• The Spartan Ultra Drop Zone: Key Tips For Race Day Success

Written By: Katie Purcell

 

INTRO

The Transition Area: arguably one of the most important aspects of a Spartan Ultra (or any endurance event that is set up in this way). How to approach and handle it should be an integral part of all racers’ Race Day Strategy. The time an athlete spends in the Transition Area (also known as the Drop Bin Zone), and what they choose to do while there, can make or break a Race Day in more ways than one. And yet, the Spartan site says zero about it. The site doesn’t mention that it even exists, much less what it is, what its purpose is, and how to best utilize it. Which begs the question,

WHAT THE HECK? AS A NEW RACER OR AN ATHLETE UNFAMILIAR WITH THE ULTRA, HOW ARE YOU SUPPOSED TO KNOW ANY OF THIS, OR PREPARE FOR IT?

This guide aims to fix that. The following article focuses on only this one specific part of the race and will give you all the deets: you'll walk away with a good idea of Do’s and Don’ts for the Transition Area as well as what it is, how to use it, what to do there, and what to make sure that you definitely don’t do there.

What follows is a collection of Best Practices generally agreed upon by Ultra veterans and, as with all articles you find on the internet, should be taken with a grain of salt (as in, read the advice and then figure out what works best for your specific situation). And if you just can’t get enough of learning about the Transition Area, check out the list at the end of the article for further resources we have found helpful!

 

FIRST THINGS FIRST: WHAT IS THE TRANSITION AREA?

Generally speaking (at the time of this writing), a Spartan Ultra event is comprised of 2 laps of a Beast event, which takes place on the same day. There is often an additional section called the “Ultra Loop” which only Ultra participants have to complete: it contains additional mileage and obstacles, and will have to be completed on the first lap only or on both laps, depending on the race venue and event.

After you have completed Lap 1 (including the “Ultra Loop” if there is one) is when you will likely be directed to the Transition Area: it is meant to be placed halfway through the event to mark the midway point. It is a large area where only Ultra participants are admitted, roped off with caution tape. In the Transition Area you are allowed to place a Drop Bin containing whatever personal supplies/fuel/gear/clothing you want to use for yourself. You can spend as long as you want in the Transition Area but may only enter it once: after you leave it and start your second lap, you can not return.

 

HOW SHOULD THE TRANSITION AREA BE USED?

The Transition Area is your time as an athlete to breathe, take stock of where you’re at in the race (mentally, physically, etc.), refuel as necessary, and get psyched up mentally to attack Lap 2 and finish strong. You can put anything you want in your Drop Bin (a helpful guide to help you decide what to put in the Drop Bin and how to pack it here), and can take as much time as you need in the Transition Area until you feel ready to get back out there.

When it’s halfway through the race and you’ve reached this point, athletes will have different needs to fulfill and the Transition Area is the place to do that. Some use it as a chance to roll out a cramp they got while running, or just to roll in general to keep muscles loose. Some athletes change their shoes/socks to start Lap 2 with fresh, dry feet. Some people refuel on food, and others who need a little emotional support might look at notes/words of encouragement written by friends/family or say a prayer for continued strength and safety until the Finish Line. Whether your needs are physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, or food-driven: the Transition Area is the one time during the race when you have the option of a kind of “clean slate” to start Lap 2…so use this chance wisely!

 

TRANSITION AREA BEST PRACTICES: GET IN, GET OUT, GET GOING!

There's no "right" or "wrong" way to use the Transition Area, but there are definitely a few Best Practices and Rules of Thumb that will likely prove advantageous to your Race Day. And advantageous is probably good, so let’s roll with that.

