Running is a decidedly simple sport: most people can do it by the time they are two. The simplicity is what so many of us like about it. You don’t need a team, an opponent, a special playing surface or even a lot of gear. Running is seemingly the perfect sport for the miserly...until you start ultrarunning that is! The costs of ultrarunning can easily pile up faster than the miles! So how can you keep your budget from bonking but still get out and enjoy piles of miles?? Here are some ideas for ultrarunning on the cheap!
Shoes: Unless you are a barefoot runner, shoes are probably the biggest common recurring expense in the sport. While road shoes will likely get you through most trail races, I do think trail specific shoes offer additional features that are worth having, especially if you are running on particularly rugged terrain. Look for last year’s models and sales to cut costs. Also, I never judge the age of my shoes by the number of miles they have on them but rather by their wear and tear (particularly changes in the sole). And a run through the washer can renew a mud crusted pair. I routinely get 800-1000 miles on my shoes before replacing them (injury prone runners may need to be a bit more cautious here). Since blisters are one of the major whammies when it comes to derailing a race or long run, I don’t cheap out on socks.
Gear: When it comes to gear, I’d say the most important way to cut costs is to separate “need” from “want”. Every year companies are coming out with the latest and greatest in shoes, packs, watches, lights, and even duffle bags for your crew. It’s only natural to covet all the fancy new gear especially if you see beautiful glossy photos in a magazine of your favorite elite athlete is pushing it on Instagram. But do you really need those things?
Of course, there are some things that are necessary for ultrarunning, like a head light if you will be running at night or a pack to carry food and water when heading into remote locations. Before you buy, do your homework by researching different features and talking to friends. Then if possible, test out what you want to buy, either by borrowing it from a friend or going to a running store. If you get a good piece of equipment that you know you love you should be able to keep it for many years. For example, I bought the original AK vest from Ultimate Direction in 2012. I know there have been upgrades, new designs, female specific models and even about five new pack companies in the market since that purchase, but it is still my go to race vest. It has gotten me through 4 Western States, Angeles Crest, Mohican 100, Spartathlon and Badwater to name a few and I don’t plan to replace it any time soon!
And then some ultra gear just isn’t necessary at all or can be replaced with cheaper options. I use 1 gallon zip lock bags for all my drop bags and my crew will just have to put up with my old ratty backpacks to lug my gear instead of getting a fancy crew bag. Vaseline and Desitin are cheap alternatives to expensive body lubes. Free promotional water bottles hold liquids just as well the $8 dollar name brand ones and leave you a lot less disappointed if you leave one behind. And polarized sunglasses are easy to find under $30; even upscale REI has a $13 pair, so no need to fork over $80-120 for good eyewear. I have also found that headlamps geared for campers are cheaper than those geared at ultrarunners, even with similar light output.
Nutrition: I like to say “maltodextrin is not God’s gift to ultrarunners!” (This applies to all other synthetic carbohydrates as well). Yes, gels and powders can provide large quantities of easily portable calories, but proprietary brands are often quite expensive, running up to $2 per pouch. The texture of gels can be gag inducing after a while and drink mixes start to taste sickly sweet. And not all people fully digest these carbohydrates, so they can cause gas and bloating (If your post race gas makes you sound like an 8 year old boy playing with a whoopie cushion, you know what I mean! But this is an article about costs not flatulence!). Eating supermarket foods can save you a lot of money when you run. All those supermarket junk food snacks make great running food. One of my favorites is kids fruit snacks, which taste great and come in perfectly sized portions. On a recent three day trip of the Wonderland trail, fruit snacks and Good and Plenty’s made up a significant portion of my calories. I did Run Rabbit Run primarily on Red Vines and Sprite and Badwater was almost entirely fueled on soda, bottled frappuccinos and Pringles! Plus, if you can eat real food, it means race aid stations are basically free buffets for you (or at least you are getting your money’s worth out of your race entry!). Post run, I often make my own recovery drinks. Even mixing Gatorade and a discount store protein powder is about half the cost of a pre packaged recovery drink mix. Many people opt for chocolate milk. Making your own smoothies with things like bananas and peanut butter is another cheap option. And remember, your recovery food doesn’t have to be a drink! A sandwich or a yogurt will do just fine.
7,850 Calories all for under $15!
Races: Many ultra-races also come with an ultra-price tag, especially if you have to add in a lot of travel expenses. But there are a lot of small yet still beautiful and challenging races with lower entry fees. “Fat ass” style races are the most economical of all. And of course, you can easily have an epic adventure which isn’t a race at all. Volunteering as a sweeper will allow you to see the course on race day without paying any fees. Some races will let you in free if you have volunteered at the race in prior years. Obviously, staying local will keep travel costs the lowest. Combining a race with a vacation or a business trip provides a “twofer” for travel expenses. Staying with friends/family, “host” families, camping or sharing a room with another racer are all ways to save on hotel costs. Runners and crew also seem to be very willing to give rides to others, which may allow you to go without a car rental. Some people even use rideshare to get around - just make sure you’ll have cell service if this is your plan! I have shared rooms and rides with people I just met many times and I haven’t been murdered yet! (That's a joke! But for rooming, I always choose a friend of a friend just to be sure!) Many races have a Facebook page where you can make arrangements with other runners for these things.
For being a relatively simple sport, ultrarunning can come with a big price tag. Being mindful of what you buy and what you really need can help you get “high mileage” out of your money.