The ultra race day

For a trail race, upload the GPX file of the course onto your watch. Know how to access the map. Carry a copy of the course description (preferably with elevation profile).

Be forewarned that on race day you may get to a stage when regular, menial everyday tasks become a real mind battle. For example, you’ll look down and your shoe lace will be undone. Normally, one bends over, ties it and keep moving forward. But not when you are tired and incapable of reasoning. You’ll look at it, wonder why it looks different from the other one, and then keep moving. A few minutes later you’ll go – oh, of course, that needs to be tied. And then it may take you another ½ hour before you actually DO IT.

To get around the ‘brain fog’ you may experience, have a very specific race plan to keep you on track – especially with regards to your hydration and nutrition. You’ll get to an aid station and go, I’m not hungry, it doesn’t matter. It does. EAT!!! There’s no debating with your tired mind, stick to what you decided you are going to do. You can thank yourself later for being so well prepared.

Dealing with obstacles also becomes more manageable if you’ve spent time visualise what you will do under various situations in the the race before it actually happens.

Here are some more tips:

  • Guard against heading off too quickly. It’s going to be a long day.

  • Walk steep hills, especially in the first half. Instead of running, power walk. You won't lose much time, and you will conserve valuable energy for later.

  • Breathe. If you are huffing and puffing, you are going too fast. Slow down and relax.

  • If somebody passes you, let them go. Don't race them. Odds are you will see them again later.

  • Remember to eat and drink like you did in training.

  • Have a mantra. You will need it.

  • Don't think about the whole distance. Run from aid station to aid station.

  • Walk through the checkpoints. Chat with the volunteers. It will pick you up. Guard against sitting down and taking more time than you need to. Get in and get out.

  • At some point, it's going to start to hurt. Live with it and think about what a great day it is to be outside – you could be at home with FOMO.

Enlist family or friends to be your support crew at your race. They can meet you at designated points and provide you with moral support, food, drinks, a change of socks, some lubricant, etc. But ALWAYS assume you will NOT see your support crew and plan accordingly. On my first Comrades Marathon (2013), my sister, Henrietta, and brother in law, Hardus, were supposed to meet me at the ½ way point, but they were not there. They couldn’t get in due to road closures. They managed to find a spot about 15 kilometres further up the road.

This photo shows the relief on my face as I reach out to give my sister (the best support crew member in the world) a hug when I finally caught up with them.

If it’s very hot and you are doing a “run/walk” method for your race, run in the sun and walk in the shade.

If you don’t have a support crew, you may be able to leave a change of clothes at a checkpoint, especially if your race runs into the night. You do NOT want to go into the night with wet clothing. In my 12 years of ultra-running I’ve only once changed my socks and race clothes during a race. On my long runs I will sometimes stop in at home to have a quick shower and put on a fresh set of running gear, some lubricant and underarm deodorant – it feels fantastic.

You must put into practice all the good positive talk you tried out during your training. Focus on the good things – like someone picking up your water bottle if you drop it, or the rainforest is providing beautiful shade on a hot humid tropical morning. Stay positive and smile – even if you don’t feel like doing it.

Remember your running form – is your cadence up? Drop those shoulders, shake out your hands. Lift your arms above your head and rest your arms every so often. Pick something like an aid station or your watch beeping every kilometre to remind yourself to check your running form. This will also keep you busy for ages on the ultra. What else are you going to do?

Need to go to the toilet? Go as soon as you find a suitable spot. It’s unlikely you are going to come across a toilet any time soon if you are on a trail run.

Don't waste time taking your shoes off to cross creeks. Run through the creeks and through mud. You can have a shower at the finish – or a dip in the ocean or local creek. Test your shoes and socks during your training runs to ensure you are happy with them. Trail shoes are often designed to let the water run straight out again. A thin pair of socks will dry quickly. Toe socks will help reduce blisters.

The Comrades motto for those aiming to finish the race is: ‘Go slow, then go slower’. With trail runs, I recommend you do just that. But the ‘go slow’ is not fart-arsing around. You need to focus and get as many miles under you belt as you can, as later you will be tired and you will NOT be able to go any faster. There’s no ‘saving yourself for later’. All you will do by starting out too slow is to have an even longer day than what you needed to. To put it another way, if you start slow, you will be going slower later. If you start faster, you will also be going slower later – but you will have gained a few miles and an hour or two. Apply the negative splits principle where you aim for the first half of the race to be quicker than the second. This may also be possible if the weather is cooler in the morning. As the day progresses and it gets hotter, you will slow down.

