You’ve put in the training, and have handled the logistics sufficiently to stand on the start line. Now, try to get the most out of the opportunity and run well. No matter the race distance, if you go hard, embrace the fact that it will hurt a whole lot. The sooner you accept that, the better. Here are some tips to make sure you’re prepared for whatever your next race throws at you.
Pacing and Hills: If the race is 10K or less, you can go out hard and attack hills; your pace at this distance means you’ll be maxed out and suffering either way. If it’s longer—10 miles to the marathon—hold back a bit and stay relaxed. Consider walking hills if you’re close to redlining; managing your effort and recovering when the terrain gives you a chance (on flat and downhill sections) will be key to running strong throughout.
Nutrition and Hydration: Generally, you only need to replenish calories if you’re running 90 minutes or longer—fairly rare for shorter races, but quite normal for distances of 10 miles or longer. You won’t be out there all day, so you don’t have to take the early-and-often approach to eating that you would in ultras; besides, the harder effort means your stomach is more likely to get upset.
If you need calories, keep it simple—gels, if you can stomach them, or liquid calories—and be sure to hydrate a bit throughout. You don’t want water sloshing around in your stomach, but even slight dehydration can lead to a measurable decrease in performance.
50K, 50 miles, and 100K
Here’s the short version: everyone feels good early in an ultra. You should! But there’s a reason these distances get their own section. The reason ultras are tough is because of what happens later. You can ward off fatigue, the dreaded bonk and low spirits if you take care of a few things early on and maintain them throughout.
Start slow. The adage in ultras goes that if you feel like you’re working hard early in the race, you’re going too fast. It’s tempting to burst off the line when you’re a tightly wound ball of well-tapered fitness, but remember you’ve got a long day ahead of you.
Power hike. For most people, ultras will involve at least some walking to preserve energy and keep heart rate at a manageable level. At the very least, a good starting point is to avoid running up hills, even early on, when you might have plenty of spring. (You won’t have that spring the whole race, guaranteed.) Put your hands on your knees and use your whole body to push. This takes some of the strain off your legs, and keeps your heart rate from spiking too much. Go slow and steady.
Hills, continued. For longer, more sustained hills, consider alternating running and hiking in order to save some time. When running uphill, stay relaxed, keep your body upright and keep a high cadence. If possible, try to avoid eating or drinking while moving uphill, as it can disrupt your breathing.
Nutrition and hydration. This is simple: eat before you’re hungry, and drink before you’re thirsty. If you’re going to be out there all day, you’re going to build significant calorie and fluid deficits; the more your stomach can handle, the better you’re going to feel in the race’s late stages.
A good rule to follow is consuming 100 calories every 30 minutes, washed down with water. (In addition to causing dehydration, insufficient water consumption can prevent your stomach from absorbing calories, leading to low energy and upset stomach, a vicious cycle that can end your race.) You can round that out with food from aid stations and/or liquid calories, between 200 to 400 calories an hour, depending on what your stomach is capable of handling.
Dial in your nutritional technique on long training runs. Some runners can consume nothing but GU and water for a 100-miler; others require solid foods to keep their stomach functioning. The specifics are highly individualized, but ultrarunners universally need to consume significant calories to avoid depleting their glycogen stores and suffering from the physically and mentally debilitating state of low blood sugar known as “the bonk.”
Low patches. In ultras, there’s no getting around it: low points will happen. Assess what could be wrong—are you low on calories or hydration? Would changing out of your wet socks improve your mood? Or are you just, you know, really tired and hurting?
If it’s the latter, try to break the race by aid stations. Just make it to the next one; chat with some volunteers and eat some food. You’ll probably feel better after that. If all else fails, just ask yourself: where would you rather be? What would you rather be doing right then? Often, you’ll realize that a bad day on trails is better than a good day elsewhere.
When to drop. You may be tempted to drop at multiple points during an ultra. But there’s no shame in a DNF, especially when there’s legitimate need for it. If you’ve sustained an acute injury—a badly twisted ankle, broken bone or open wound—that could endanger your running health in the long run. If a sore spot gets noticeably worse, it is likely not mere soreness from the distance.
Volunteers and race officials may also elect to pull you from the race if you are exhibiting signs of severe medical conditions, such as slurred speech and confusion, or symptoms of hypothermia. This can be disheartening, but is usually for the best.
If you drop out, always remember to alert volunteers or race officials, so a search party is not launched when you fail to show up to the next aid station or the finish line. And remember, you’d rather be able to line up at the next start line than push too hard to make it to one finish line.
100 Miles (and Beyond)
The really, really big ones. So much can go wrong! But so much can also go right, and the more you prepare for the unexpected, the greater your chances of a lot more going right.
Time on your feet. 100 miles might well take more than 24 hours. Train accordingly, paying attention not only to distance covered but also to time spent on your feet, particularly in the dark, and/or when you’re already tired.
Overnight running. Make sure you have a headlamp and extra batteries, and expect to move slower in the dark than you did during the day.
Hallucinations. It is perfectly normal, when you’ve been running for 20 hours, to look at a tree stump and see a face staring at you, or to see your pacer’s shadow jump and imagine a cougar bearing down on you. These are harmless, but it’s sure nice to have a pacer with you when it happens.
Crews and pacers. They are more of a necessity at this distance, especially since a pacer will not only keep you moving, but also keep you on the trail and assess your mental state in the late sections of the race. They can also help you keep the mood light, if that’s your thing.
Changing conditions. If you’re on the trail all day, conditions and weather might change drastically throughout the race. Be sure to have a variety of layers and accessories for different conditions and in case you get lost and have to hunker down.
Come in fresh. It’s better to be slightly undertrained than super-fit for a 100-miler, if being super-fit means you’re flirting with injury. Any nagging issues will almost certainly come to the fore during a 100-mile run.
Address problems early. Things like blisters and chafing are annoying at most distances, but can be fatal to your 100-miler. Keep your socks dry; change your shoes; use that BodyGlide; apply K-Tape to problem areas; eat early and often.
Have fun. And remember—you signed up for this.