  1. FIRST AND FOREMOST: DO NOT LINGER (FOR REAL) There is a running joke that the Transition Area is where Ultra dreams go to die…and it’s actually not really a joke because it’s 100% true. Every minute you spend there makes you less and less likely to get back out on course: momentum is a beautiful thing and when it goes, motivation can be a close second. Especially when you look around and see (as you inevitably will) the individuals who are not faring well in the race, and are injured/physically depleted/not mentally prepared to complete the Ultra, and heading toward DNF-town. Even if you enter the Transition Area with spirits high and ready to rock, you’d be surprised how quickly your energy can sap right out the minute you sit down and the adrenaline starts to wear off. Don’t sit there and hang out in the Limbo of the Ultra world (in fact, don’t sit at all, if you can help it). Do what you need to do and then just RUN FOREST, RUN!
  2. KEEP YOUR HEAD IN THE GAME/EYES ON THE PRIZE: STAY POSITIVE, STAY FOCUSED There will be all kinds of situations going on in the Transition Area: some athletes sitting in groups, some lighthearted and laughing, some quietly by themselves debating whether or not they want to go out for their second lap. It’s very important that you do what you need to do to get prepared for Lap 2, and don’t deviate from your Race Day strategy. There will also likely be plenty of conversation going on about the course: what people liked, what they didn’t like, what they had trouble with, tips and pointers, and what they’re dreading seeing again on Lap 2. Listen in if you find the insights helpful but don’t let yourself get pulled into the conversation or fixated on the details, and definitely don’t let yourself absorb any of the negativity regarding any obstacles. Negativity leads to doubt: do not give yourself the time or permission to debate whether or not go to out for Lap 2. (Obviously there are exceptions to this, as covered in the article here on what to do if you’re in the middle of a race and realize you might not have prepared enough for it.) 
  3. REMAIN COMMITTED: THE TRANSITION AREA IS NOT THE PLACE TO DECIDE WHETHER OR NOT YOU WANT TO FINISH AN ULTRA One of the biggest mistakes racers make is when they look at the Transition Area as a break time, or as the time when they’ll decide whether or not they really want to finish the Ultra. They think to themselves, “I’ll finish Lap 1 and see how I feel and if I want to go out again.” Nu-uh. The decision of whether or not you plan to finish the Ultra needs to be made before you ever cross that Start Line. The Ultra will test even the most seasoned athlete both physically and mentally – going into it with anything less than 1000% certainty of your goal is putting yourself at an enormous disadvantage (to say the least). Regardless of whether or not you do cross the Finish Line, start with confidence…or save the Ultra for another day. 
  4. DON'T BE FOOLED JUST BECAUSE IT'S FANCIER: TREAT THE TRANSITION AREA AS A GLORIFIED WATER STATION In the same theme as keeping your momentum going/getting in and getting out, the Transition Area should be something you look at just like you’d look at any other water station out on course. The more “power” you give it by thinking of it as anything else, only serves to distract from the ultimate goal of “keep moving until buckle.” Imagine that you’re at any regular water station, and then your OCR-fairy-godmother appears and tells you that you can have anything at that water station that will help you with your race. That’s what you put in your Drop Bin. This way of thinking will also help you to spend the right amount of time at the Transition: imagine you’re running a road race and there’s a water station halfway through the race with a bench next to it. Just because the option is there to sit and chill, does that mean you should? You’ve still got halfway to go! It’s awesome that the Transition Area is an option during the Ultra and it can truly be an asset to your Race Day if used correctly, but at the end of the day it’s just another (fancier, customized) water station. The end.
  5. BEWARE THE FALSE SENSE OF SECURITY: LAP 2 IS A WHOLE NEW RODEO If you make it to the Transition Area and see that you're well ahead of any timing cutoffs, that's awesome! But remember: it aint over till it's over...and you never know what can happen on Race Day...and even if Lap 1 was a breeze, a lot can happen in Lap 2 to jeopardize your successful buckle acquisition. Above all, you must never jeopardize your buckle acquisition. If you set out a schedule for yourself and you are way ahead of it that is also great. Keep in mind that Lap 2 is pretty much guaranteed to take longer to complete than Lap 1: even if you don't have to complete the Ultra Loop a second time, the course will be more crowded on your second time through (due to the Beast athletes), and your body will be much more fatigued than when it was fresh on Lap 1. Maybe, due to a simple misstep, you trip and twist an ankle on Mile 3 of your second lap...causing the whole thing to take much longer than you had anticipated. Or maybe your grip strength is more shot than you realized, and you end up failing 6 obstacles on Lap 2, forcing you to do many more burpees than you had planned, which causes you to take more time on Lap 2 and sucks your energy even more at the same time... The point is, regardless of how great you might be feeling about your pacing so far, a false sense of security can lead to a very real sense of a DNF. So keep it moving.
  6. DON'T BE A JERK TO YOUR FUTURE SELF: Adding on to #1 (don't linger) and #5 (pacing/timing concerns for Lap 2): here's another reason it's so important to keep on keepin on. Think of the time you’re not resting unnecessarily in Transition as an investment in a future rest that you actually will need. A gift to your future self. Because there’s definitely going to be a time (or many) when you’re going to be be super freakin exhausted and need to rest (or even – gasp – to sit) for a few minutes. In those moments, you’ll be SO freakin grateful to Transition-Area-You for giving yourself the leeway to take that time when you need it most. Don’t rest just because everyone else is resting and it seems like “the thing to do” there. Rest when you absolutely need it to be able to replenish your energy enough to continue/keep going: that’s when your body (and your mentality) are going to appreciate it the most and when it’ll have the most impact/make the most difference. If you sit for 10 minutes when you don’t need to, that’s 10 minutes that you’re essentially stealing from yourself and could result in you having to hustle even faster/harder later on when you're the most depleted.

