Packing Your Ironman Special Needs Bags

Packing Your Ironman Special Needs Bags

Maybe, like myself, you are a grey beard in the sport of triathlon and you often get asked about what to put in your Ironman Special Needs Bags (SNBs).  Perhaps, like myself, you get sucked into threads about SNBs in one (or many) of the 100’s of postings on various Ironman event Facebook pages.  Maybe, like I once was, you are a first time Ironman athlete seeking out the advice on what to put in your bike and run bags.  An Ironman event can seem overwhelming for a lot of folks, especially the first time.  Figuring out what to do with Special Needs Bags is a major contributor to the anxiety the event can bring.

 In our last post, Managing Your Special Needs, we looked more at strategy and general thought processes around deploying SNBs.  Now we want to turn our attention and focus on what goes into your bike and run bags.  We will also discuss some popular suggestions and why they may not be the best paths to take.

 Picking up your SNB during the bike can be quite chaotic.  When you access your bike SNB you won’t yet be halfway through the day and for those who have properly trained the legs and mind should still be fresh, relatively.  This means a lot of Ironman competitors are still harboring aspirations of an age group win or a Kona slot.  Thus they rip through the pickup zone as if they are Jens Voigt slinging a musette over his shoulder while powering away at 400 watts as he goes on to win a Tour de France stage.  Don’t get sucked into this, the 90 seconds you lose by stopping to pick up your bag, sort through it and then safely move on is well worth it.  Even the fastest Ironman finishers still have at least 5 hours of racing to go.

 Keeping your bike SNB simple will enable you to stop, get what you need and go quickly.  Also remember this is for special needs, emergency situations.  With that in mind a few things to consider:

  • One spare tube and Co2 cartridge (if you need one, you need the other). Take it out of the package and reroll it tightly and then pair it with a Co2 cartridge using rubber bands.  Don’t use tape as it could get hot and sticky and make for a mess.
  • Travel size suntan lotion and Vaseline, anything else you need will be available at medical tents.
  • “Extra” nutrition. You should try to leave T1 with all you need for the day but an extra gel, bar or solid food item that you can stuff in your pocket quickly might be handy if you unknowingly dropped some of your stash along the way.  (Side note, if you knowingly drop some of your nutrition stop and pick it up.  Two reasons.  First, if you don’t you can be penalized or disqualified for littering. Second, you brought it with you because you are going to need it…the 60 or 90 second delay caused by stopping to pick it up will be nothing compared to a hard bonk at mile 100 where you start riding each of the last 12 miles 60-90 seconds slower than you would have.)
  • “Extra” electrolyte drink/mix. Stash in your bag one bottle with your “sticky drink” of choice.  You can freeze it the night before but it likely won’t matter as it will be baking in the sun for 3 hours by the time you get it.  A Polar or otherwise insulated bottle will help to keep it a bit cooler.
  • Bonus item. Perhaps on your long training rides when you stop at a country store to refill bottles you treat yourself.  I can’t imagine anyone would, but maybe you have an affinity for Little Debbie Oatmeal Cream Pies and that is your little mid-ride pick me up.  Just remember chocolate is a bad choice for your bag as it will likely be melted and hard to consume.
  • Weather related items if you suspect the day is going to turn rainy and or cold. You could tuck a rain cape/jacket, vest or arm warmers in the back.  However, remember you need to expect you will never get these items back if you don’t take them at the pickup.  Personally, I used a large trash bag rolled up with holes cut in it for my arms and neck.  If the weather turned cold and rainy I could put it on UNDER (so it isn’t flapping all around) my tri top at the pickup.  It isn’t the sexiest or most breathable solution but it will keep you warm.

Keeping things simple for the Run SNB is smart as well.  Remember, less is more in these situations.  You can load your bag with a pharmacy, your spare closet and a smorgasbord but it isn’t going to remedy the way you feel when you get to the halfway point of an Ironman run.  Regardless of your training, you are not going to change the nature of the event, which wears you down.  Even if you are feeling “great” you are going to be tired, maybe even miserable, done, ready to stop and rightfully so.  But, that is what you signed up for and the items in your special needs bag should be curated to just offer the extra bump you might need to get through the rest of the day.

  • Body Glide/Vaseline in case of any chafing or blisters. Remember, just put travel sizes in the bag.
  • Lip Balm, you will be amazed how dry your lips might feel.
  • Extra Salt Stick caps or similar product.
  • Light weight long sleeve shirt. Many athletes finish after sundown and due to fatigue the body will have a hard time keeping warm if the temp drops the slightest bit.  (Side note.  Roll this shirt up and secure it with a rubber band so you are not having to search through your bag for your other items.)
  • By this time you may not feel like consuming anything but you will still need nutrition. A few gels might be enough fuel to keep the engine going.  Solid foods are not typically the go to when running but the thought of another gel maybe too much so put in a bar, waffle, peanuts, chips…
  • You are entering The Back Half at this stage of the event and as Yogi said “…it is 90% mental and the other half is physical”.  Insert a little note or picture from your wife, boyfriend, kids…you will be amazed how much lift you get when you know others believe in you.
  • We don’t want to put a library in our bag but a small note to yourself to remind you of all the hard work you put in over the months leading up to this moment will help you keep your focus.

There are about as many ideas about what to put in your bags as there are athletes in a race.  Plenty of others will suggest a list much more detailed than these but years of racing and coaching have lead me to believe simpler is better.  One example. There are often suggestions to put fresh socks/shoes in your bag with three reasons given as to why you would want to do this, blisters, wet shoes and a fresh feeling.  However, I will argue this is not the best strategy. 

  • Blisters don’t go away after putting on a different pair of socks/shoes. In fact they didn’t even make the existing blisters less painful.  
  • Shoes are wet not only from sweat but the water you are pouring over your head to cool you. Unless you plan to discontinue cooling yourself in such a manner, within minutes your feet will be soaking wet again.
  • A fresh pair of socks does tend to soothe aching feet. However, sitting on the ground for 3-4 minutes and putting on fresh socks after 7+ hours of racing tends to make your legs feel completely miserable, like they have turned into wood, which completely negates any freshness you might have experience from new socks/shoes.

Of course SNBs are going to be different for everyone and will vary from race to race as well.  I am not the authoritative voice on packing what you need in your bag.  That is up to you and after months of quality training the items you need in these bags should be revealed to you through, as John Parker wrote, “…The Trial of Miles; Miles of Trials.” 

Keep Going!