Pre Fling Jitters & Drop Bags For Beginners

Hoka Highland Fling 2015

It’s a ‘twofer’ for my last pre Hoka Highland Fling post. First up, another expose on just how poorly ‘training’ has gone, followed by ‘Drop Bags For Beginners’, aka everything that I wish I had known back in 2010 when I first started preparing drop bags for ultra marathons, musings that were inspired by an awful photo of my drop bag efforts from years ago courtesy of Facebook memories!

So, if you are here for the drop bags only, skip down the page. Otherwise, lets get started!

I’m approaching this weekend’s 53 mile Hoka Highland Fling with my last long run having been the D33 (33 miles funnily enough), back in mid March. Whilst that particular run went unexpectedly well, with a PB despite the lack of training (recurring theme), I feel that the cracks will surely start to show when I attempt to complete the 53 miles of the Fling this weekend.

With weekly mileage that generally maxes out at low double figures, and usually only because of a single weekend run, I am far from fully prepared. Thanks to intestinal turmoil this past weekend (TMI?), I didn’t even get out for the planned Saturday and Sunday runs where I had hoped to run a ‘double’ of approx. 10-12 miles. Completion of these would, at least, have assured me that the legs were still working in the build up to the Fling.

Perhaps in the past, this situation would have seen me go into meltdown and, indeed, maybe that is yet to come. At this point in time, however, it is actually lessening the pressure on me, lowering the self expectations to ‘perform’.

Just like last year, when I also set off with low expectations, I will be on the start line come Saturday morning, somewhere near the back, aiming only for a finish and treating everything else as a bonus. With the West Highland Way Race fast approaching, the Fling is a ‘training run’ in many respects. But, of course, a PB would always be ‘nice’ (laughs hysterically!).

I’ve not exactly been sitting on the couch however, squeezing in gym work, occasional 3 mile runs, and swimming sessions, of a lunch break on the days that I work (Mon-Thu) and Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays see my own particular brand of endurance training, chasing after my toddler son Harris.

Perhaps my greatest concern is that recent efforts to ‘fix me’ have actually changed my running ‘form’ and may, in fact, have ‘broken’ my trusty ultra shuffle. I was already aware that I wasn’t using the gluteal muscles to their full potential thanks to a physio assessment a few years back. To paraphrase, the physio was shocked that I could run, let alone run the distances that I did.

However, whilst seeking remedial physio work for a lower back injury that has plagued me for a couple of years now, leaving me in daily pain and discomfort, I discovered that the situation may actually be far worse than originally thought.

Initially, I put the constant back ache down to a bad fall on some wet wooden steps a couple of years back, possibly aggravated by baby wearing. However, physio sessions at ASV highlighted the main cause of the pain was likely a result of imbalances and weaknesses in the core region, albeit with some discomfort stemming from the fall.

I have to admit that this came as a surprise to me, especially given my prior running CV and my ability, for example, to hold a plank for a good few minutes without too much difficulty. However, as with my running form, it would appear that this was down to my employing muscles other than the ones that should have been doing all the hard work, resulting in the ongoing pain.

So, to cut a long story short, physio led to my enrolling in a physio led Pilates class and, as I embark upon my second block of classes, I am reaping the benefits of some solid core work. I have to admit that Pilates is not something that I would have previously considered but, in an effort to remedy the ongoing back issues, I was open minded to the suggestion from my physio.

However, progress is not without issue. As my core has improved, my running form has also changed and, as a result, I’ve actually had some fairly painful runs over the past couple of months, beset with persistently tight, painful gluteal muscles. At least I can take some consolation from the fact that I am obviously making greater use of the glutes!

The last few runs appear to indicate that I am settling in to my new ‘form’ but how things pan out come race day is something that remains to be seen.

Regardless of how the actual race day goes, I have to admit to looking forward to registration on the Friday which, this year, is taking place at the Kelvingrove Art Gallery & Museum, one of Glasgow’s iconic landmarks and a family favourite when in Glasgow. It’s an excellent venue, fitting of the excellent Hoka Highland Fling event.

Best of luck to everyone this weekend and be sure to enjoy what surely must be one of Scotland’s finest running events.

