These past six months I’ve run the most I’ve ever run, including a couple of trail marathon distances; a 50km and a 55km. In some people’s books the 50kms aren’t really even “ultra” distance, but hey, here’s what I learned from my early days of running further and longer (max 7ish hours so far). Maybe it’ll help you if you’re a newbie; maybe if you’re a more seasoned runner you can comment with some useful tips – very little is “obvious” when you’re new to the game! I’d love to hear from you.
Run now, chafe later. Ain’t nobody got time for that chafe… You know that feeling when you get in the shower, and you’ve been looking forward to it for so long and then AHHHH, boom, ow, eek, swear words… you hit the ceiling as every bit of chafe starts to sting like nobody’s business. Run in the kit you plan to race in, multiple times before the race. Wear it for your long runs. Tried and tested is THE most reliable way to sort that out. No guarantees, but the “tried and tested” approach plus some Bodyglide or similar anti-chafe stuff should get you through….
Open your nutrition packets in advance. Okay, so this may sound slightly weird, but while opening a sachet of Tailwind or a packet of Clif Shot Bloks may be a breeze from the comfort of your own home, there’s something about dealing with sweaty hands (or freezing cold hands, or gloved hands) when you’re fatigued out on the trail, which turns this into a far bigger deal than it should be. So, to save the, arghhhhh I can’t open a simple packet stress, just tear it a little bit open before you put it in your pack. You won’t regret it!
Bladder or bottles? Know how much you’re drinking, especially if a liquid based fuel approach (like Tailwind or Infinit) is your main source of nutrition. I happily filled up my bladder for my first trail marathon, along with a couple of bottles, and it only occurred to me while out on the course that drinking x mls an hour was suddenly more of an unknown than expected – as I couldn’t reallllly tell how much was left in the bladder on my back, without an extra stop to remove my pack and visually check. Trust me, constantly squishing your hand against the bladder on your back, does not offer much useful feedback; tried and tested and failed. I’ve since moved to carrying around multiple soft flasks which allow you to see at a glance how much you’ve been drinking and are also easier to whip out and refill at aid stations.
Don’t dither with the Dementors. If you’re not a Harry Potter aficionado then to be clear, a “Dementor” is something (or in this case someone) who sucks your soul and joy and happiness. So, as great as trail runners are, if you find yourself travelling alongside someone who’s moaning, bitching and generally hating life, sorry but they gotta go. Call me selfish, but after hours on your feet, you may also not be feeling so crash hot, and motivation is what you need, not a soul sucker. Now I’m not saying you might not try and spur them on and get them out of their hole, but make sure you call time on that if it’s not working, as the last thing you need is someone dragging you down too.
But do chat, say hello, encourage others. How many non trail competitions have you been in where people passing you – your rivals (!) – say “How are you going? Well done, keep it up, you’re doing so well.” Seriously, trail running, I love this community. Be sure to say hi to those around you and don’t be surprised if you find yourself running along chatting to other runners about life, the trail, or generally how to solve the world’s problems…
Which leads me to, look out for your fellow runners. During the trail marathon at Lamington I took a really horrible stack of the “oh gosh, have I really hurt myself and if I have, I’m in the middle of bloody nowhere” kind. And as I was lying on the ground, trying to check in with my ankle stuck in a large pothole, a fellow runner, Lauren, who was AHEAD of me, came running back to check I was okay and offer some first aid bits and pieces. Seriously, you may be in remote terrain and nothing is more important than your safety and the safety of others. Be kind! And thank you Lauren, and everyone else who has helped a fellow runner at some point during a race. To put this in perspective, I ran a road half marathon earlier this year and was absolutely shocked when, seeing a guy take a stack on a kerb and fall flat on his face, people just proceeded to run over, or zoom around him and not even check he was okay. Come on people, reality check!
Smile. At your family. At the volunteers. At the aid stations. At other runners. At the little child waiting to hi five you en route. Smile. I promise it will make you feel better, no matter how you’re really feeling. And what’s equally important, it’s nice to smile at people who have taken the time to be there on course!
Drop bags. Maybe you’ll have the option of drop bags and want to leave a change of shoes, spare socks, blister treatment, different nutrition options in there… I changed my shoes at Tiree Ultra midway, which really, was a farce as they were knee deep in bog within minutes of changing them, but psychologically I had decided I would do it for a fresh start (midway!), and I did. I don’t regret it for that race, although in the same conditions, I probably wouldn’t do it again. Have a think about what you might need and chat to more experienced runners about whether or not you really need to include items like… that magazine (…not naming names).
Know where the aid stations are. A little tip from a friend was to write the aid station distances on the back of my number bib. This is good knowledge to have for both motivation, breaking up the race into chunks; plus potentially seeing any supporters you have out there; but importantly for nutrition and refilling your bottles.
Don’t freak out. There’s time. It’s early days. Unless you’re really riding a checkpoint cut off time, stay calm, expect the unexpected, and draw on your kick ass problem solving skills, because it’s those skills which will get you through. Every day’s a school day.
Check in with your legs before you go for the classic “jumping finish line” photo. Just sayin’ – it’s probably been a long day and you might want to weigh up the face plant risk before tackling that one. Or maybe, just go for it, hells yeah!
And finally, take time to enjoy it wherever possible. You’re running an ultra. You have had the courage to step up to the start line. You are going to run further than the average person may drive in a day. You, my friend, are freakin’ awesome.