Besides training, a large part of your ultramarathon preparation should involve researching your race well beforehand. This is especially true if you’re travelling to an exotic location to run an ultra.
You want to know exactly what you’re going to face during your run so you can prepare adequately, adjusting your training if necessary and perhaps taking different equipment.
In this post, I’m looking at the main areas you want to focus on when you research your next ultra – and how it should influence your training and prep.
How to research you race? The information you need should all be online – either on the race organiser’s website or through a quick Google search. If you aren’t having much joy, you can always drop the organisers an email.
Nowadays, most race organisations have an active social media community which can be a fantastic resource for asking questions and getting to know other runners. Facebook Groups are very common and are a great way to connect directly with the organisers and other runners.
First, lets look at the weather.
The climate of your race locale will really dictate what kind of experience you are going to have. The main areas to look at are – rain and weather, temperature, humidity, and altitude.
Rain and Weather
Weather is an important race factor that you should research now, if you haven’t already.
What’s the chances of rain in your race location? Will it be windy? Are tropical storms a threat? A good place to look is reports and photos from previous events, if they are available.
The risk of wet weather informs a lot of your equipment choices – as a minimum, you want to have waterproofing to protect your torso and your pack from the elements, and any other mandatory equipment the race organiser specifies. There are many ultra-lightweight jackets that are specifically designed for running, and some have additional volume to cover your pack too. You should consider taking additional waterproof bags (zip-locks and black refuse bags can be used) in order to protect equipment from the rain and segregate wet gear.
In these conditions, using lubricant is even more important – running in wet clothing is a recipe for severe chafing and blisters. The race organiser may have additional specific equipment requirements if rain is likely.
A quick Google search can tell you the temperature at the race location specific to that time of year – it’s worth looking at the highs, lows and the average.
Running in high temperatures can be challenging, and it’s common for runners coming from cooler Western countries to suffer from heat exhaustion. Unfortunately, preparing yourself for temperatures of 40°C + when you live in the cooler parts of the Northern Hemisphere is not easy.
Runners use different (and novel) techniques for preparing for the heat.
Using a sauna is probably the most accessible way for most of us to simulate high temperatures, and although you can’t run in one you can use one after your daily workout. Doing this for a few weeks prior to your race will help your body build up more tolerance to heat.
Another heat-acclimatization option is to take up bikram yoga (yoga in a hot, steamy room). Another popular technique is to run with additional layers on, building up an uncomfortable heat and getting used to pushing through that feeling of cloying sweat.
Remember that Desert climates can be scorchingly hot through the day, but shiveringly cold at night – and many runners underestimate the latter.
Many people swear they can handle the heat, but the humidity kills them. Running through the 40°C Amazon rainforest with 93% humidity is a completely different challenge to running through the desert at 40°C (typical 25% humidity).
Humidity affects your respiratory system faster than heat alone, and on a humid day with no breeze your sweat can’t evaporate or blow away – effectively coating you in a warm, slick layer of insulation. This means your body temperature will shoot up. In these instances, the best thing you can do is to slow down and control your exertion levels, take regular breaks, drink water and seek shade where possible.
To prepare yourself, using saunas or practicing bikram yoga are the two most effective methods of simulating hot humidity in cold-weather countries.
Running at altitude comes with it’s own set of rules. Altitude affects runners in different ways – shortness of breath is common, and dizziness or nausea are possible. Older runners tend to be affected more easily than younger ones.
The most common approach to running a race at altitude is simply to arrive at the race location 2-3 days before the start of the race, to allow your body to adjust to the altitude. During the race, you can expect to feel more tired and out-of-breath than usual. Simply factor this in, and don’t over-exert or try and match your sea-level level of exertion.
There are a few ways you can simulate, or prepare for running at altitude if you live in a low-lying area.
The best, and most practical way to simulate altitude while training is to find a gym with a hypoxic chamber – these are sealed rooms where the oxygen content is lowered to simulate altitude. They typically have a few treadmills, exercise bikes and light weights in them – hopefully there is one near you.
Some runners have tried training with an ‘elevation mask’, or ‘resistance mask’. These restrict the flow of air into your mouth, making it harder to breathe. While this effect is similar to the feeling you may experience at altitude, the truth is that breathing at altitude is harder because there is less oxygen in the air, not because you’re breathing through a restriction. So while these masks definitely provide some form of resistance training and lung strengthening, the science says it is not an accurate simulation of breathing at altitude.
It is possible to invest in an ‘altitude tent’ – this is a sealed tent you put around your bed with a device that lowers the oxygen content in the air, so as you sleep your body get acclimatized to the altitude conditions. However, these usually cost up to five figures(!), are usually used by hardcore mountain climbers.
Running hills is a completely different skill to running on the flat. Running uphill is hard if you’re just used to flat surfaces, and running downhill puts extreme loads on your joints.
If your race has hills, you should look to incorporate some into your run training. The typical advice for running downhill is to shorten your stride and keep your knees bent!
Dirt tracks? Tarmac? Sharp stones? Snow? Whatever the terrain is, you should train in a similar environment as much as is feasible, to prepare yourself. This way, you can get used to the terrain and test out your running shoes. Remember that soft sand and snow both sap a lot of energy per step. If there’s a lot of sand, or loose snow, then this is going to make your race much harder – your walking/running style changes, and uses a lotmore energy. You can train specifically for sand/snow by jumping rope, doing step-up exercises – or actually training in sand. In these cases, a set of gaiters should be seriously considered (this is discussed in the gear section later).
The organisers will typically warn you if water crossings are expected, but may not detail exactly where they will be, or how many to expect. Runners approach water crossings differently – some plough through and keep going with wet feet, while others remove their socks and shoes and wade across.
Wet feet, clamped in wet socks and shoes, can potentially end your race (see the chapter on foot maceration later). If your feet are already blistered or torn up, damp conditions will just exacerbate the problem. Therefore, if in doubt, we recommend packing a spare pair of socks if you are anticipating a water crossing.
The specifics decided by the organiser have a big impact on your race. Make sure you familiarise yourself early on with the route map and itinerary, as well as the daily mileage.
Familiarise yourself with the rules of the race, paying attention to things like:
- Cut-off times
- Water allowances
- Time penalties and what they are for
- Bib and patch requirements
Course and Mileage
Ensure you are familiar with how the course is going to be marked. It’s pretty standard for the course director to use markers such as tape and spray paint to mark the route, which is pretty easy to follow. Some races may issue GPS devices with the route pre-programmed into them for you to follow, and others may have minimal marking but involve some kind of orienteering. Ensure you’re aware how the course will be marked and that you bring along any necessary equipment that the organiser advises on. Depending on the level of support, it can often be valuable to stick with other runners while out on the trails, to support each other.
Find out the frequency of the checkpoints and what’s going to be available at them, so you can plan accordingly. Most long races have a checkpoint around every 10km, and the minimum you’d expect at them is a water supply and a volunteer. Better-equipped checkpoints may have electrolyte drinks, food and medical support.