Don’t plan, just prepare
For most ultras there’s usually a fair amount of homework to do – adjusting training for the race course and profile, required gear and sometimes travel. From where I’m standing however, there’s a huge difference between preparation and planning. Getting that line wrong can set you up for a less enjoyable experience and sometimes even failure.
A preparation phase would include the following, ahead of time …
Long / medium term
* Travel plans – flights, transfers, accommodation and also transport for race departure and finish.
* Race profile specifics such as terrain, altitude changes, medium altitude, distance and available aid stations.
* Expected weather conditions which affects shoes, clothing, food and water consumption and pace estimation.
* Adjusting training blocks for the profile, weather and altitude.
* Arranging mandatory gear ahead of time. I live on an island with limited stock and generally when ordering something online, it’s best to do so well ahead of time to account for delays and possible returns of clothing of incorrect size.
* Food, water and isotonic drinks. This will vary a lot according to weather conditions. I usually try to book an apartment close to a supermarket or fresh produce. Also remember sometimes thousands of athletes show up at locations with limited sport drink supplies etc. – buy early!
* Dorsal / bib collection as well as getting up to speed with race organisation through briefings, usually the day prior.
* Mandatory gear – get your bag ready. Check it. Check it again.
Note that none of these steps are specific to you or someone else – everyone’s going through these same steps. Therefore it’s preparation, not planning …
Getting real with the numbers, let’s say you’d be out running for 14 hours. That’s the equivalent of 2 full workdays. Now, what’s your success rate of having 2 days at work playing itself out meticulously to that plan and agenda you setup 3 days ago? I’d generally consider running an ultra as having a lot more risk factors that would skew even the best of plans:
* Variable terrain
* Weather conditions (micro climates)
* Perceived distance between aid stations
* Unexpected obstacles like animals, rivers etc.
* Organisation failure at departure, aid stations, control and bag checks.
* Technology failure – hear rate strap, headlamp and GPS watch.
* Blisters, dehydration, upset stomach and other medical conditions
* Navigational errors – doing more than or less than a course, with possible disqualification.
And much much more. Race strategy therefore should always be very loose – rough estimates for timing, placing, expected food consumption etc. Expect everything, yet nothing at all. Sh*t happens.
Reaction and attitude
Your reaction to and attitude towards the low points ultimately determines your success. During races, as with life, good moments don’t last very long and thankfully the bad ones also won’t 🙂 You need the one to identify and appreciate the other.
Critical for getting past a bad spot is to stop obsessing about how and why it happened. “Why the $%#& did I forget to take water there?“, “Dammit, my watch is gone – I’m flying blind!“, “Haven’t seen a signal for 400m, I’m lost!“, “Stupid rock. Twisted my ankle, my shoe don’t even fit!!!”
What now? Or “E agora?” as we say in Portuguese. The only way out is through and sometimes the obstacle is the course.
Focus on next steps. Or catching up with another runner for help. The next corner. Or the next aid station. Go with the flow, fix your attitude. Take some risks, but let them be calculated. Us ultra runners are a special kind of stupid – the pain threshold is usually high and there’s a big chance of permanent damage in some situations. Be stupid, but not totally irresponsible and crazy.
Run your own race. Take the unexpected in your stride. And never, ever trust a fart towards the end of an ultra!