Your Ultra-Training Bag of Tricks: Taking Control of Your Race

Inspired by your comments after Bryon’s “Your Ultra-Training Bag of Tricks” summary post last month, I thought I’d take this opportunity to touch upon some of your questions.

Your best days on the race course will be those in which you remain in control. This begins not on race day but during the months leading up to your event. The preparation put into race-specific training, gear testing, and studying the course will be just as important as following your game plan on race day. Let’s discuss some of the typical errors that can contribute to a poor performance and how others successfully manage them.

Training

We can sum up where we go wrong in training into three distinct categories:

1) Terrain – Course-specific training is key. Train on surfaces and topography that mimic your race course. Perennial top-ten Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run finisher Meghan Arbogast described how she prepared for last month’s Bandera 100k, “I had seen the course before and I knew I needed to train on rockier terrain than I normally do so I could get used to that course’s footing.”

2) Doing too much – More isn’t necessarily better. Injury and fatigue due to over-training will lead to lackluster racing or a DNS (Did Not Start). “I save my best days for my big races. I train specifically to peak for those events,” said Arbogast when asked how she manages her prolific racing schedule. “I train through a lot of races, but I make sure to treat them only as training runs. I have no problem letting the competition go on those days. I don’t complicate my life in the weeks beforehand and I make sure to rest.”

3) Doing too little – Undertaking an ultramarathon without putting in the proper training can also lead to disappointment or injury. Two-time Umstead 100 Mile finisher Valerie Clinard explained how she might have to scale back when she toes the line this year, “I was injured this winter. I’m coming back well but slowly. If I’m not ready for the full 100 miles, I’ll be prepared to call the 50-mile option my finish line this year.”

Race Tactics

The ego is mighty. The pressure we place on ourselves can unravel a race that lasts for hours within the first few minutes. Karl Meltzer, who has won the Hardrock 100 Mile Endurance Run five times, offered sage race-day advice, “Think about your effort while racing. Don’t red line, but at the same time don’t take your time. Keep up an effort you can maintain all day long. If I’m running a 100-miler I’ll remind myself that the race doesn’t begin until mile 70 and then when I get to that point, I’ll just let the race play out from there. Look around you on race day. Those who are busy turning their heads and looking for their competition in the first few miles are too stressed. Those are the folks who aren’t going to have a good day.”

With 34 wins and counting, Karl clearly heeds his own advice. If you haven’t already seen it, watch his 2012 Run Rabbit Run 100 Mile Endurance Run post-race interview in which he talks about coming from behind to capture the win with a negative split. “I put no pressure on myself and did my own thing all day long. It was a conservative strategy, but it worked.”

Karl’s conservative race strategy is relevant to runners of all abilities. Being patient, staying in control, and running your own race are the key components to a successful race.

Equipment

How many of us have tried something new on race day? A new pair of shoes or a new food? It’s an irresistible urge. We all know better. Don’t do it. However, even Meltzer isn’t immune.

“I remember I used a new headset at Zane Grey 50 Mile Endurance Run. I was fumbling with it and ended up breaking it early in the race. After that I found it impossible to break through mentally the rest of the day without my music. That was stupid and so avoidable.”

Equipment testing is an evolving art because new products are continually being developed and your preferences change. Arbogast has continued to fine-tune her equipment needs, but she does so only during training runs, “I’ve discovered by swapping equipment during workouts that I prefer to run hands-free. I’ve done away with hand bottles because they interfered with my ability to eat. I’ve settled on a hydration pack that works really well in races.”

Use your training runs to perfect your race-day attire, equipment, and nutrition so that you know exactly what you are wearing, carrying, and eating and drinking come race day.

Nutrition

We all have different nutritional needs, preferences, and tolerances so it’s virtually impossible to generalize what and how to eat and drink during an ultra. This is simply a reminder that you must test your own fueling routine before race day and once you’ve dialed it in, don’t deviate from it. “I commit to my nutrition plan on race day,” explained Arbogast. “I make sure I take in calories every 30 minutes no matter where I am, even if I’m five minutes from an aid station. That takes focus and tenacity in order to stick with it. I also make sure that I carry enough food between aid stations and place enough of my own fuel along the course in drop bags or with crew. I never want to be caught without my own stuff.”

Chris Vargo ran his first ultra at the 2012 Bootlegger 50k and had a rough go of it. “I didn’t consume nearly enough calories and I didn’t take in enough fluid. It was a fast field and after 20 miles, I tanked.”

Vargo learned from his mistake and had a better fueling plan for The North Face Endurance Challenge 50 Mile in San Francisco a month later. “I made a huge effort to take in at least 200-250 calories an hour during TNFEC50. Being that it was my first 50-miler, I took it a bit conservative pace-wise and I started eating 25 minutes in to the race. Early on I was in a group with [Hal] Koerner, [Rickey] Gates, [Dave] Mackey, and [Gary] Gellin and noticed that most of them started taking in gels very early in the race. If these dudes were doing it, I was going to follow their lead. In the end it worked out well! I didn’t have to death march it in and finished strong in 6:23!”

If you struggle with this all-important element, consider talking to a nutritionist who is familiar with endurance sports.

Weather

Often we spend a lot of energy pondering the weather, a factor we have no control over. We, however, can control how we prepare for conditions on race day. Meltzer reveals how he faces the weather component: “I only concern myself with the weather report the day before the race. That’s the most important and most accurate forecast. No use in wondering, worrying, and contemplating the possibilities. I avoid putting together my drop bags too far in advance. I like to prepare them with the most current information available.”

