So you’re going to run an ultra? Great, I did that, once, and I’m about to do it again. So stop reading if you’re looking for legitimate advice. This post is about some unsuspecting things that I wish I had thought of, or read, talked about, whatever, prior to completing the Cayuga Trails last year. It by no means applies to all ultras, but events similar in scope to what I did (50 trail miles, roughly 10,000 feet vertical gain/loss).
That “nothing new on race day” advice is whack
Obviously you shouldn’t be breaking in new shoes on race day. But if you’re running your first 50 miler then there’s a good chance that EVERYTHING will be new to you from a certain point (mile 26.3?) forward. I did not expect to eat handfuls of peanut M&Ms at the aid stations but I devoured them AND stuffed some in my pockets for later. And I drank soup broth. Had I ever done that during a race? No. Not even the night before. I ate what appealed to me about every 5 miles at the aid stations, and I ate a lot. The only advice I can give you here is just: practice eating lots of things while you run, ahead of time. I thought chia gels were my jam. Nope. Whole grain tortillas. Kind of. Nut butter? Closer. During that race I gobbled up salty potatoes after mile 30 and never looked back. This is of course all dependent on what is offered. Maybe the aid stations just have PB&J (I ate that too) or bananas, or some nuts. Or maybe you’re running a race where you have to carry your own food. Just make calculated risks. If it doesn’t appeal to you, don’t force feed yourself. But don’t skip food. Eat before you’re hungry, drink before you’re thirsty.
It’s not the mileage, dummy
I was so focused on running a lot last year that I didn’t run enough hills (this year it’s kind of the opposite, actually). But you know what? The giant ascents were never problematic. Feeling tired with the up up up? Walk…shuffle, just keep moving until the next aid station. It’s the downhills that took their toll on me, because walking those just isn’t an option. At mile 20 last year (after climbing 3500 feet and descending the same amount already) I noticed that every step going downhill was beginning to sting a bit, specifically in my hips and my knees. But you know what? That pain diminished on the flats and the climbs. Downhill is tricky. Again, practice this way ahead instead of, in my instance, the week before. I took tylenol before the race and again halfway through the race. No regrets.
Plan on taking it easy. Nope, even easier. Still too fast
I got lured into the CT50 during a whiskey party where I found myself in a room with a couple (literally, husband a wife) of serious trail runners who “suggested” that I should try a “real” race. I signed up the next day, but closer to the event I asked them for any tips. The tip (singular) that I received was to go slow. Super slow. When finishing is your goal, go even slower. It was sound advice that I still swear by, to this day. I’m notorious about starting too fast, and then losing a lot of steam halfway through. But that’s risky when you have to run a hilly 25 miles…and do it again. So I went slow, and it still wasn’t slow enough: my average pace on that second 25 mile loop increased two minutes! But I finished, so there’s that.
Water is you friend, all of it
I’m not talking about what you drink, that’s a no-brainer. I’m talking about the water you run through. If you’re lucky enough to have a water crossing in your race (or 8, like the CT50) enjoy it. Yes, your feet will feel significantly heavier for the next half mile, but the cool treat will sooth your muscles and joints. Savor that icy drink, it’s super refreshing and only slightly treacherous.
You may or may not need to relieve yourself at some point during this challenge. I’ll never forget following a guy during the Wineglass Marathon in 2012 who just slowed down a little bit and peed while he ran (discretely, but not entirely, of course). I can’t recommend that, but I also will say that if you have to go, go. Run into the woods (sorry woods) or to other nearest option. If you’re feeling lower abdominal discomfort with every step, that might be your cue. After you’ve taken care of business you’ll be glad you stopped (who cares how many seconds/minutes that “cost” you, you’d be running slower trying to hold it all in).
Some races have a ban on headphones altogether. I can understand that for safety reasons, but for social and experiential reasons you should consider running without them. I was that ass who ran with them last year and I regretted it. That said, because I was with so many people for the first 25 miles I didn’t even listen to anything and pulled them out of my ears. But by the time I was running alone (30 miles into it) I did put them back into my ears and cranked the music until I finished. It was a surprisingly social event, and blocking out the (or replacing them altogether with music) was a bad idea, in hindsight. It was my crutch last year, and I’m happy to drop it this time around and encourage you to do the same. ALSO, there were four times last year when I saw runners take wrong turns on the course, and if they were listening to loud music there was no way they could have heard my shouting at them to rejoin the trail. You’re welcome.
That’s all I’ve got. Have fun and by all means, share your tips with me on Twitter. I’m not sure that I’ll finish on Saturday, but that’s my favorite kind of challenge, apparently.