So you're about to tackle your first ultra marathon
How to get maximum enjoyment out of your first journey down "the long trail"
Pace, gear, nutrition. Three causes of the most common mistakes made by new or aspiring ultra-marathoners when moving past the marathon distance for the first time.
Never try anything new on race day
If you haven't used it and tested it during your training, leave it at home on race day. That includes clothing, footwear, gear (i.e. head torches) and nutrition.
Your shoes play a pivotal role
Planning on wearing those fancy new pair of shoes for the first time on the day of your race? Don't. New shoes can easily give you blisters and various other lower leg pains and can easily ruin all the hard work you've put in to get to the start line.
Same goes for clothing, gear and nutrition
If you haven't used it and tested it in anger during your training, leave it at home. Avoid the temptation to sport that wonderful event t-shirt you scored in the goodie bag. Even the smallest inefficiencies in gear become amplified ten fold in an ultra event. Many times we fail to use race-day gear in training and small things like chafing and unwarranted fatigue, both mental and physical, become huge setbacks and will quickly ruin your chances of a successful event.
Carry ALL the mandatory gear and make sure it’s good quality
It's worth the investment and not just because it will be checked. It’s there for a reason.
During a recent race, we needed to use every single piece of mandatory gear. Bad weather had closed in and with a sub-zero wind-chill factor the temperature plummetted; many competitors were caught out and ended up being treated for hypothermia as they were under-prepared. If you're going to buy one expense piece having a good outer-most layer that keeps you warm and dry, like Kathmandu's Zeolite v2, can mean the difference between an awesome day out or one you'd much rather forget.
Practice packing and unpacking quickly
Ideally, train with a full pack with all mandatory gear and individually bag your items in waterproof bags. Use sealable bags like Sea to Summit Ultra-Sil bags or for a cheaper option GLAD Snap Lock Bags. They need to be sealable so you can squeeze the air out of them and keep the contents dry. Bagging them individually helps with packing but also means you can access things quickly. If you also label or colour code them this will help you to find what you're looking for when your brain is no longer working properly.
You don’t need to spend $100 on them, cloth gaiters are available if you want to be fancy otherwise mowing gaiters from Bunnings do the job just as well for a fraction of the price. You want to prevent rocks and dirt getting in your shoes because as the saying goes "It isn’t the mountains ahead to climb that wear you out; it’s the pebble in your shoe."
The items you're least likely to use
If you have to carry your lights and hi-vis vest with you from the start, which most ultra events now require, pack these at the bottom of your pack as you won’t need them until late. Nothing wrong with packing a lighter headlamp for the day though, if you have a bigger, chunkier headlamp that will be your main one at night which can collect this during the race.
Don’t wait for chafe, lube up early!
As the saying goes, "Prevention is better than a cure". Lots of products available including powders for socks that help dry feet out as well as prevent friction with product such as Body Glide, Lanacane or 3B Neat for those areas where chafing between skin surfaces and fabric is likely to occur; between the buttocks, between the legs and beneath the breasts and for the gents, nipples. Also remember the shoulders where your pack may rub and the lower area of your back where older packs can rub; the newer, more modern vests like Salomon Skin and Ultimate Direction shouldn’t do this. Don’t wait for chafe, lube up early!
Use layers to manage your heat
Use gloves early and at night when it’s getting cold. But also be careful of overheating, particularly at the start of your race – it may be cold early in the morning but unlikely to be cold enough to need your thermals on. You will heat up quickly. With event like Ultra Trail Australia the start can be congested for quite a while once you hit the single track, because of the number of runners in this event; it gets difficult to stop and disrobe out of your warm gear, and you’ll lose quite a few places if you need to do that in the early stages. If it’s cold, go with your waterproof jacket, buff and gloves as these can be packed away quickly and easily without the need to stop.
Wear headwear that you can adjust
A buff is perfect as you can use it to trap heat when you’re cold or let heat out when you’re warm. Can also use it on your wrist to mop sweat.
Mental strategies are key
Pack a change of shirt and socks for the mid-point... sure. However if everything is feeling great, socks and shoes aren’t rubbing, then consider not changing unless you absolutely need to and saving them for much later in the event. There is not much better feeling out there than a fresh pair of socks after 8 hours or so of wearing the same pair through mud, water and bush.
Don't just wing it on race day. That means being properly hydrated in the days leading up to the race and not just downing that bottle of electrolytes at the start line!
Before your race
Ideally, you should have tested this as part of your long distance training sessions to find what works best for you but decide in advance what you plan to eat before your event. As the golden rule states "Don't try anything new on Race Day"
During the race
This is a very individual thing but whatever works for you, do it regularly and frequently throughout the race. You'll begin the day feeling good and running strong, you'll be churning through those energy stores, so avoid not beginning early enough. At the first signs of a sour stomach and we tend to shy away from eating. This is the last thing you want to do. You can’t run when you aren’t fueling and hydrating.
Start slow and keep it steady
It's easy to get caught up in the excitement and go out too hard. Remember you have a journey ahead of you so try starting at a steady pace.
Stay relaxed and positive
Think back to the hard work you’ve put in to get there – all you have to do is keep putting one foot in front of the other until you cross that finish line. Listening to music helps some to refocus when things get a little tough for others, having someone to share those dark patches with is a better way to keep their spirits up so if you fall into stride with someone, ask how they're travelling!
Take a look around and enjoy the atmosphere. Remember that you signed up for this whole crazy thing in the first place. While you’re going to push yourself a little harder on race day, it’s not supposed to be torture! You've put in all the hard work getting to the start line, now's the time to enjoy the rewards that come with it.
Be the reason someone else smiles today!