As welcoming as the ultrarunning community is (and it’s a very welcoming group), there can still be a lot of intimidation related to the unknown for new-to-the-sport athletes. There are many things to learn to be successful and safe on the trails. For those who have yet to enter an ultra and believe you may be ready to test your race chops, congratulations. It can be a big decision to know you’re prepared to toe the line. If you’re not quite sure what to expect, that’s okay. The unknown can be part of the fun and adventure. But it doesn’t all need to be a guessing game. Learning what you may encounter can alleviate some pre-race anxiety. The following are a few specific tips for negotiating aid stations and may help you develop a successful race strategy come race day.
Make a Plan
Aid stations are one of the major advantages of racing compared to a self-supported long run. You’ll be able to carry less food and water since you can re-stock along the way. As convenient and timesaving as aid stations can be, the flip side is the potential of wasting too much valuable time when out on the course. To avoid spending too much time in aid stations, one of the best strategies is to have a plan and specifics in mind before you arrive at the aid station. Study the course ahead of time so you know where the aid stations will be located. If you don’t trust your memory, especially late in the race when fatigue sets in, print a small map or race schematic, available on most race websites, and place it in a sealed plastic bag or have it laminated to carry with you. When you are within about 1 mile (3k) of each aid station, make an assessment of what you have left in terms of food and water, consider the current and anticipated weather conditions and approximately how long it will take you to travel between the immediate aid station and the next. These bits of information should help your plan for an efficient arrival and departure at each stop. Keep your plan as simple as possible to ensure you’ll remember each of your objectives when you arrive.
Allow race volunteers to help you. We have a spectacular community and most volunteers are eager to assist runners. Usually, a volunteer will refill water bottles or bladders, dish some soup or fulfill other food requests and even take care of wrappers or other extras that you may not want to carry for the remainder of the course. For events that provide a drop bag option, there are typically volunteers taking your name and/or number to retrieve your bag if you need it. Often volunteers will be able to tell you the distance you will cover before arriving at the next aid station if you don’t want to dig your map out of your running vest. At more established events, medical personnel will be available at most if not all aid locations. Often there will be chairs if you need to sit or change clothing or shoes, just be cautious that you don’t rest longer than you need to (more on this point below).
When it comes to drop bags, if you’re not sure what those are and how to utilize them advantageously, keep reading. The drop bag option, typically offered for distances of 50 miles or longer, allows runners to pre-pack small bags of supplies for later in the race. Waterproof bags makes an ideal drop bag since they will better protect your provisions against the elements. Items to include may be a change of shoes and/or socks, extra layers and waterproof gear, trekking poles and specific nutrition items that may not be provided by the event. For notoriously muddy or wet courses, putting on dry socks and shoes part way through your race can be a game changer in terms of how your feet hold up. Furthermore, there may be very steep sections mid-race in which trekking poles would be beneficial, but you may not need or want to carry poles the entire duration if unnecessary. Using the drop bag option takes some forethought and planning, but it can be a terrific gift to yourself mid-race. It’s a great option to take advantage of when it’s available.
Don’t linger too long at aid stations. It’s very easy to lose track of time at locations along the course, but if you have a plan before arriving and move out as soon as you’ve checked off your to-do list, you’ll spend less time on your feet and move up the trail faster. There are obviously some lifelines at support locations, including hydration, food and medical attention when it’s warranted. But, aside from these basics, you should have everything you need onboard. It’s not uncommon for racers to lower their guard as they enter aid stations and lose sight of how independent and capable they are. Volunteers can and will offer physical and moral support, but you ultimately have what it takes to get to the finish line. You’re probably much more capable than you realize, and maybe that’s one reason you are racing—to test that mettle. Have a plan for each aid station, execute that plan and move out quickly, wasting little to no time.
Lastly, thank at least one volunteer—if not all of them. If these great people were not willing to offer many hours assisting race organizations, it wouldn’t be the same experience. Every single volunteer is sacrificing various resources. It’s vital that we recognize this and take action to acknowledge our appreciation for those sacrifices as we move over the course. A smile, eye contact and a gracious word goes a long way, and it will probably leave you feeling a little more buoyant, too. What’s not to love about giving and getting a dose of gratitude a few times throughout your race?
The sport of ultrarunning encompasses many considerations. Creating your strategy before race day and executing the plan as closely as possible, should help you move the needle toward a successful outcome. It’s one of the stark differences between a long training run and race day. Use aid stations to your advantage, move quickly through each one and ensure you leave with everything you need to make it safely to the next location. Share your thanks along the way and hopefully you can anticipate a superb first race.