Table of Contents
- What are Extreme Ultra Marathons
- Different formats
- Point to point races
- Stage Races
I am only writing this (LittleFatWelshman) as I have been asked by a number of people to do so. I certainly don’t profess to being the font of all (or even much) knowledge, but I suppose along the way of competing in some seriously nutty races I have learnt a few things.
What are Extreme Ultra Marathons
These monsters come in all shapes and sizes. An ultra marathon is defined somewhere as any race that goes beyond the established distance of 26.2 miles for the marathon. For the purpose of this guide I am working on the basis that an EXTREME Ultra Marathon is in excess of 100 miles and takes place where climatic conditions, in whatever form, can be considered extreme - ie either scorching hot, brass monkeys cold, high altitude or very humid. Another factor that is usually associated with these types of races is the terrain wont be your smooth polished road or race track - but will undoubtedly be in the wilderness along infrequently used paths - or better still no paths at all. Most often these races (but not all) require the athlete to be self sufficient, resulting in the racer carrying all spare clothing, sleeping kit and most important of all food.
Taking the above factors into account, these races can be further broken down into 2 formats
1. Point to point races - where the race is over a set distance and it is up to the racer to get from start to finish as quick as possible. Examples of such races are
The Yukon Arctic Ultra 300 mile and 100 mile
The Desert Cup
2. Stage Races - where each day, over a period of days, the athlete races a set distance - for example
The Jungle Marathon
Marathon des Sables
Marathon of Britain
The training and to a degree the preparation for these variations can differ subtly but significantly. I will address the differences by giving my views of the preparation required for both.
Point to point races
These are my favourite as these type of races are every bit as much a mental challenge as they are physical. There is also the other variable which is often overlooked by novice racer and that is your systems - I will explain this a bit more in a minute.
NOTE:——Be physically fit——- Be Mentally fit——- Have your systems in order.
I am of the opinion that physical fitness is the least of most racers problems in tackling an extreme ultra marathon. If you have entered the race you will undoubtedly already be physically fit (the alternative being mentally nuts). However, I have had great fun watching some superbly fit athletes racing off the start line only to be passed by a little fat Welshman in the latter stages of a race.
Having said that, you cant be too complacent and some training is necessary. Endurance is the fundamental block required and I generally gauge this by hours on your feet. Most budding ultra racers will be coming from a marathon background and will be well versed in the Sunday long slow distance (LSD) which is vital for a personally successful marathon race. Well.. LSD takes on a whole new meaning when training for an extreme ultra. A typical long run (but by no means the longest) in preparation for something like the Yukon race will be 8-10 hours over the hills in boggy conditions carrying a light pack on your back. The light pack will typically comprise a camelback with some food, warm spare clothing, waterproofs and a torch. You want to push each part of the LSD - L..be out there for a long time S..go slow and steady, 3 mph is typical, 4 mph would be considered good going D..distance should be looking for significant build up of distance over time - but 40 milers a day over the weekend ought to be achieved as you get nearer to your race.
This will undoubtedly run hand in hand with the physical training and to a degree with the systems element covered below. In basic terms you have got to be mentally prepared to suffer - and to suffer BIG time. The biggest mental barrier in this type of race is the solitude - it is not uncommon in Winter races to go days without seeing human life and a good way to prepare for this is to go running for hours across the hills or through the woods in the middle of the night. You also need to be mentally prepared to deal with undoubted trials that present themselves during a race - whether these be things such as blisters, hypothermia, dehydration or any of the other million things that can go wrong during a race. I believe the only way to prepare yourself for distance mentally is to get out on the mountains (as suggested above) and when the going gets tough just keep going for that extra 2-3 hours. It bloody hurts but it is your mental attitude that will carry you through and it is your mental strength that is being boosted from doing this.
With regards to the trials that will present themselves, spend as much time considering what type of problems will present themselves and go through the scenario time and time again in your head. For instance, if doing a winter race - what do you do if you fall through the ice into the water below?? In the desert what are you going to do to keep the sand out of your shoes?? In all races what are you going to do if your shoe laces break?? The list is endless but the more you have covered in your mind prior to going to the race the better prepared you will be. This will mean a lot of sleepless nights while you toss and turn thinking about these situations - but that’s not a problem (look at it as preparation for the sleep deprivation). The better prepared you are the stronger mentally you will be. This leads me onto the 3 rd aspect for preparing for the race.
