Following a blog posting that I read by fellow Running Bug blogger, RunDeeMc (love the name!) I thought I would share some of what I have pieced together in terms of planning for an ultramarathon.
Other than a real inclination to get out there and test yourself there are 4 main elements that I have identified on a personal level that are crucial to getting to the ultra finish line.
Just by way of a disclaimer, all of the following is based entirely on my own personal experience, that of a ‘plodder’ whose main aim is to finish. What works for me may not work for anyone or everyone else but my 4 main elements are sufficiently broad that they should be applicable to all in some way.
My 4 elements are as follows:
- PMA (Positive Mental Attitude)
It stands to reason that you need to put the miles in to be properly prepared for an ultramarathon. If you are anything like me then you will have had a less than athletic past and, as such, your ultra progress will be down to sheer hard work, stubbornness and, as some of my friends and family would say, stupidity! It’s something that you will likely experience as an ultra runner – people do tend to think you are nuts, especially when it comes down to discussions of mileage, time spent training and injuries and niggles.
As I have found to my cost, you will not perform to the best of your ability if you turn up to an event having only run a fraction of the overall completion distance. I found this out at the 2011 D33, a 33 mile ultra. Up until the 18 mile point I was doing great and was looking at taking an hour off of my PB time from the 2010 D33. At mile 18, as the temperature crept up, my race fell apart and I barely improved on my 2010 time (5 minutes off). Coincidentally, in the run up to the race I had managed only 1 long run – of 18 miles! Retrospectively, hardly surprising that things did not go to plan!
Where I live is remarkably flat. As a non driver (I really should learn to drive!) I am limited by what surrounds me when it comes to training (other than those times where my wife and/or friends drive me to hillier surrounds). Despite logging some serious mileage in the run up to the 2010 Montane Highland Fling (53 miles along the lower portion of the West Highland Way), I was not training specifically enough for the course. Not only was the terrain often a lot rougher underfoot than I had trained on. It was also considerably hillier. As a result, again with unseasonably high temperatures, I found myself near to meltdown by the time I came down off of the main climb in the run (Conic Hill, approx 1150 feet). By mile 28 I was a DNF (Did Not Finish) – My first and to date only DNF but one that haunted me regardless. My training for the 2011 Montane Highland Fling involved a lot more specific hill training and, despite even warmer conditions, I came off of Conic Hill in a far better state and went on to complete the race.
A final word about training: Once you have built up a good base and have got the legs used to running long distances, don’t let all the hard work go to waste. Don’t kid yourself that your fitness will last the winter without a good helping hand along the way and, perhaps worst of all, don’t kid yourself that your endurance fitness will continue to hang around just because you are ‘still putting the miles in’ when your mileage is in fact as a result of lots and lots of short runs. Regardless of the weather/work/family/any other constraints, you need to find the time to get out there and keep up the long run endurance.
How do I know this? After the long hard slog of the 2010 ultra season, I ran the Loch Ness Marathon in October as my last race of the year and then, in the absence of a goal, lost direction! I am determined that I will not repeat this as the feeling of starting over is not one that I intend to repeat.
This aspect was made all the more difficult for me because I hate eating and running. On the one hand you need to avoid the situation where your stomach is overly full or sloshing around from having taken on too much fluid. However, you also need to eat and drink enough to keep you healthy and moving.
My first ultramarathon was the 2010 D33. When I crossed the line I had the most unusual feeling. You may have seen one of those cartoons where the character gets shot with a cannonball and it goes right through them, leaving them staring down at this huge space with the background showing through. That is the only possible way that I can describe how I felt. All I could feel was this vast expanse where my stomach was.
Emptying my bag it was all too clear what had contributed to this. I had an array of nutrition, mostly gels and bars, all of which had gone untouched! The only thing worse than not taking enough food with you is surely carrying it all around with you!
Since then I have made a point of working out a nutrition strategy, working out approximately what I should have taken onboard in terms of food and drink and by what stage in the race. If you are fortunate enough to be in a race that makes use of drop bags, it is advisable to spend some time planning what you will put in to each one.
I would also suggest putting in a variety of things as you just never know what you will want to eat and/or drink. Ultra forums are full of all kinds of strange drop bag contents. You will likely have a lot of waste, especially until you work out what works for you, but it is better to have an element of wastage than to have too little food and/or drink. Most drop stations will add whatever you leave to the large pile of whatever everyone else has left which is then a free for all to anyone arriving at that aid station. Occasionally you may even get a chance to reclaim the contents of your bag after the race has finished though this is can be a nightmare for organisers to sort out and, thus, is less frequent.
One thing I would suggest you steer clear of is banana sandwiches and especially when you have to make them the day before. Back in the 2010 Fling these were a staple of my drop bags and, I have to say, there is nothing more unattractive than a day old, warm, banana sandwich, especially when the banana is far from yellow! I certainly couldn’t stomach it on the day.
I have seen myself eating everything from small portions of pasta to salted boiled potatoes, energy bars, gels, fruit and nut trail mix and bananas.
Note that some people take on very little at the aid stations whereas others will pack in quite a lot of food. I now fall in to the latter category as, being of a lager build, I do find that I need to ‘feed my body’ and, since I adopted this approach, my enjoyment of events has improved considerably.
In terms of what you drink, I would suggest that you separate your salt intake from your fluid intake. You need to avoid hyponatremia (an electrolyte disturbance in which the sodium concentration in the serum is lower than normal). Particularly on hotter days or when your exertion levels are considerably higher than normal, it may be difficult to keep your body’s sodium concentration at a good level using drinks alone.
This happened to me at the 2010 Highland Fling. Conscious that I was sweating buckets because of exertion and heat, I was drinking more and more to stay hydrated. However, large amounts of water and/or sports drink will often not provide enough sodium to replace what has been lost through sweating. As I found that day, the huge fluid intake simply left me with a stomach that was sloshing around as I ran. After my D.N.F. I did some more research and, at this point, discovered Succeed S!Caps to help restore my body to balance. Using S!Caps, taking 1 S!Cap approximately every hour, let me focus on drinking an amount that felt comfortable for the conditions.
At this point I realise that the above has turned into something of an ultra read and, as such, I will save points 3 and 4 for my next posting.