Ultra Strategy Thoughts


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Here are some of the changes/improvements my racing strategies for ultra distance trail races have undergone this past season. It’s a constant game of minimizing suffering, maximizing performance, and setting myself up to get the most from my abilities on race day. I’m sure there will be plenty more changes, but this is what has had the biggest impact on my current racing:

Hydration:

My lack of fluid intake on a hot, humid day in Texas back in February did me in at Rocky Raccoon. Since then I have been refining my system and realizing how much water I actually go through during these longer events, and as the race progresses, the amount I need increases significantly.

Starting out as a track runner, progressing to road marathons, and now to mountain ultras, it’s been a tough transition regarding hydration. I found that I could get through most marathons without much water. I increased my intake slightly as I went farther. However, I didn’t realize the debt I was able to survive on in the shorter races, and that if I am going to survive the longer races, I need to do a better job keeping up with the total fluid losses.

 

We own two generations of this pack and it's worked really well for both of us.

We own two generations of this pack and it’s worked really well for both of us.

I’ve latched onto the Salomon S-Lab ADV Skin Hydro 5 vests. Julie and I each have one, slightly different models, but same concept. The stretchy material runs well with minimal bouncing. I don’t notice that I’m wearing the vest, especially as the water supply goes down. I’m now carrying anywhere from 1 to 2.5 liters of water at a time, given the race specifics – how far between aid stations, difficulty of the terrain, heat and humidity. I like having my hands free and I think there is less energy used by carrying the water close to my core and center of gravity. I read once this has been proven to be true, but I really follow this strategy mainly because it feels best currently.

 

Fueling

Since White River, the running joke has been that I’m sponsored by PowerGel. This is not true, but it might as well be. I’ve been hooked on PowerGel as my fuel source for the past year of ultra racing. It is the least viscous of all the gels I’ve tried and therefore goes down the easiest. When my mouth is dry or my stomach is slightly revolting against gels or food in general, I can usually still put down the PowerGel. I had the unfortunate situation that I needed to take a Cliff gel late in the race at Fat Dog and I nearly vomited as I tried to chew (futile) and then swallow the chocolate mess of a gel. It was so thick that I had a difficult time getting it down. The other benefit I see in the PowerGel brand is the salt content. I haven’t been taking S-Caps for awhile now, not for any particular reason, but with my gels, I feel a little better knowing I am getting some salt content.

 

This simple little belt has made fueling really simple. And by owning two of them, reloading is really easy.
This simple little belt has made fueling really simple. And by owning two of them, reloading is really easy.

 

The other big component in my current racing fuel strategy has been the UD Jurek Essentials waist belt I’ve been wearing. I got one of these from Phil at Seven Hills Running Shop and have since bought another to add to my collection. I can carry 8 to 10 gels at a time with these, they’re easy access, and easy for storing garbage, making my access to food easier, and again keeping my hands and arms free.

 

Transitions

This has been an area of my racing that has seen major improvement. This season, I have hardly spent any time at aid stations and other than having a few bottles refilled with water, I have not relied on aid stations for anything. I have nothing against aid stations and think that race volunteers are awesome, but by planning my fuel/hydration ahead, and having Julie there as crew to execute, I am minimizing time at aid stops, and I’m minimizing potential variables that may throw off my race such as new or untested foods/drinks.

The way it’s been working is that as I come into an aid station where my crew will be, I have my vest and belt already taken off. When I reach my crew, I toss my used stuff on the ground as a new vest is put on me and a newly filled belt is handed to me. This transition can take literally 5 seconds. I get what I want for fuel and hydration, I get it quickly, and I minimize my time spent standing around.

Music

As with learning to eat and drink more as I’ve transitioned from roads to trails, I’ve recently made the switch to listening to music while I run. Some may scoff at this, I used to do the same – I don’t scoff much anymore at anything after having changed my view on things so many times. I absolutely love listening to music while I race now. I’m generally in my own head for the vast majority of ultras. I don’t really like carrying on conversations while I race either. However, music has been a good balance between body analysis overload and the neglect that often comes if I’m in conversation. It picks up my mood and helps me tap into positive emotions which enhance my racing abilities. Time often goes by more quickly too.