There is probably a better description for this section - but what I mean by systems is that you must be well prepared prior to the race for all situations that might logically present themselves. There are a multitude of systems that need considering such as..
a) Racing schedule - how long do you want to go at a time?... how long do you want to rest at a time?.... how much do you want to run?
In preparing your racing schedule you will need to consider the terrain, the distance, the start time of the race and perhaps the most important - the distance between the checkpoints. Next you will need to break these items down ...
How long at a time you want to go depends a lot on how your training has gone. Over a multi-day race it is important to balance the periods on your feet and the periods of rest in between. You will no doubt find what is your optimum time on your feet is during training. I know that I can go for up to 18 hours without stopping (Jordan 2002) but then there is a payback with a much slower following section. With this knowledge in mind I now know for my optimum performance that I can manage 12 hours comfortable at 3½ mph then have between 2 and 4 hours rest and can then repeat the process again and again. Get to know your pace and your comfortable time on your feet and prepare to race accordingly.
How long do you want to rest at a time will depend on where you are in a race. Bear in mind that different length rests will offer different opportunities. A short rest of a couple hours may only offer you enough time to sleep for 1½ hours and perhaps sort your feet out. A longer rest will allow you to obviously sleep for a lot longer, will allow you to get perhaps 2 meals in your body (1 before a sleep and one after) and will give you ample time to sort you kit and your body out. This really isn’t rocket science but I strongly recommend you consider what you are trying to achieve when you stop and when you want to stop. If you don’t have a plan in mind it is very easy to make errors such as stopping earlier than is necessary, or not getting enough food inside you, or one of a hundred other things.
Finally in preparing your schedule you obviously must have regard for where the checkpoints are and what you want out of the checkpoints. Many racers use the checkpoints as an opportunity to have a rest. I have in some races done the exact opposite - resting in peace and quiet a few miles either before or after a checkpoint rather than stopping at a checkpoint where I know it is going to be both busy and noisy and where I wont be able to make the most of a good rest. Giving prior thought to this aspect may give you an edge over your rivals.
b) Sleeping systems - It is highly likely that on a multi day race you will need to sleep at some time. Don’t wait until you get to the race to think about how you are going to set up your sleeping system. For example - in desert races it is a waste of time to have your sleeping bag at the bottom of your pack underneath your spare clothes. Keep things simple and in order - the simple task of getting a sleeping bag and mattress out when you are knackered can become incredible taxing - think about it before you leave home, you wont regret it. The sleeping system you adopt in the Winter races can literally be the difference between life and death. In training for the Yukon in 2003 I went to Finland for some training with 2 friends and this became very evident when we stopped for an overnight bivvy. My one friend would have died had she been on her own - she hadn’t got her sleeping system in order and when we came to stop by the time she had her sleeping bag out of her rucksack (3 minutes) she was quickly coming down with hypothermia and was unable to function on her own.
c) Eating - I will touch on food types in a bit more detail later on, but in relation to this section you want to consider when and how you are going to eat. There are two principle times that have a bearing on what you can eat. The first is to eat on the move. Basically the type of food that can be considered here is ready made food such as sweets, chocolates etc. These foods can be easily stored handily around your body and I would strongly recommend a variety - both sweet and savoury. I tend to use a bumbag (with the pouch to the front) which stores my nibbles.
The second type of food is that which can be prepared when you have stopped. Typically and very much for moral purposes I would recommend hot food. But don’t wait until you get out into the arena to find out that your stove melts into the snow when it gets hot - think the whole process through, think about sheltering the stove, think about the fuel you will be using, bear in mind that certain fuels will be hard to obtain in certain countries etc etc.
If you have planned you race well (see a. above) you can work out a daily menu with all your nibbles pre packed and handy and just your daily hot meals to hand.
