Ultras don’t always go as planned; in fact, they seldom go as planned. Overcoming the unexpected hurdles during an ultra is half the fun and a lion’s share of the satisfaction. Like they say, if it was easy, anybody could do it. It’s the sudden downpour, the record heat, the steeper than expected climbs, the sleepless night before the race, the throwing up, the rising from the dead at the next to the last aid station that makes your adventure epic and gives you the stories you will tell your running buddies until they say, “Either shut up about that race or we’re never running with you again.”
On the other hand, there is much in your control. The training you do in the months leading up to the race, the preparation just before the race, and the basic execution during the race are all things that are up to you. Get those things right and you are free to deal with all the unknowns that an ultra throws at you. But if you screw up on the basics, you can turn a pleasant outing into a real mess.
It would seem simple enough that you are clear on when the race is and where, yet if you don’t focus on these details at some point, you may be in for a big surprise. Get the date right. Is this a Saturday race or a Sunday race? Make sure you have the start time correct and leave yourself a good margin for arriving at the race location in time. If you’re not very familiar with the route to the race, do your homework ahead of time. Allow for the unexpected. I was relying solely on printed directions from the Internet once when I discovered an off-ramp had been closed. It left me totally at sea. Bring your smartphone, or if worse comes to worse, you can actually look at a map.
Before leaving for the race, double check that you have everything you need. At one time or another, I’ve discovered at the last minute that I forgot my hat, sunblock, skin lubricant, gloves, sunglasses, or salt tabs. If you’re lucky, the race might be supplying what you’re missing or you may be able to borrow something from a friend, but you’ll be kicking yourself for screwing up. A general purpose checklist with all the basics listed is worth keeping around. Put your stuff together the night before the race and run down the checklist. You’ll sleep better, too.
My friends and I used to mountain bike at night, a very elaborate and tricky operation with the lights, the fancy bikes, the weather, etc. A new guy was joining us and he was half an hour late. We were grousing, impatient, cold as we watched him get his bike off the car rack, set up his lights, strap his helmet on. Then he went rummaging through his trunk for several minutes. He’d left his clip-in bike shoes at home. No ride for him. He needed a checklist. He was struggling to put his bike back on the rack as we rode off.
Once in the race, the classic mistake, of course, is to go out too fast. The excitement goes to your head and you run the first five miles of a 50-miler like it was a 10K. Heck ,you’re just keeping up with the flow. Unfortunately, the “flow” is made up of runners who are going to finish in the top ten. You, on the other hand, are going to spend the rest of the race wishing you had saved more energy for later. If you are averaging a 12-minute pace in your long training runs, you are not going to come out to a race and run 50 miles at a nine-minute pace no matter how determined you are. The training won’t be there.
Another common tactical error is to get impatient and start pushing hard when you feel yourself getting tired and struggling. Your desperate mind is telling you to speed up and get it over with but the reality is that you still have a long way to go. You are better off accepting that you’re not feeling well, recognizing that it’s normal to feel that way deep in a race—after all, you are running an ultra—and relaxing for a bit. Walk for a stretch. Spend some extra time at the next aid station. Make sure you’re eating and drinking appropriately, and tell yourself to be patient.
Going into the race with a very set, preconceived notion of how fast you are going to run can also be a problem if you let that target get in the way of reacting to the conditions that you find out there on the course. If it gets very hot, for example, you are probably going to need to slow down and take extra precautions against heat exhaustion. Trying to keep to your aggressive pace could get you into some real trouble. Take comfort in the fact that the heat is going to slow everyone else down as well.
I showed up at the Western States 100 one time all pumped up and ready to run fast. I even contemplated going home with a silver buckle for a 24-hour finish if things fell my way. When the event got underway, we started out with 20 miles of ice and snow. It was awful; fields of cupped ice, people searching for the course, forests full of little snow mountain ranges we had to scale and then slide down into slick slush. Everyone was falling. People were sliding off the side of the ridge, but I gamely stuck to my plan, running as hard as I could. At one point I looked around and recognized the runners near me as being some of the best ultrarunners out there. “What’s going on?” I asked myself. Later the heat in the canyons was brutal and I was fried. I’d left it all back in the snow. The frontrunners I was with before were long gone. At Foresthill, I threw in the towel. I couldn’t go on. If I had recognized that this was going to be a hard year and dialed it back from the start, I probably would have had a great day, a great adventure, and gone home with a buckle instead of a disappointing DNF.
Another way to mess up is to let a small problem snowball into a show stopper by not being proactive.
Address blisters as soon as you become aware of them. They’ll only get worse untreated.
Anticipate the need for warmer clothes or for rain gear before you’re stuck on a windy ridge with no protection.
Is it getting hot? Dial up the drinking and the salt tabs.
Feeling weak? Make a point of eating more or taking an extra energy gel before you totally bonk. Replenish your sunblock halfway through the afternoon.
Take the time to put on clean socks and regoop your feet with skin lubricant if you’re feet aren’t comfortable.
Finally, your best race ever can go quickly to the dogs if you manage to get lost. It doesn’t take much inattention to miss a flag marking a turn or blow by a sign on the edge of a road. I once took a wrong fork because I didn’t look high enough on a tree where two arrows were clearly pointing down the other trail. No matter how caught up you get in your music, in your thoughts, or into the stories you’re exchanging with other runners, command a part of you to monitor the trail, and be aware that you might be the only one in a whole group paying attention.
Ultras are hard enough without making them even more challenging by creating unnecessary problems for yourself. Run a smart race and it will be the course and the distance that offer the challenges, not your inattention to basic details.