All About Drop Bags | March 23, 2009
Running by nature is a simple endeavor. But when you start taking on ultras, the planning and preparation for races can get downright complicated. Putting in the time and effort to prepare well will give you the very best chance to finish the race in good order. A key part of that good preparation, especially for the 100 mile distance, will be packing your drop bags.
First of all, drop bags are not the same thing as the “sweat” or “sweats” bag familiar to you from point to point marathons and other shorter races. A sweat bag is just a way to have your belongings transported from the start area of a race to the finish line. Drop bags are a unique feature of ultra events. They provide a way to get things you’ll need during the race out to you at critical points along the course so you don’t have to carry everything with you from the start. The website for your ultra race or the literature sent to you about the race usually designates which aid stations will be drop bag locations. Your job will be to determine what clothes, equipment and supplies you will need at these points in the race and fill your drop bags accordingly.
Drop bags are subject to pretty rough treatment so you need to pick what you’re going to use as a drop bag with that in mind. The most popular item is probably a simple nylon bag with a drawstring of some sort. Different sizes can be used where more or less stuff is needed. Small gym bags serve well as do daypack type back packs. It’s good if your bag is washable. Taped up shoe boxes, plastic boxes, or lightweight plastic bags do not work well. Even sturdy trash bags can break open with rough handling. Your drop bags may well be thrown in and out of trucks, left in the hot sun, soaked in the rain, or dragged through mud. Even in good weather, dew can soak a bag left out overnight. I’ve even seen a dog sort through a pile of bags and liberate a bagel from a flimsy plastic drop bag, a bagel that the runner was not going to see at 75 miles into the race.
Label your bags in waterproof marker with your name, race number, and the name of the aid station where the drop bag is going. The more visible your information on the bag the better so volunteers can unite you with your bag as quickly as possible at the aid station. Distinctive looking bags or other identifying markings will also help, the same idea as a ribbon tied to a suitcase handle to help you spot your item at the airport baggage claim. A long strip of duct tape run through a handle and stuck sticky side to sticky side makes a good, durable place to write. Duct tape applied directly to the bag is another popular way of labeling, but that system can fail in really damp conditions. Some bags come with a see through compartment where the information can be written and protected from the elements.
A great way to figure out what you are going to put in each of your drop bags is to draw up a race plan prior to the race. A typical race plan for a hundred mile run will list the aid stations you will be visiting along with the distance to that aid station and the cumulative distance run at that point. The next column can show your projected time at each aid station. Base these times on splits you get from a runner of similar ability to your own who has previously run the race, on the pace you expect to maintain during the race, or on other evidence that can help you estimate your times.
Finally, you need a column listing what critical things need to be accomplished at each aid station, for example, picking up lights, changing into warmer clothes, taking more energy gels, changing shoes and socks, and so on. (Figure 1) The race plan becomes a blueprint for your drop bag packing and is a great tool for mentally thinking through the race step by step. Put your plan in a plastic sheet protector and take it along with you in the race.
The standard items packed into drop bags fall into a few major categories: clothing, lights, supplements and food, and contingency or emergency items. Clothing can include a change of shoes and socks, fresh shirts, shells and jackets, rain gear, long pants, gloves, wool hats, fresh bandannas, or any other change of clothes dictated by the conditions on the course. Typically you might start a race in a jacket in the early morning cold, leave the jacket in a drop bag encountered around noon, switch your long-sleeved shirt for short sleeves at some point, and then load back up on warm clothes from a drop bag you reach late in the evening. Your race plan will help you decide how to scatter warm clothes out through nighttime drop bags so if you pass one opportunity at bundling up against the cold, you’ll have a second chance later if the temperature drops.
Which drop bag to put your lights in for night running is another critical question you can answer with your race plan. Obviously you want to leave some room for error. If you plan to get to your bag at eight PM and it will get dark at eight thirty, you’d better put your lights in the six o’clock bag and carry them along or at least pick up a spare light from the earlier bag in case dark falls before you get to your main light supply. To protect your lights while in the drop bag, wrap them up in a towel and secure with rubber bands, or repack the lights in the protective packaging they came in. Incidentally if you expect to see your crew at a drop bag aid station, you should still have the drop bag taken to the station by race management rather than entrust the bag to your crew. Things happen. You might be way ahead of your expected schedule or the crew car might break down. If the crew has your must-have stuff and they don’t make the aid station, you’re stuck. On the other hand, once you’re done with a bag, it’s a good idea to have the crew take it with them. Getting your bags back at the end of the race is not always simple so what your crew has already collected won’t be part of the problem.
Drop bags also facilitate spreading your supplements out over the race course so you don’t have to carry everything from the start. If you take an energy gel once an hour, for example, you can replenish your supply at intervals. Same with electrolyte tabs, energy drink mixes, salt tabs, ibuprofen tablets, or anything else you use to supplement what is available at the aid stations. Special food items you particularly enjoy or need in a long race can be placed in your drop bags. If you put all the gel packs and pills you’ll need until you get to your next drop bag in one ziplock baggy, you can snag it from the drop bag, load up and know you’ve got that covered. You don’t want to fish around for eight separate gel packs loose in the bag in the middle of the night at some forlorn aid station. Sometimes one drop bag serves for two stops if the aid station is on an out and back or on a repeated loop. Within your drop bag, you can separate the items needed for the two stops into two large plastic bags labeled #1 and #2 or Outbound and Inbound.
The other major use for drop bags is to give you a recourse if things go wrong. Each drop bag along the way can hold blister care accessories, extra bandages, duct tape, sunblock, skin lubricant, spare batteries and bulbs for your lights, a hand towel for cleaning up, change of socks, antacid tablets, extra food, extra gloves, eye care products, or anything else that might help you get through the race…or get you back into the race. Just looking forward to reaching your own drop bag deep into the race can give you a boost. The drop bag is like a lifeline back to your positive state of mind when you were preparing for the race.
Races shorter than 100 miles often allow drop bags at designated spots. Drop bags at a 100 K or fifty mile can give you a chance to pick up lights if you expect to finish after sundown, change socks or other clothes, or pick up a fresh load of supplements. You should definitely include extra sunblock, skin lubricant, and bandages in your bag so you can react to problems that spring up during the race. Pack rain gear and warm clothes in the bag if there is a possibility of rain or a drop in temperature. Find out what you can beforehand about the specific conditions of the race you’re entering so you can make good decisions about what goes in your bag.
Packing and labeling your drop bags prior to a race can seem like a hassle. But once you’ve arrived at the race and left your carefully packed drop bags under the signs that read “Robinson Flat” or “Foresthill” or “Podunk Hollow,” you should pause and enjoy the moment. Why? Because now you’ll know that in the middle of the night, in some cold and windy spot, in the most desperate hours of the race, you’re going to have just what you need.
List of items in a typical drop bag (illustrated)
- Labeled drop bag
- Baggy with energy gels, electrolyte tabs, and Ibuprofen
- Duct tape
- Skin lubricant
- Baggy with batteries
- Long-sleeved shirt
- Long pants
- Wool cap
- Hand towel