One of the biggest lessons I’ve learnt on my long runs and ultras is that you go through good patches and bad patches. But if you keep your nutrition and hydration up, you come out of the bad patches. The interesting thing is that you may think this is something only happening to YOU. It’s not, trust me, everyone has good and bad patches during the race. Hang in, you can do it. If you are with a running buddy, they will pull you through. Otherwise chat to other runners and to encourage them. If you do something to take the focus off your own problems you’ll find you actually forget about it all together. For a while at least.

Something else that could happen on race day is that you may hallucinate. This happened to me on my first ultra and it took me by complete surprise. Not only because I couldn’t understand why I was seeing things that weren’t there, but also because I had never hallucinated prior to this experience. Fortunately for me, I saw mundane, trivial things – a hiking boot on the trail that ended up being a tree root, a red lantern in the bush that ended up being leaves and twigs. And I saw two Kokoda porters with a map - that was very nice, as I wasn’t sure if I was on the right track. Unfortunately, they were not really there. So be aware that when you get really tired, you will probably see things that are not there. It’s your tired brain seeing things and ‘filling in’ your surroundings wrongly. On that same race Larry also hallucinated – only he saw entire villages filled with people. Wow!

A question I get asked quite often from perplexed people trying to visualise just WHY I would choose to run in the bush for hours on end all day long is: ‘What do you do while you are out there?’ If I’m with someone else, that’s easy, as I tend to tell stories – mostly about running. You are going slow enough to have lengthy conversations, and it definitely takes your mind off what you are doing. You’ll quickly be able to tell who’s up for a chat and who you need to leave alone. If you do choose to chat to others, remember, they may be having a bad day and struggling. Don’t take people’s comments or behaviour on race day as a personal attack against you. People behave differently from normal when they are tired. Many runners have, after a race, come up to me to thank me for talking to them, and apologised for not being as talkative themselves. They appreciate having someone to listen to, as it takes their mind of what is happening (the pain, for example), and pulls them along. I will chat to myself, if there is no one around. I’m sure that will look very strange to someone who happens to pass by – unless they are another ultra-runner. Then I’m sure they understand perfectly.

If on my own I do lots of ‘body scans’. I start at my head and work down my body to ensure I have good running form and cadence. I also think about what I’m going to do at the next water stop or checkpoint. I compile a short list and then I number everything so that when I get to the water stop or checkpoint I can do it. It doesn’t work, of course, and I’ve walked away from checkpoints and forgotten to stock up on water or empty my pockets of rubbish! Yes, sometimes there are only two things on my list. I put a list into my drop bag that I collect at the checkpoint so I can check off what I need to do. As race director these days, I ask my volunteers to make a point of reminding runners to check their drop bag, fill up their water, etc.

The other thing I do when out there on my own is count. This is REALLY hard when you are tired, so it keeps me pretty busy. I work out how far I’ve gone, how far it is to the next aid stations, and how far to the finish. It takes me about a ½ hour to work all of this out – and by that time I’m at the next water stop, and I start over again. Funny, I know, but it does keep me occupied for hours.

You can also think about what your family and friends are up to. Each time I ran over a mat that recorded my time and race position in Comrades, I was wondering if Larry back in Australia was tracking where I was. For the bigger races, there may be TV cameras around and people stop for their few minutes of fame. While you are running you can work out the perfect speech you will give in the 10 or 15 seconds you have.

You can send text messages and Facebook updates to your mates. I tend to focus on getting my run out of the way, and I just shake my head when I pass people along the way doing this! You can of course do this in your head.

You can think about longer and harder races you want to do. This is a great motivator and puts your current event in perspective of what else you could have a go at. You can do it. You have to do it.

Thank the volunteers. Be polite. If you have a problem with the race, sort it out with the race director later. The poor volunteer is not the person to abuse. Without them the race will NOT be possible. If you do have a problem with the race, also consider that the race organisers have more than likely done the best job they could – and that is weeks, and often months, of work in preparation for the event. A thank you will go a long way, with some positive feedback on where things can be improved.

And finally – NEVER give up. If you are sick or you feel you have not had enough time to train properly for your race, DON’T start! But don’t pack it in once you get going. You WILL regret it afterwards, and it’s a long year to wait for the race to come around again. You will go through bad patches, you’ll come through it. Keep moving forward.

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