 

 

STRATEGIZE FOR SUCCESS: WHAT YOU SHOULD ACTUALLY DO IN THE TRANSITION AREA

Three main things to focus on here:

  1. FUEL/REFUEL: This is a great opportunity to supplement any on-course fuel that you may have been lacking, to get extra calories/hydration in if necessary, and to eat a delicious treat that would be more difficult to consume on-course. Personally I know I usually don’t hydrate quite enough on course, so I chug a 32 oz. Powerade or Tailwind/Nuun drink during my time in Transition. I also have trouble eating solid food on course while I’m on-the-move, and will have something tasty-but-probably-impractical like a donut or other baked good. Remember: a big part of the race is mental so even though you might not technically need xyz treat, and even if it might not be the best thing that’s going to absorb the most efficiently into the bloodstream to continue your race, sometimes having the comfort of a super-delicious-tasty treat to look forward to in the Transition Area can give you something to look forward to during Lap 1 and to distract you from any stress/fatigue/negativity you might be tempted to feel. I’ve seen others consuming a whole host of other things in the Transition Area that might be impractical to bring on course: popular choices include a thermos of warm soup, macaroni and cheese, Uncrustables, pickles straight out of the jar…you name it. Ultra cravings are weird so just go with it! (**But make sure you do not try any new crazy treats on Race Day…no one wants to be vomiting half a mile into Lap 2.)
  2. TAKE CARE OF YOURSELF: In whatever ways you need to. Take inventory of any cuts/bruises, roll out/stretch muscles if needed, and psych yourself up mentally for Lap 2. If you have a cheer squad watching your race, this would be a great time for them to meet up with you to say hi and give words of encouragement! Some people also use the Transition Area as an opportunity to change their shoes/socks/other clothing items in order to start Lap 2 wearing fresh/dry clothing and gear. Personally I don’t do this because I know I’ll likely be wet again within a couple of miles anyway, but for some it’s used as a method to feel more mentally prepared and if you think it’s worth the time it takes for you, then by all means go for it. Whatever you do, just don’t forget about that cardinal rule mentioned earlier: keep the momentum going!
  3. GRAB-AND-GO FOR LAP 2: A popular suggestion for packing your Drop Bin is to have a duplicate of whatever you’re carrying for Lap 1 already pre-packed, so that it’s ready to grab and go for Lap 2. For example: if you have a hydration pack with a bladder full of water and Tailwind, have another bladder already full and pre-mixed waiting for you in your bucket. Any fuel that you are carrying (e.g., gels, chews) should also be ready-to-go…I pack mine in individual ziplock baggies (one for each pocket of my vest) – that way I can easily empty the contents of each baggy into a pocket as I’m getting ready to go back out. This is a super helpful tactic that will save you a lot of time (and definitely a lot of mental gymnastics): when you’re about to start Lap 2 with an exhausted body, a keyed-up mind, and adrenaline pumping, it’s probably not the best time to think through what you’re going to need to bring out on course. **A caveat I’ll add to this suggestion is to take notice of what you used/didn’t use on Lap 1 and tweak what you bring with you for Lap 2 accordingly: I generally overpack fuel to err on the side of caution, and so for Lap 2 I’ll realize that I overestimated the count of how many gels I would need, and I take fewer out with me than what I had pre-packed. Or if you are anticipating that Lap 2 might be more physically taxing and start to hurt, grab some Tylenol for the road.