So far, music has been something I haven’t employed until later in races. I picked up my mp3 player at mile 27 at the White River 50, and at mile 28 of the Fat Dog 70. It has been a special treat and has done good things for keeping me moving and motivated as the races have progressed. I’m glad I was willing to change my views on this one for sure.

Shoes

Game changer in foot comfort on long trail runs.

Game changer in foot comfort on long trail runs.

I’ve also changed my opinion on footwear for racing. I used to laugh at people racing in their weird moon shoes (Hokas). Then Phil hooked me up with some Hoka Rapa Nui’s to try out. They have made a huge difference for me on the trails. My feet would ache at the end of races, even simple trails like Rocky Raccoon. But since switching to Hokas I have had far less foot discomfort during my races. I don’t need to pay as close attention to foot placement on the trails, and in general, the entire experience relating to my feet has been vastly improved.

 

Training for mountains

I’ve tweaked my training slightly to adjust for mountain racing. Sounds like a no-brainer but breaking out of my training habits wasn’t an easy thing to do. Thanks need to be given to Arya, one of the athletes I coach for this. He needed to work on his downhill running and together he and I have improved this highly important mountain racing skill. The main change we made was to add downhill workouts to our schedules. Weekly for the six weeks leading up to our racing season, we did downhill sessions where we’d do repeat hard downhill trail efforts of varying time duration, ranging from 2 minutes to 10 minutes. We’d jog easy back up the hill, and then bomb down the hill again. These workouts wrecked my quads and one in particular (near Mt. Si), had my legs sore for nearly a week. As a result of these workouts I now feel much more confident in my ability to run quickly downhill. My body responds better, and my legs feel much stronger in general as they adjusted to this type of running.

One last component of my running that has been adjusted for mountain racing has been uphill running. I haven’t added any training for this component apart from the long uphill recovery runs during our downhill workouts, but my focus during races has shifted away from the idea of power hiking. I have found that easy running with small, bouncy strides feels much better to me than working my bigger leg muscles used when power hiking. With only one exception, I’ve run nearly every uphill this season and have felt good doing it. I recover quickly when I get to flats or downhills and I stay in my running rhythm much better with this strategy. This is still an evolving strategy for me and will certainly be tested with 22,000’ of gain at Run Rabbit Run next month.

Rest periods

Lastly, I am thinking through and potentially testing an idea relating to taking planned breaks during my longer ultras. At Fat Dog, my body got out of sync enough that I felt the need to lie down on the side of the trail for fifteen minutes in order to reset things enough to feel normal running again. It took a lot to get to that point and mentally, it took a good deal of suffering to push me to stop. However, after just a few minutes of lying down with my eyes closed, I felt my strength come back very quickly. My stomach relaxed and I was able to eat a couple more gels without incidence. When I got up, I was able to start running right away, and I felt significantly better for it.

With this in mind, I’m considering having a couple planned rest points during the Run Rabbit Run course. There is one spot before a long climb that could work, roughly 45 miles into the race. There is another 73 miles into the race. My thought here is that I’ll have Julie ready with a blanket, solid food, and dry clothes and shoes if needed. I will take 15 to 20 minutes to lay down with my shoes off to let my body regroup, eat some solid food, and get ready for the next big climbing sections. My hunch is that with 15 minutes of rest, I could make up more time through faster running than what I’d lose by resting.

This is something I’m still toying with. If I was feeling awesome, I could see forgoing the break, but knowing that I had this option ahead of me at two pre-planned spots on the course could be very motivating.

Conclusion

This is what I’ve learned thus far during my season of ultra training and racing. It’s nothing earth shattering, but it’s what’s working for me currently. I’m likely to change my views as time goes on, but as I continue to deal with the challenges of ultra racing, I’ll continue to do my best to find solutions to making the experience better with less suffering.

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