Drop Bags For Beginners

Disclaimer time. This works for me. It may not work for you. If, however, it helps in any way then I have achieved what I set out to do. It’s basically just a few thoughts that have come to me over the past 6 years approx. and the kind of thing that, as a newbie ultra marathoner back in 2010, I myself would have appreciated reading and/or knowing.

So what’s with all the pictures?

Well to start, all those lovely drop bag contents need a recepticle, and, ideally, one that serves its purpose well whilst also making the life of those people who have to cart about and distribute your beloved drop bags, as easy as possible.

Lets start with your race number, ideally, printed for ease of reading. Your name might also be of use, especially if people manning the checkpoints know you by sight. As for the checkpoint info, that’s generally more for personal use. If you are planning to have the exact same contents in each drop bag then identifying which bag is destined for which checkpoint is unnecessary. However, the chances are that the contents will differ from checkpoint to checkpoint and. If that’s the case, save yourself some early morning stress and clearly mark the destination checkpoint on each of the bags. That way, you don’t have to go rummaging around the contents to remind yourself which bag is for which checkpoint.

In terms of the actual bags, IKEA is hard to beat, with a good range of quality bags in a variety of sizes, and with closure mechanisms that work well. The main IKEA bag in the picture is a 6L capacity ISTAD bag. Possibly overly large for the intended contents but, arguably, better to have some extra capacity rather than having to battle to close the bag. You also don’t want your drop bag contents bursting out and spilling out over the back of someone’s car en route to the checkpoint.

In terms of attaching race numbers, just remember that this is Scotland. Whilst Jonny Fling is renowned for ‘fixing’ the weather come Fling day, I also remember apocalyptic weather conditions at the 2012 West Highland Way Race and the Cateran Trail Ultra Marathon, to name but a few. As such, you need to ensure that your number will not be a sodden paper mache mess by the time you reach the checkpoints.

Thanks to a recent clear out of my filing cabinets, I found myself without poly pockets when I started making up my drop bags this weekend past. A lightbulb moment saw me turn my bag outside in and attach the number, facing out, before turning the bag the correct way round. A little bit crumpled but still perfectly legible and protected from the elements.

With regard to the contents, the golden rule is never to add something that you have not already tried in training.

That said, around this point last year, I spotted salt & vinegar Hula Hoops in a photo that someone (possibly Red Wine Runner) posted of their drop bags and I had to have them. It turned out that, along with my full fat fizzy Cocal Cola, they were the highlight of my drop bags and were similarly well received when used in my drop bags at The Great Glen Ultra.

I swear by Coca Cola to give me a lift at checkpoints and I will admit that, on occasion, the thought of a can of Coke has been all that has kept me going (whatever works!). I know that some people prefer to take the fizz out of their Coca Cola beforehand but, personally, I love the fizz and am not adverse to the occasional belch when required (apologies to anyone running in my vicinity).

I think it also helps that, for as much as I love Coca Cola, running is one of the few times that I will let myself enjoy my guilty pleasure, thereby heightening the anticipation.

I should warn, however, that a can of Coke does not take well to an accidental dunt on the ground, something that I clumsily did whilst loading my drop bags into a vehicle one year. Not only did I deprive myself of a can of Coke. I also watched the contents of my drop bag become a sticky mess thanks to the finest of sprays of Coke shooting all over the goodies contained within that drop bag. Not the best start to a race day!

Expect to waste stuff. You will not feel like everything all of the time and, indeed, you may feel like none of it! It’s better to have the choice than to regret not taking something in your drop bags and you can always console yourself in the thought that a runner behind you may come to enjoy the things that you have left behind. You never know, you may just save someone’s race!