 

 

 

    TRANSITION AREA FAQS

    CAN MY SPOUSE/SIGNIFICANT OTHER/MOM MEET ME AT THE TRANSITION AREA TO CHEER ME ON?: Hugs: yes (this isn’t jail.). Emotional support: yes. High fives: go for it! Giving you a delicious fresh Cinnabon they just picked up on the way because it’s your favorite treat and will totally amp you up for Lap 2: No. (that last one is a personal bummer of mine, can you tell?) If you are running in the Elite or Age Group categories, no help is allowed during your race. On the race course that means no help over walls or completing obstacles; it also means no outside help of any kind (including, unfortunately, delicious baked goods). If you pack it in your Drop Bin it’s fair game. But no one can add anything to your Drop Bin once you’ve started your race, or hand you anything. Pictured below is an excerpt from the Tri-State Spartan Ultra Race Day Program in 2018 to further illuminate these points. (Note: The program pictured below does not differentiate between Elite/Age Group/Open racers: it just says outside help is not allowed and nothing may be added to the Drop Bin until after you are finished...actual Race Day is typically more relaxed for Open Wave athletes, but it is important to know what the official rules are! Also note that rules can change by event or venue location: the image below is an example for your reference.)

    SHOULD I CHANGE MY SHOES/SOCKS?: As mentioned above, this is up to you. It’s likely that your feet will get wet again within a couple of miles of starting Lap 2, and your feet/calves may be bloated to the point that getting your wet, muddy shoes and socks off will be a difficult and energy-sucking task within itself. But if you think it’s worth it, and it helps you to feel like you’re going into Lap 2 “fresh,” go for it. A lot of the race is about how prepared/strong you feel mentally, so tactics to get you there should not be underestimated.

    DO I HAVE TO DROP MY BIN OFF AT THE TRANSITION AREA THE NIGHT BEFORE?: This varies venue to venue…sometimes it is “required” but as of this writing I have never heard of an instance where racers were prevented from dropping their bins off on the morning of the event if that’s what they needed to do. Some people prefer to drop it off the night before if possible to optimize the placement of their bin (e.g., if they want to put it right next to the entrance to the Transition Area or right next to the exit, or some other easily-distinguishable landmark). Personally I prefer to place it on the morning of the event: so I can double check everything inside it one more time before I start, so I have the peace of mind that it didn’t get accidentally moved, and so I know where it is in the Transition Area relative to alllllll the other Drop Bins that will be there. What might seem like an easy-to-find spot the day before when there are only 30 Drop Bins might not be so easy to find once hundreds of other bins have been placed.

    WHAT SHOULD I PUT IN MY DROP BIN?: Great question! There is an entire article on this blog dedicated to the Drop Bin with detailed info and suggestions including: what you might want to pack in it, what things you have to pack in it, and what you probably shouldn’t bother packing in it. Check it out here.

    IS THERE A SPECIFIC TIME FOR WHEN I HAVE TO ENTER/LEAVE THE TRANSITION AREA?: Yes. To ensure the safety of all athletes, there are "timing cutoffs" to keep racers "on track" to complete the Ultra by a certain time in the evening. There are additional timing cutoffs at various obstacles where racers must have passed to continue on with their race: if an athlete does not meet a timing cutoff, they are pulled from the course and receive a DNF (Did Not Finish), and do not receive medal/finisher shirt, or a future race credit, and the race does not count toward any trifectas. Which is a major, major bummer. In the Ultra Event example used in this article (the Spartan Tri-State Spartan Ultra Race Day Program in 2018) athletes had to be out of the Transition Area by 2pm, as illustrated below:

     

     
     

    spartan race ultra drop bin zone on Fierce Gear OCR

     

     

    CONCLUSION

    SO, what are they key takeaways to remember when you're halfway through your race, and you're sauntering (or limping...whichever works) into the Transition Area, and you can see your Drop Bin and feel the anticipation of your well-deserved rest?

    The Transition Area is a Twilight Zone. A Waiting Place. Limbo. The Bermuda Triangle. It’s a blessing that can also be a sheep in wolf’s clothing: an oasis and a safe haven in the middle of absolute misery. Like a sailor answering the siren’s call, you are lured in by promises of comfort and safety...but let your guard down for too long and it could mean the end of your race.

    Do not linger, and do not stray. Stay calm and focused with your end goal always in sight: doubt will inevitably try to creep in and the way to stay ahead of this is to ensure you start your race with 100% confidence that you will walk away with that belt buckle.

    This is your day, and this is your mountain. Now go and freakin' get it.

     

     

    Additional Resources/Info On The Transition Area Can Be Found At:

     

    Wanna check out our other articles all about the Ultra/Endurance events? Click here

     

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