of choice. Whichever pair (or pairs) you choose to race in should be broken in—nothing right out of the box, even if you’ve run in the same model before—but should still have enough life in them to hold up over the next 100 miles.
For the most part, folks will gravitate towards trail-specific models at Leadville. It is a trail race, after all. That’s fine, but don’t sacrifice comfort for any bells and whistles that sometimes come with trail shoes. The vast majority of the trails at Leadville are runnable even in road shoes! Some extra traction can certainly be beneficial on some of the more technical terrain, but don’t add extra weight unnecessarily. Strike a balance between weight, breathability, and cushioning—again, where exactly you fall on this spectrum will be a highly personal decision, which is why it’s essential to try out some different options prior to race day.
A lightweight hydration vest or pack, either with a bladder system or bottles, can be an excellent addition to your gear arsenal. Try out a few different models to see what feels most comfortable; some have bottles on the front, which can take a little getting used to. Use the vest on some training runs to make sure the fit is dialed in. You should be able to carry enough water to sustain yourself for at least a couple of hours between aid stations.
Resist the urge to overstuff your pack; too many non-essential items will only add weight and annoy you in the later stages of the race. For this reason, choose the smallest, lightest pack you feel comfortable with; this will force you to limit yourself to only the bare essentials. You can use aid station drop bags for things you don’t want to carry like jackets, a change of shoes, or extra nutrition.
Ask ten people about using poles at Leadville, and you’ll probably get nine different answers. Whether or not to bring them depends on a number of factors, including how comfortable you are at using them; how much experience you have on long power-hikes; and your overall pace and goals for the race. My personal feeling is that poles can be very helpful on some of Leadville’s long, sustained climbs, particular the double crossing of Hope Pass. I don’t see any real need for poles over the first 38 miles of the race, but if you’re comfortable using them and can grab them from your crew or drop bag at Twin Lakes, they can certainly save you some energy over the next 25 miles. Again, the choice needs to be made balancing weight vs. strength/durability. I like carbon poles, which are quite light, but many grizzled mountain goats swear by aluminum, which can be more durable on technical terrain and is cheaper (though slightly heavier). I recommend collapsible poles which are easy to fold up and carry when not in use; I’d recommend against adjustable-length poles (you’re not getting any taller during the race). After you return to Twin Lakes, you can probably ditch the poles, though if your pacer is willing to carry them for you when you’re not using them, they can be helpful on the climbs up Mt. Elbert and Powerline.
Test out all the clothing you’ll wear in advance. Make sure there are no issues with chafing or fit. Plan for changing weather conditions: pack a pair of arm sleeves or a lightweight long sleeve outer layer, a water-resistant rain shell, and a warm hat and gloves for the nighttime hours. A moisture-wicking cap can help keep the sun off your face and the sweat out of your eyes during the day. Pack at least one headlamp (maybe two for emergencies) and don’t forget extra batteries! One thing not to skimp on is lubrication. Use petroleum jelly, or an anti-chafing product like Body Glide or Squirrel’s Nut Butter (my personal preference), on susceptible areas like your armpits, groin, and between your toes. And consider carrying a small packet or applicator with you, to address any problems that might arise during the race.
Figuring out how to cover long distances efficiently is part of the joy and challenge of ultrarunning. Spend some time now planning what you’ll need to make your goals a reality, and you’ll reap the benefits on race day!