10 Must Have Items For A Self-Supported Race

Everyone knows that doing a Self-Supported Race is tough.  Aside from the physical aspect of it, what you bring to the race is equally important.  Remember, you are running in hostile environments and there will be no reprieve once a mistake is made.  To ensure a successful outcome, here are the 10 Must Have Items:

1. Backpack

A good backpack is critical for these type of races.  Most races require packs anywhere from 20-25L.  The size depends on how much gear or food you want to carry.   From our experience, 20L should be plenty for most if not all races.  Because you are running over great distances, comfort is the most important consideration.  Nothing else matters if you don’t like the feel of the pack.  Water bottle holders are a must.  Ideally, they should be able to handle different types of bottles.  Pick a pack that has front pockets.  It comes in handy when you want to access things like gels, snacks, or electrolytes quickly.  Straps are only important if you plan to bring things like sleeping mats or poles.

2. Water bottles

The standard size for these is 750mL.  If you plan to run most of the race, make sure the bottles have long tubes that you can drink from without having to take them out of the holders.  It will save you from dropping your bottles and a lot of hassle.  Beware of leaky water bottles!  Make sure you try them before you bring them to a race.  From our experience, some bottles are defective from the get go!

3. Arm sleeves

They might be counter-intuitive, but they are a MUST for a desert race in our opinion.  Why?  Not only do they protect you from the intense UV rays of the desert, they also help cool your body when they are wet.  Keeping your skin wet maximizes heat dissipation.  Of all the must-have items on this list, this is our best weapon to combat extreme heat!

4. Buff

Make sure you bring one of these.  It is an unbelievably versatile piece of clothing that protects you from the elements: dust, wind, cold, or sun.  What most people don’t realize, however, is that much like arm sleeves, a soaked buff is the perfect cooling tool in the desert.  Because your spinal cord controls and regulates your body temperature, you can keep you body cool by wrapping it around your neck.

Wrap it around your wrist, you can use it to wipe the sweat running down your eyes.  A great all purpose tool.

5. Proper footwear

Unsurprisingly, both the distance and terrain of self-supported races play a huge factor here.  

Let’s start with distance.  A common tip for ultra runners used to prevent blisters is to wear shoes a full size bigger due to the potential swelling of the feet.  From our experience, this is not sound advice.  The reason is simple:  blisters happen when there is friction and rubbing and this usually happens not because of swelling, but from the foot moving around!  The fix?  Find a pair of properly fitting shoes!  

Then, there is the issue of terrain.  Because most self-supported races are run on unpaved trails, having the right shoes can actually make a huge difference in performance.  Regular running shoes in general just won’t cut it.  For example, gravel and rocky terrains demand shoes with good traction and rugged bottom protection (rock plate).  Shoes with wide outsoles, on the other hand, would work better with deep sand.  If you need to run in the snow, we would highly recommend a pair of water resistant shoes with built-in gaiter.  You get the idea.

All in all, wearing race specific and right-size footwear can help prevent potential foot problems and maximize your performance.

6. Sunscreen & Sunglasses

Sunscreen is a no-brainer.  Make sure you apply regularly or else you will definitely get a sunburn!  You will also need sunglasses to protect your eyes, not just from the strong UV rays, but also from the sand.  Much like the backpack, you want to pick a pair that you are comfortable wearing for a long period of time.  Ideally, they should cover your eyes from all angles.

7. Toe socks

These are a godsend to prevent blisters, the most common and debilitating problem in self-supported races. Many runners have ingrown digits that cause rubbing and friction while running.  It can make a difference between DNFing or completing the race.

8. Desert Cap

Get the ones that are light and airy so you won’t notice it in your run.  It comes with a neck protector that blocks the UV rays and saves you from overheating under the sun.  One trick we often do during a race is to pour water into the cap.  Why?  It traps moisture and keeps your head cool longer. Try to find a short neck protector so when there’s very little wind, it won’t trap too much heat.

9. Gaiters

If you want to keep sand or debris out, gaiters are another absolute MUST.  In races with as much sand as Marathon Des Sables (MdS) or Oman Desert Marathon (ODM), it can make a difference between DNFing or completing the race.  Must sure you get the ones you put on using a velcro or have someone stitch it onto your shoes. There have been mixed results with ones that are glued-on.

10.  Electrolytes

Having the proper electrolytes balance throughout the race is critical.  If you are urinating or peeing dark yellow, it’s time to take in some electrolytes. A commonly used strategy is take in electrolytes in regular intervals because out in deserts where humidity is at about 10%, you will never feel yourself sweating.


11. Towel

Self-supported races are a dirty affair and you don’t get to shower for days.  How do you keep yourself from degenerating into a smelly mess?  By bringing a small towel, of course.  Wipe the sand, dirt, salt, and whatever else off your face, skin, and private body parts and you will feel like a new man. It is the closest thing to taking a “shower” in the desert.

12. Treats

A little pick-me-up is such an important part of having a successful race. It’s like carrot and stick for a rabbit. All sticks and no carrots is simply not a good way to motivate yourself after a job well done out in the desert. Reward yourself to get a psychological edge. Every little bit counts where there’s so much suffering  around you.


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