In terms of things I have learned over the years, the following items are often overlooked but may prove useful:

  • Sun tan lotion. Generally not an issue in Scottish races, regardless of the time of year. However, as aforementioned, Jonny Fling does have a habit of reversing even the worst of forecasts and replacing it with unseasonably sunny weather. The sunny day of 2015 when snow had been forecast to hit the race is but one example. Dealing with sunburn is not something that you want to add to the already difficult task ahead. At the time of writing, the forecast isn’t looking great for the coming weekend so it will be interesting to see what we end up with. As the West Highland Way Race briefing says, ‘there will be weather’. Never a truer word!
  • Salt tabs. May help prevent cramping, especially on hotter days when exertion levels are likely to be a lot higher. Some drinks specifically help to replenish salt. However, taking salt tabs independently of fluids frees up your choice of drink and lets you dose as per your requirements without having to drink more than you want to. You will also likely find yourself craving plain water after mile upon mile of your fluid of choice!
  • Baby wipes. I don’t know how I survived before Harris came along and I can’t see a day when I don’t have some form of baby wipe/wet wipe to hand. At best, you can freshen up at check points, especially useful if you are indulging in anything particularly sticky. At worst, they will be a godsend should you find yourself caught short. Just be sure to dispose of them in a way that is considerate of the environment. In the event that you are ‘caught short’, they are great for making a crappy (no pun intended… well actually yeah, totally intended lol!) situation that little bit better! Unfortunately, I’ve been there and nothing beats being prepared for it.
  • Immodium. See above. Sometimes the best thing you can do is plug it, at least until the end of the race!
  • Cutlery. If you plan on including a muller rice/yoghurt/etc, be sure to pack a spoon. The alternative is both a sticky and unatractive consumption of the contents! Again, been there.
  • Crystallized Ginger. A handy addition if you are prone to intestinal issues. May help to settle your stomach.

What to avoid:

  • Don’t prepare too far in advance. One year I made banana and peanut butter sandwiches before heading down from Ellon to Glasgow. By the time I got to the sandwiches around the 20 mile mark, on one of those unseasonably hot Fling days, they were the most unappetizing soggy brown mess and I just couldn’t stomach them!
  • Chocolate. Unless you can guarantee that it’s not going to be hot, it’s just not worth the disapointment!
  • Gels. Might work for some people but, personally, I can’t stomach them. What I soon learned after transitioning from marathon to ultra marathon distance is that what might just be palatable over 26.2 miles certainly doesn’t appeal come mile 30, 40 or 50. Real food wins over gels every time when distance running and, indeed, over any distance now as far as I am concerned!

What’s going in my drop bags:

  • Tailwind Nutrition: First encountered at The Great Glen Ultra. Nice subtle flavours and with none of the gasto intestinal problems associated with many other products
  • Chia Charge bars: Only recently discovered these. So easy to eat. Melt in the mouth. Taste amazing
  • Coca Cola. Full fat and fizzy. My guilty pleasure on race day
  • Salt and vinegar Hula Hoops
  • Muller Rice + spoon (in 2 out of the 4 drop bags)
  • Banana (in 2 or 3 out of the 4 drop bags)
  • Sun tan lotion
  • Salt tabs
  • Immodium
  • Baby wipes

I might also pop some Mrs Tilly’s Delicious Tablet in the latter two drop bags, in case I am in dire need of a sugar hit come the 30 or 40 mile mark. However, I did finish the Fling one year with a really bad case of shivers and almost immediately retreated to the warmth of my bed. There’s a possibility the ‘shakes’ were down to sugar withdrawl.

That’s about all I can think of for now. Hopefully it’s of some use to any ultra newbies considering drop bags for the first time. Like I said, it’s purely personal and what works for one person might not always work for another.

Don’t spend too long at checkpoints. It’s easily done, as I know only too well. It would be interesting to work out the benefit of a ‘sittie doon’ Vs the cost of briefly stopping but, until I figure out how to achive that, I will try to limit my time in checkpoints and, as much as possible, to eat on the go.

Be sure to try and eat, even when you don’t feel like it. Eating and running was actually one of my biggest difficulties back at the start of my ultra journey. Ironic given that it’s something that I am so good at (the eating part, not the running part).

Don’t leave it too late to start nibbling either, or the diversion of blood away from the stomach will increase the likelihood of problems with digestion and hinder your ability to fuel your race.

One final request that should go without saying. Leave no trace. This is a race that is often remote, along one of Scotland’s finest trails. It’s not a city marathon, with a sweep up crew coming behind. Dispose of your rubbish with due respect for the environment.

Happy Running.