Ultrarunning is an endurance sport and as such it requires you to endure. This enduring often takes you past the point of comfort, past the point of exhaustion, past the point of imminent collapse, and some would say, past the point of reason. With each race or monster workout, the scenery may change but the enduring and the pushing yourself up to your limits pretty much stay the same.
As you approach these limits and work to overcome them, you will find yourself facing similar physical and mental challenges over and over. Ultrarunning is testing you to see if you are learning from your mistakes, if you are equipping yourself to better deal with these challenges. You are in the process of intimately and extensively getting to know YOU. Pay careful attention to all this insider knowledge and you will be able to micromanage your performance and shape the race to your own very specific advantage.
For example, let’s take the tricky process of avoiding blisters on your feet. Gallons of ink have been spilled over this topic, but for me after many, many races in all kinds of conditions, it all boils down to some pretty simple facts.
If the weather is cool and my feet are likely to be damp or wet for long periods of time, I will have no problem with blisters. I can go thirty hours and a hundred miles in the same, unchanged shoes and socks with no problem. The more streams and rivers I have to wade through the better.
If the weather on the other hand is warm and my feet stay hot, and dust and grit filter into my shoes and socks, then I am going to get blisters. So if it looks like a warm race, I plan as many sock changes as possible and with each change I work at cleaning off my feet and reapplying skin lubricant. Because I know the proclivities of my feet so well, the conditions don’t matter. I get through every race with minimal blistering. Another example is staying cool on a hot race day. Heat slams everybody but you can learn to minimize the slowdown effect. In my case, I like to keep my head wet. If there is a bucket with a sponge, I will soak my head and neck. At streams I use my hat to pour water over my head. If I have an empty bottle, I’ll fill it with water from the stream and use it to douse myself farther down the trail.
I put lots of ice in my hydration pack at aid stations, and I fill my hat with ice as well and sort of balance it on my head. I can go miles nursing that melting ice against my scalp and feeling the chilly water running down my neck. I also slow my pace, walk when I’m in a hot stretch with direct sun, and keep sipping water even though I may not feel like it.
If my face begins to feel hot, my skin goes slightly drier as if I were not sweating as much, or if I start to get slightly nauseous, I know my core temperature is starting to rise and I’m coming close to overheating. Then I immediately go into a relaxed walk, drink profusely, and stop any attempts at running until I start feeling normal again.
I also know from experience that I respond very well to heat training. So I’ll push a little harder at a hot race if I’ve recently done a lot of running in high temperatures, and conversely I’ll dial back my effort if it’s the first warm race of the season. All these little adjustments keep me moving along comparatively well when others have gone into death-march mode.
Eating, drinking and avoiding stomach problems are other areas where the more you know about yourself, the better you will manage your race. I seem to do best on straight water between aid stations, a small cup of sports drink and a handful or two of solid food at the aid stations, and an energy gel once an hour.
That formula may seem fairly simple and obvious but it literally took me years to lock it in. Too much sports drink doesn’t agree with me; too little and I start to feel flat. Too much solid food and I go into a funk as my body seems to shift focus to my digestive tract. If I have no solid food, I get ravenously hungry.
The hourly energy gel gives me a solid base of energy to work from but later in the race I’ll come crashing to the ground after 45 minutes – hourly becomes too long to wait – so from time to time I’ll squeeze in an extra gel pack at the half hour. Of course it took a lot of trial and error to recognize all these little quirks in how I react to eating and drinking.
Which solid foods to eat and how much is another whole story. I do well with peanut butter and jelly sandwiches as my main staple, but a sandwich with cheese, turkey, or ham does wonders later in a race. Fruit is good but in moderation. If I eat too much fruit, I will have stomach problems. Same with corn chips. A couple are fine, but if I have too many, I’ll be annoyed by the taste of them for the rest of the race. Cold potatoes and salt also work well for me but I have to gag them down.
At night, when my GI tract is really stressed, I go strictly to soup. Small stomach upsets along the way, which I’m prone to, I can fix with some ginger candy. A “sloshy” stomach will tell me to slow down on the liquids. And of course peeing is a great gauge of how your drinking is working out. Constant peeing means too much liquid. A thick stream or no peeing can signal too little drinking. A clear, strong stream every hour or two for me means I am right in the sweet spot as far as hydration.
Exactly what clothing to wear in what conditions is another area in which you learn exactly what works for you. How much time to spend at an aid station, how long to sit in a chair, how long to nap during the night, or whether you are the type who should never sit down at all is information that you will gather over time. How to adjust your pace from hour to hour and how to deal with hills and technical sections of the course can be unique to you, as is understanding how your mind works when the going gets tough and you feel like quitting. I usually pace myself so that I can hang on to feeling human for as many hours as possible during a race. By the time I fall off that plateau, I have so much of the race done that I feel mentally ready to deal with whatever the final section of the race throws at me.
Each time you come back from a long training run, and certainly every time you race, take some notes as soon as you wake up from your post-run nap. Be sure to include any details you can remember (ask your crew, too) on how you handled the above aspects of the event so that you can start to see your own personal patterns emerge and use them to plan for your next race.
Ultrarunners tend to take this incredible store of knowledge we develop about ourselves for granted, but if you think about it, we learn to keep ourselves out there functioning for as long as it takes to finish. We’re still happily trotting down the trail long after a non-ultrarunner would have been sidelined by a whole host of problems. It’s really pretty amazing.