Endurance running is really just a day of adventure. You hear the horn and off you go for 5, 6 or 7 hours of touring around and seeing the scenery. It is enjoyable, difficult, frustrating and exhilarating all at the same time. Some parts you’re hiking but others you’re hard-core racing, sometimes your legs want to fall off but mostly it’s you pushing yourself past where you’ve been before. Ultra-running is expanding your comfort zone and competing against yourself. It’s a challenge but it doesn’t have to be death if you can get everything you need prepared for race-day.
No one ever drowned in sweat
Ultra-running needs serious hydration. My fluid intake starts days before the race and consists of water and electrolyte enhanced liquids. I usually stick to Nuun tabs and just insert them in my water a few bottles a day, 2 days before the race. I’ve also used Vega and there’s lots of other brands to try until you find one you love. As a standard, I would say I double to triple my usual water intake on these days. The morning of the race I drink a coffee because I need it. I’m sure it’s not ideal but for me it’s necessary. I also drink a litre of water on the way to the race. You’re probably cringing right now at the thought of having to stop to pee on route but don’t worry you’ll need this. My first 50K I didn’t use the washroom at all in 7 hours and then in others I’ve gone 2-3 times. You just never know and it’s always better to be starting hydrated and release then be de-hydrated. During the race, I wear a 2L hydration pack from Nathan Sports. There’s lots of packs on the market and there’s some great designs by Ultimate Direction and Salomon too. Finding a pack that fits well and holds what you need is what’s most important. I chose one with a bladder and a hose but there are combo bladder/bottle and also bottle-only packs. It’s personal preference. Throughout the race I sip as I go and drink the electrolytes at the aid stations. I keep a close eye on my liquids and as long as I’m still sweating it’s all good. My second 50k race was extremely hot (30 C/90F) and to handle this I also chewed Nuun tabs in between aid stops. They are a little fizzy but I break them up small and chase them with water from my pack. This is not necessary if the weather is moderate but I always have some of the tabs on me just in case.
Finally, after the race you will likely want to have a few brews to celebrate your amazingness. Do it and enjoy them (I do!) but just follow up with water or electrolytes for a few days.
Super-size me, or not
Fuel is a key part to running ultras. It’s also a very personal choice and one that can change based on what’s available at aid stations and what you prefer to use as a runner. I like to stick with a mix of gels and real food. Prior to the race I don’t “carb-load” but the days leading up to the race I will choose pasta one night and eat rice another. I don’t eat red meat the week of the race but if you are someone who easily digests it then that’s up to you, I don’t, so I stay away from it. The morning of, I eat a protein shake with a banana and/or a bowl of cereal with Greek yogurt and field berries at least an hour before the race. In training runs I can run on an empty stomach but when I’m racing for 6+ hours I like to have a solid breakfast. In my pack I bring a mix of fuels including Clif blocks, Honeystinger chews and Gu or Vega gels. I also pack small packets of salt just in case there isn’t any at the aid stations. At the start line, I’ll have my first gel with water. I then wait until I’ve got at least 8k in before I eat more but again it’s all personal. As I go through the race I usually eat a gel about every hour to hour and a half. I don’t like to fill up on them exclusively but you may have a different experience. I like to stop or slow down enough to grab a quick bite at the aid stations. They will have way more food than your regular race and expect junkier food too. I usually skip the chips, pop, candy and donuts. There will be other choices like peanut butter and jam sandwiches, pretzels, fruit or potatoes and salt. Depending on how far apart they are I will take a ¼ sandwich, a potato to dip in salt and a few pretzels or some banana each time. Small portions work best for me and I have no troubles eating while running slowly. The best way to test your fuel is to take some time experimenting on your long runs but you will need more on race day. After the race I am never hungry and usually have to force myself to eat. What I’d really like is a recovery shake but I’ve yet to bring one! I usually grab a bite from whatever is being offered and it’s typically BBQ and salads. After an ultra you are at least 3000 calories down so you definitely need something but choose foods you are used to.
The running part is simple
You usually can’t full-on run an entire ultra. Most courses have steep uphills and technical sections that require walking or scrambling. That said, the way I run is to start out at trail pace which is about 20% slower than pavement pace. I run that way until the first major uphill and hold that pace until my breathing significantly changes, then I walk to save my legs and lungs. I run again until the next uphill or technical area. If you’ve trained the distance (my first I trained to 37k) you’ll be fine the entire time.
My basic motto is to just keep moving. Don’t stop and socialize, don’t sit between loops and don’t stall at the aid stations. Keep on truckin’ even if it’s at a snail pace. All stops are dead time.