Vargo talks about how he handled the brutal conditions that faced the runners at the 2012 TNFEC50: “It was apparent it would rain during the race and it wasn’t going to stop. Knowing that, I didn’t let it faze me, as everyone else would have to run through the slop as well. My crew was loaded up with extra jackets, socks, shirts, and shoes and that eased my mind. I grew up in the Midwest and have always loved training in inclement weather. Racing in mud and rain made me feel like a bad ass.”

Arbogast makes sure she’s got all her bases covered no matter where or when she’s racing. “I make sure I cover all my options. I’ll overpack my clothes so that I’m ready for every type of weather on race day. I struggle in the cold so I know I have to wear a lot and, if possible, have a change of dry clothes available. On hot days I have to remember at each aid station to wet my clothes and put ice in my hat and liquids.”

When course conditions get rough, both Karl and Meghan remind themselves that everyone out there is suffering. “I actually thrive on bad weather, especially if the other guy is complaining about it. We’re all out there in it together so we just need to suck it up,” said Karl. Meghan confessed that she can take the weather rather personally, “When I get frustrated with the weather I remind myself that I’m not being singled out and I need to stop feeling sorry for myself. There a lot of others out here going through the same thing.”

Course and Race Logistics

It’s always easier the second time you run a race. “I can never get a sense of what a course is like by hearing how others describe it,” says Arbogast. “I need to see it. I will, however, check the course’s total elevation gain and compare that to other races I’ve done to determine if it’ll be a fast or slow course.”

Karl takes it one step further by looking over the course map to get a general sense of the layout, but admits, “When race day comes I’m running blind and just make sure to follow the marking. I’ll use that first year to scout the course and the second year to improve on an old result. I did that at Grindstone 100 Mile. I returned three years later and took an hour and a half off my old course record because I knew what the gig was about.”

Unlike Meghan and Karl, Charles West, who has finished three 100-mile races (Umstead, Graveyard, and Grindstone), uses elaborate pace and elevation charts and written crew and pacer instructions for his events no matter the distance and number of times he has run the event.

West explained, “Every 100-mile race I’ve done has been outside of my comfort zone. So, I approach the planning and preparation from the standpoint of trying to close the gap between my experience level and what those races actually require. For me, planning is a an exercise in mentally rehearsing the race in my head the same way a golfer, gymnast, or diver rehearses their routine in their head before they perform. I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that as long as my body isn’t going to have an ‘off’ day I’ve given myself the best chance I could hope for when I toe the line.”

If it’s convenient, then make a trip or two to train on the course before race day. Joey Schrichte did just that in his preparation for this year’s Destin 50 Mile Beach Ultra. Seeing the course allowed him to learn a few important things that will help him succeed on race day. “I am really glad I went down there,” he said. “I had an awful training run. Glad I got that out of the way so I won’t repeat the experience on race day. I learned a lot of things. I need better sleep before race day. I won’t drive six hours the day before the race. I experienced the warm and exposed beach sun. I’ll make it a point to cool down at each aid station and I’ll also start with a more conservative pace than I did for this training run. If I do these things, I’ll have a good race.”

Coping Mechanisms

Race days seldom play out without some sort of glitch. Rough patches are inevitable by virtue of the length of time we are exposed to the elements, but it’s how effectively we handle these episodes that will keep us moving forward and away from any dreary downward spirals.

During last year’s Run on the Sly 50k a series of things started going wrong for ultra newbie Will Ortlinghaus. “I had a hard time with heat (temps in upper 80’s and low 90’s), I consumed far too few calories, my fluid intake was low, and the biggest factor was that I got wrapped up running with a faster crowd.”

Will almost quit near the halfway point, but he used a few tricks to keep himself moving forward.

“I had some really tough, hot, and long training runs going into this race. During those workouts I told myself ‘to just keep moving, just put one foot in front of the other, and not to stop.’ That mantra had helped with those long runs, so I used it again at Sly. Secondly, I knew my training was sound and I had done my preparations. I put in a lot of hard work and I didn’t want to waste it. Finally, I made a plan to run a mile and then walk a mile until I reached the finish line. This broke the big task at hand into manageable pieces.”

Familiarity with feeling uncomfortable also helps. “Running the entire lengths of the Appalachian Trail and Pony Express Route taught me a lot,” said Meltzer. “I know that eventually it’ll be over and I’ll feel so good when I’m done. I picture myself at the finish line and just hang in there during those rough hours.”

The ability to cope boils down to tenacity. Jana Gustman, a past winner of the Miwok 100k, said, “After you’ve done the training, it’s mind over matter to finish an ultra. You have to really want that finish to push through the discomfort. No race course is fun after mile 80.”

Taking control of your race begins well before the gun goes off. Runners who have done their homework, prepared mentally and physically, and stick to their game plan will have the best chance at succeeding on race day.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • The chances are good that, if you’ve run an ultra, you’ve made a mistake. What have been some crucial lessons you’ve learned out there?
  • What among Ian’s recommendations for before and during races do you find come easy for you and what skills do you need to better develop?

There are 12 comments

  1. Jon

    Thanks Ian, great piece of information. Last September I ran my first ultra(Mt. Taylor 50k) and I wish I had utilized much of this info for that race, but there's always next time right.

  2. Mike B.

    My first year running the Silver Rush 50M in Leadville I learned that elevation adds to the stress on your stomach and that I could not eat what I did on my training runs. Fortunately I had studied enough that I recognized what was happening and adjusted at the halfway point. Heat + elevation = poor digestion.

  3. boisean

    Making my 'debut' at the 100-mile distance at the inaugural 'Bryce 100-Mile' this May, and found this piece to be very helpful and will be referring to it (and to Karl's tips within) during my training buildup and race day.

  4. Jeremy

    Go get 'em Bob. Glad to hear you're moving up to the ultra-distance. Looks like there is a solid contingent going down from Idaho. I'm sure you'll be steady to the end and among the leaders, as always.

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