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Are you ready to run an ultra? 5 simple steps to be sure

Hope you’re ready

I’m lining up for an ultra this weekend – The Trail du Bout du Monde – 57km along the coast of Finistère, close to my current home. I’ve been wanting to do this race for years, and finally we’re here at the right time, the pandemic is easing, and race day is upon us. To combat my pre-race day jitters, here’s the checklist I’m using to make sure I’m ready.

1. Assume nothing / do your homework

As my favorite teacher back in middle school used to say: “Never assume.” At this point he wrote out the word ASSUME in big capital letters on the blackboard. He continued, “Because when you assume, you make an… (he proceeded to underline in chalk the letters ASS) out of (underlined U) and (underlined ME).” This caused many giggles amongst our pubescent class. The teacher had almost used a swear word!! But not quite. The lesson stuck with me. This applies to so many aspects of life, and I think about it more often than I care to admit. Thanks, Mr. Flaherty. You’re the man.

Definitely ASSUME NOTHING about a race. Don’t assume parking will be easy. Don’t assume they have your favorite snack at the aid station; don’t assume they have safety pins to attach your race bib. Don’t assume there will be aid stations at all. Double-check everything! Read the race handbook and memorize. Make sure you have no question unanswered. If there’s ambiguity, message the race organizers. Something seemingly minor like not having the right gear can quickly derail a race, maybe even into a DNF (the dreaded Did Not Finish).

Plan your morning backwards. In my case, our race starts at 8am. I am going to park at the finish line and catch a shuttle to the start. It’s a 45 minute drive to the start. The shuttle ride is 30 minutes, and I may have to wait up to fifteen minutes. I want to be at the start at least 30 minutes early. 7:30, need to be getting on the shuttle by 7 at the latest, need to be parking by 6:45 at the latest. If I leave home at 6am it’s cutting it close. I’ll get up at 5, leave home at 5:30, and be relaxed the whole way.

2. Check the weather and dress accordingly

This is NOT how you dress to impress in France.

This should go without saying, but I assume nothing, so it’s worth re-iterating. Run in comfortable gear that you are used to, which you know you can wear for many hours without issue. You should have tested this gear in training, in the same weather conditions, maybe not for as long as you’ll race in, but for multiple hours at least. Nothing new on race day.

The forecast for my race on Sunday is sunny and warm, at least by local standards. Highs around 80. I’m not too worried about that, as I’ve done plenty of training in mid-day heat so far this year, and 80F really isn’t that hot when you’re used to New England summers. But I will have my trucker’s cap, sunglasses, sunblock, and sleeveless racing singlet. Copious sunblock will be applied to my shoulders. No need for extra layers.

Out of respect for local custom, I will resist the temptation to go shirtless. Last time I tried that I definitely did not blend in. Shirtless is ok at the beach, but in races… not so much. I got a lot of weird looks, and was definitely the only bare-chested athlete.

3. Plan hydration and nutrition

You’re gonna need water.

Exactly how far apart are the aid stations? How much hydration and how many calories will you need between each? What does this mean you need to carry?

For the 57km race I’ll be attempting on Sunday, I’m fortunate that there are numerous aid stations, including two with food. This means I can leave my pack at home and go old-school ultra chic, with simply a handheld water bottle and a few gels stuffed in my shorts.

I want to consume at least 150-200 calories per hour (beginning in the second hour) and drink 22oz (one bottle) per hour. First water stop is 16km/10miles. I’ll be fine with my handheld water bottle up to that point. I’ll eat one gel and refill bottle. Next aid station, at 25km / 15.5 miles, has both water and food. I want to have my bottle finished by then, refill and eat some solid food. Water stop at 33km / 20.5 miles. Consume 1 gel, refill bottle. Full aid station at 37km / 23 miles. I’ll eat some solid food and refill bottle. Next and final aid station at 49km / 30.5 miles has food and water. I’ll eat and refill again.

A basic spreadsheet can help visualize the timing of everything. This can also be really helpful if you have anyone coming to spectate or crew during the race. Below you’ll find a spreadsheet that I put together in about ten minutes. You can click on the image and make a copy.

4. Prepare any hardware

Digital minimalism at work

I mentioned the importance of planning clothing and shoes. Most ultra runners out there will also be bringing along some technology – watch, headphones, heart rate monitor, headlamp, cell phone, emergency beacon are all possible. Decide what’s coming with you, and make sure it’s charged, files are loaded, and you know how to use it.

For my event on Sunday, I’m just planning on carrying my watch and headphones. I have done plenty of races without a watch, and there’s an argument to be made for that, but I’m addicted to Strava. I need my stats.

I have made a considerable investment in my watch, a Garmin Fenix 6 Pro, because it offers functionalities that I really value. I can load a route of the course, and receive turn by turn directions. This gives me an enormous amount of confidence that I won’t be wasting time or mental energy wondering if I’m going the right way, if I missed a turn, if that arrow was pointing hard left or slightly left. Confidence is priceless. I can also load music and podcasts. I like saving music for the last hour or two of a long event, when I need a boost and a distraction. This watch gives me navigation and entertainment without having to bring my smartphone. I connect my wireless, bone-conducting Bluetooth headphones, give thanks for the fact that we live in the future, and I’m on my way.

5. Trust your training

I have no shortage of reasons to doubt myself when it comes to racing this weekend: I caught a really bad flu last week (not Covid, according to multiple tests, including a PCR), my hamstrings are still bothering me during long runs, I haven’t been able to run the volume I normally would, I’ve had some lower back pain, I’m over the 45 year old hill now, my diet hasn’t been perfect, etc.

Forget all that. What HAS gone right this year? Until a few weeks ago, my training was going really well, and I peaked with a couple of 50 mile running weeks. I already completed one ultra in April. In late May I did a block of back-to-back long runs of 29 miles and 26 miles. More often than not, my total training volume has been over 10 hours per week (counting cross training). Most importantly, I’ve been feeling good and seeing improvements.

Typical training week this year – run, bike, climb

So in the mental gymnastics during the last three weeks before race day, I’m going to focus on the positive. While I was planning on tapering before this event, I hadn’t planned on being bed-ridden for four days straight followed by a week of irritable coughing. Nonetheless, the hay is in the barn, as they say. What happened in the last two weeks is not the deciding factor in how I get around this course on Sunday.

While I am focusing on positive visualizations, I need to be realistic and listen to my body. If my heart rate is too high, or breathing is labored, if the effort is out of sync with the pace I’m putting out, I won’t hesitate to drop out. This isn’t a game and I have nothing to prove. I want to do this race for the love of the landscape, the place, the people out there, the community, the experience, the vision quest. But I’m not going to take any stupid risks or push the envelope if things don’t feel right.

Race on!

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