If you can’t run naked…
Being comfortable is so important for running ultras. I’m always glued to the weather forecast for days before but I usually end up in the same outfit –shorts and a tank. I’m a bit of a lulu addict so I don’t stray far from them for clothing. I love that their clothes are made from moisture wicking fabrics and that they have useful features in their shorts. I wear ones that have gel pockets, vents, cinch-cord and inner shorts and they fit so well that I don’t feel them. I also love that their tanks don’t chafe me. I prefer to wear a basic tank and a great bra underneath. They sell tanks that have built-in bras but I like the flexibility to take a layer off if it’s too hot. I also love that they have so many fun colours and prints. I’ve been wearing their clothes for years and it always amazes me how their stuff washes up after a race. I’m not saying to wear all white or anything but I’ve definitely put their stuff to the test and been happy to see it come out clean. I’m sure that you have your favourite brand but the point is to make sure that you wear what is comfortable and that you’ve taken it on a test run.
Socks are another really important piece. I’ve run ultras in both no-show socks and tall compression socks. If the weather is hot I find less is more but I’ve got to be really sure that I’m going to be mostly on groomed trails before I ditch the compression socks. Compression socks are full of positive features. Right now you’re probably saying “but they are so freaking hot”. Well, yes they can be but most aren’t bad and the protection they offer far outweighs the heat. I wear tall compression socks up to 26C with full comfort since most brands use fibres that wick moisture away. Additionally, they keep my calves feeling fresh and tight and they shield me from undergrowth and ticks. Lately, I’ve been wearing Tiux socks and they’ve been great. They perform as well as my others from Nike, Saucony and Bauerfeind and are a way better price point. I’m really looking forward to seeing more designs and colours because who doesn’t love fun and functional socks right?!?
I’d love to say that there is an amazing must have trail shoe out there but just like road running, each person fits a different brand or style best. I love running in Saucony Peregrine trail shoes but I’ve also seen some great designs by Salomon and The North Face. The key here is to find something that fits well, has good tread and stability plus when it gets wet, dries fast. One race I ran was in 12k loops and each time I passed a wet section I got a soaker but by the time I got back again I was fully dry thanks to my shoe and sock combination. A fully waterproof shoe would be too sweaty and cause blisters so it’s really important to know that your shoe will withstand variable conditions and breathe.
The sun can be harsh so I’m usually wearing a hat. Some people prefer to run with a visor or sunglasses but I love hats. I’ve heard runners say that they get too hot but I choose mesh backs that have lots of air flow. Also, I like that I don’t need to wear sunglasses when I wear a hat. Running trails means that you are constantly experiencing different lighting and seeing roots and stones on the trail is really important to me. I don’t like having to shift between sunglasses on and off so a hat solves this problem.
The little things
There are also a few other items you’ll need along the way. Some races allow 50k runners to have a drop bag half-way or if you’re running a looped course you can stash one at the start/finish line. I’ve dropped a bag but in all honesty I don’t feel it’s imperative for a 50k unless you have some very variable weather. I have always been able to stash what I need for this distance in my pack. I cart along the regular medical items like Band-aids and Advil. I’ve only needed a Band-aid once but they are always good to have especially if the aid stations are spread out. I take Advil before and during every race due to a previous knee injury. Carrying it keeps me pain-free and also scares wildlife away. You can hear me from a mile away and I love that. I also carry a spare pair of socks in case there is a river crossing or a lot of wet sections but so far I’ve yet to need them. I also bring Body Glide which prevents chafing and blisters. They make small ones that are perfect for putting in my pack and I apply it to my thighs before I start and then if needed as I run. I’ll also throw in some small packets of salt. You will sweat a lot and I can tell if I’m low on sodium by how I feel (dizziness) and if my fingers are swelling. I carry the little packets because if I’m in between aid stations I can pop one of those nasty salt packs in my mouth and feel normal again. Now, there’s a lot of contradicting information on salt intake while running so I’ll let you decide if you think you need this but it works for me. Finally, a good GPS watch allows me to watch my pace and break down the race into smaller sections. I don’t think I’ve run a race yet where I’ve started it on time or remembered to stop it but at least it keeps me somewhat updated on my km splits.
See, you aren’t going to die running an ultra-marathon. It’s just a race that needs a little more thought and planning than some others you may have run. Your training and mindset prepare you to run the race but what happens out there on the trail is up to you. Running long distances is an adventure and if you have everything you need it’s not torture at all. You may even grow to love it.