These type of races are generally better suited to the racing snakes. Typical stages might be 23 miles long - but often races include a long stage of say 50+ miles for which it is usual to have 2 days to cover. After each days race the competitors have a long time to rest and recover and which gives them ample time to replenish there energy and to properly attend to there aches and pains. This doesn’t mean that these races are any easier - it just means that the emphasis is different and preparation will be different. Much of what I have said above is relevant here - but the principle differences are…
In anticipation that again a competitor new to this type of race will be coming from a Marathon background the change in training wont be quite so different as it for the point to point racing described above. Because the distances are set daily and typically are about 23 miles each it is quite sensible to maintain a higher element of running in your training - but something like 5mph is perfectly fast enough for the majority. However, bear in mind that during the race you will be doing about a marathon a day make sure you do quite a number of hard runs back to back ie on a Saturday and then again on a Sunday. Train with a pack on your back if the race you have entered is self sufficient but DON’T start training with 30lbs on your back. Start with just a rucksack and a water bottle and build up over a number of months. For something like the Marathon des Sables it is likely that you will be carrying about 25 lbs on your back at the start of the race (drops dramatically as your food is consumed over the week). Still try to get out on some inhospitable terrain such as mountains - this will better prepare you for the uneven surface you will encounter in whatever race you do - and secondly this type of terrain is far more forgiving on your joints… And thirdly it is shit boring to trudge around the roads day in day out - you might as well enjoy your surroundings whilst training.
Typically this type of race isn’t quite so mentally taxing. It is unlikely that you will have to endure the solitude to any great degree - as each day the whole race gathers up again and typically each stage might only be 6-8 hours long (often a lot shorter). However, you will suffer pain - and a strong mental attitude can carry you through this. As stated earlier I recommend you get out on some long stinking hard runs and when it gets tough - go on for 2-3 hours.
Many of these races last for a week and even though you will have longer races it is important that you are prepared to give the race your best shot.
Bear in mind the following.
Racing schedule - often these races will have checkpoints close together at about 10km (6 mile distances). You need to consider whether you intend to stop at each checkpoint or whether you are going to race through. A combination is often a good idea. However, without killing yourself do consider that a typical days race will only last 6 hours or so - so basically pull your finger out and go for it. The tortoise and the Hare method does work but not quite so effectively as it does for point to point races. You will NOT be as fast as you are at home - in the MdS 5km an hour is a good pace for most people.
Sleeping systems - not so vital in this type of race but instead of bearing in mind the speed in which you prepare you sleeping system you need to consider the most effective way of staying warm and comfortable for the longer period. Consider whether you will need to carry a Thermalite or Karrimat or would rather sacrifice the weight and sleep directly on the ground. Both methods have there merits - it’s a personal choice. Do you need to carry extra clothing to keep warm - its too late to consider this once you are out there.
Eating - Loads more time to prepare you food but you will still need some (but far less) nibbles for the running sections. Consider again your heating system whether it be gas, colemans, hexamine or whatever. Know how your system works and calculate how much fuel will be needed and take just enough. Too much fuel is extra weight and if you haven’t tried out your system before the race you are quite likely to take far far far too much.
As with all the above, I speak from personal experience and in many cases this will differ from what the “experts” tell you. Personally I cant stand these sports energy bars and gels - they taste crap. When you are shattered after say 60 miles your taste buds become very particular and the last thing you need is crap tasting food. Whilst on the run I tend to carry handy and tasty nibbles such as m & m’s, Cashew Nuts, Star Bars, Milk coated almonds, Jellied sweets, Peanuts - in fact anything that I can steadily stuff into my mouth - a lot of people like dried fruit - if you like it go for it. But where a lot of novice racers go wrong - is they sucked into the myth that energy bars and gels will make them super human - if you like them use them but if you have doubts stick to a bar of chocolate or something similar - your taste buds will thank you. I try to pick these snack foods with high fat and calorie counts - you will need the energy - trust me.
When you stop make sure whatever food you intend using has been pre-tested. You will have to race as light as possible which will mean you will be no doubt using dehydrated food. Some of this food is good - but a lot is horrible. Try them out before you go and remember you will be hungry so you might well need twice the food. Also bear in mind that some of this food requires boiling in a pan - avoid these as the pan is extra weight to carry and will need cleaning - go for the meals that hydrate in their own bags.
Energy drinks in my opinion can be useful. Most of the time I need to dilute them to ½ the concentration recommended by the manufacturers. But if you do intend using energy drinks keep a separate bottle for them - DO NOT USE THEM IN A CAMELBACK OR SIMILAR IN A RACE. The reason for this last statement being in capitals is because of the change in your taste buds - if you do become sick of the taste you camelback will have become tainted with the taste and it really puts you off drinking and consequently dehydration isn’t far away (Iditasport 2002)