As we adapt and acclimate to winter, take time off, plan our next year and set out our goals and travels, now is a great time to evaluate and re-visit some of the mental strategies and perspectives we have towards trail running and racing.
Trail races are hard. They’re daunting at any distance, depending on your experience, training and especially coming back from injury. If you’re “graduating” into a new distance you’ve never run before, the unknowns are terrifying. There are no easy ultras. Even if you are adamant about just having fun and not pushing yourself, the logistics of race day are anxiety inducing.
Running ultras terrifies me. They regularly defeat and defy me, yet I love the challenge and training. The day before race day is the worst, with the Mental Defeatist Marching Band playing it’s familiar greatest hits: “You’re Not Going to Make It” – “You’re Going to DNF” – “Everything’s Going to Go Wrong” – “You’re Not as Fit as You Think You Are” – anyone else know the drill? It’s important to have checklists – for gear, for training, and for awareness.
In this article I’ve compiled a list of Dos and Don’ts that are an aggregate of lore based on years of racing ultras, reading and researching about trail racing and running, some coaching, and lots and lots of conversations about the smartest and dumbest things we’ve seen running in the Canadian wild.
Some of these might seem obvious! Trust me, every lesson here is a mistake I’ve made or seen repeated, even by the most competitive and experienced trail runners.
- Have fun. As simplistic as it sounds, having an unprompted smile on your face is the best strategy for a day on the trail. This will mean different things for different people – some enjoy socializing, others taking in the scenery. Some like consistency – maintaining a regular pace. Whatever you like to do in training, do it on race day (mind the cutoffs!). Be mindful that not everyone wants to talk during a race 😉
- Consider logistics well in advance. If you can, spend an extra night in the area after – not before the race. There is no better feeling than a short drive back to a hotel – compared to a long drive home or, even worse, a flight – and a day of relative luxury in a place you don’t have to clean up after.
- Use Youtube and Google Images to get an idea of the terrain if the course is new to you. Add “blogspot” to your searches to find race day entries from past runners. There could be caveats or insider information you’ll need to consider, or recommended gear you may not have or have practiced running with. See if the coloured ribbon (trail marker) associated with your distance is posted in advance. This helps a lot if you’re distracted or anxious on race days. Most races include race reports on their websites.
- Label your drop bags with your name, bib, and the gear they contain. If you have crew, this helps immensely. If not, you won’t be deliriously looking for something that isn’t there. Make sure you have a change of shoes at some point. This is good for morale.
- Thoroughly educate your crew. They need to know what you need to be asked, and what gear you might need to add, drop or change at any point. Let them know you may not be yourself! If you’ve never run with crew before, you need to have a team meeting.
- Try to enlist at least one crew member with a lot of experience, if not more than you. They will help the less experienced crew members help you better. The best races have veteran ultra runners at their aid stations, but don’t count on this. You’ll know them when you show up to an aid station with 10kms left to go and they unhesitatingly ice your seized quads and feed you watermelon by hand.
- Drop any extra food you don’t need at the last aid stations. If you are well stocked or at the last aid and good for the last leg, hand over extra gels or chews. You never know how bad someone behind you might need it.
- Reconnoiter the course if you can. If you can’t, focus your training to mimic the course expectations: is it a series of loops? Run loops of that length repeatedly. Are there non-runnable climbs? Better find some long stairs or a stairmaster if you don’t live near mountains. Is it a hot race? You’ll need to train in the heat, even if it means a treadmill run with a sweater on once or twice a week. Technical uphills/downhills? Find some stairs outside to run up and down for proprioception drills.
- Carry a poop kit for longer and remote races. This means wet wipes and hand sanitizer in a zip lock. It’s not great for the environment, but at the limited frequency it occurs…
- Respect jet lag! This may not be an issue if you only hop continents as a tourist, but jet lag and sleep deprivation will absolutely wreck your race day if you don’t arrive early enough. Melatonin helps, as do frequent naps, earplugs, eye masks and white noise.
- Get caught up in a group that’s faster than your intended pace. It’s ever-so-tempting, but this is the de facto most common reason to DNF.
- Crush the early climbs. Take the early climbs easy, especially the long ones Race Directors love to plunk in the first hour of a technical race. You won’t gain anything by going hard on the early climbs unless you’re going for a course record.
- Coast on a big breakfast if you’re feeling fine early on. Do eat as much as you can before the race and while you feel good, eat and drink carbohydrates constantly, even if it’s just a handful of chips or a gel every 10kms. It’s more important to eat just before the race than carb-load the night before. As the race progresses, try to also drink as many carbs as much as possible in case you get nauseous.
- Run without crew. If you can’t find someone to crew, you need to checklist obsessively for before, during and after the race. Make sure you have space to rest and regroup before any solo travel afterwards. Make a gear checklist to ensure you don’t forget anything. Don’t drive home from a race by yourself.
- Worry about sleep the night before. Get all the sleep you’ll need the week before the race, even if it means coming in late to work once or twice, or turning off the alarm the weekend before.
- Run with the sweep. It’s perfectly okay to run an event and use the cutoffs as a rough guide if you’re injured, a newbie, or slow, but running with the sweep is a surefire way to miss the cutoff or talk yourself into a DNF (it’s not the sweeper’s responsibility to pace you, either – they have a separate job to do and they must stay behind you).
- Go HAM on a particular food at one or every aid station. Food is likely in limited quantity, more so at aid stations that have limited or no vehicular access. Try not to take aid station food with you – plan your own fuel between aid stations.
- Use water for other than its intended purpose – drinking – without asking permission first. I’ve seen people at remote aid stations dunk their head under a water jug and get fiercely reprimanded. Don’t be that person! There’s probably a creek on the way.
- Litter. Yes, even that little tab from your gel is highly visible on the otherwise pristine forest floor. Also, put your garbage in the garbage bags provided at aid stations – trail races are not marathons: don’t walk out carrying a cup and toss it to the side ten meters out. And, dig a hole away from water if #2 rears its ugly head.
- Blame the race director if something goes wrong: have extra water/hydration and food on hand whenever you can. The race director is responsible for many things, including your safety and flagging a navigable course, but if an aid station runs out of food or water (or it isn’t there), that may be for reasons beyond anyone’s control. Don’t write a flamepost on Facebook about it. Be prepared.
Here’s a brief anecdote to illustrate the last point:
I ran an alpine/mountainous 50k race a few years back that required every runner to have one liter of water on hand in the form of a full bladder-equipped pack or a pair of bottles as they left an aid station. I had a 1.5L pack for the race. Late in the race I came through an aid station that was not set up yet (there was just a pie plate with the name of the aid station so I knew it wasn’t there). Internally, I thanked my lucky stars that I still had water thanks to this rule, even if my water bladder was half empty. The aid station was at the top of a long, humid climb – the last climb of the race and it was a doozy. At the bottom of the downhill, there was about 8k left to go with an aid station at 5k to go. Jogging, I encountered a runner ahead of me who had also gone through the missing aid station, except he had dumped out his water at the base of the climb to save weight on the ascent – assuming the aid would be there. I gave him some water, and accompanied him to the next aid. He was semi-delirious and spent an hour at the final aid station before walking to the finish. He was an experienced and avid ultrarunner, too.
The point of the rule, as you may have guessed, was to ensure runners had enough water to span two aid stations, just in case.
It turns out one of the crew of that aid station had gotten injured on their way there (not seriously, but serious enough for lengthy treatment and an ATV ride back before the remaining crew could continue)