While many of us in the ultra world tend to focus on single stage large events such as a 50km, 100km or 100 miler, there’s been a slow rise in this country of the multi-stage event, the biggest known are perhaps the Big Red Run and Run Larapinta, both of which are held way inland of our beloved country. To help give you a bit of a sense of what they’re all about, we’ve produced our guide to multi stage racing, which includes some top tips if you’re going to make the leap into this format.
The marathon des sables (MDS) was the reason I got into ultra running in the first place. In my late twenties, life hit me squarely in the face when a close friend of mine died from cancer at the tender age of 27. It hit me like a train and having wafted my way through life until then, that was a bit of a wake-up call to get out there and experience things. I hadn’t run more than 10km at that point and the idea of a marathon didn’t quite cut the mustard, so I landed up the MDS, which I duly trained for, ran and completed in 2009.
Being a complete novice to the ultra running world, I made a a whole host of mistakes, from nutrition to overtraining to the point that I managed to get a hairline fracture in my fibula three months out from the race itself. So pondering everything I did wrong, I thought about putting the fingers to the keyboard to offer up some brief advice on what to consider as part of a guide to multi stage racing in both your preparation and at the race.
#1 Get used to running on tired legs
Multi stage racing is exactly what it says on the tin. Running on consecutive days, and for the most part, over increasing distances. These races tend to start small and build to a really big day of between 70-90kms, before a more manageable marathon the day after that. If you’re doing the typical 6-day 250km event, your legs need to be in bullet-proof shape prior to heading off on your little jaunt.
That means in training, your approach is slightly different to the single day events. Multi stage racing is about consistency of pace and not taking too many cookies out of the jar too early on. Time and time again, with the smaller distance build-up, some people tend to go hard like a bat out of hell, only to capitulate on the longer legs of the race.
Get used to running every day, but start small and build from there and keep the pace even and slow to begin with. As your legs get more and more used to running when you’re tired, you’ll gradually build the strength required to the point where doing back to back marathons at the weekend won’t be out of the ordinary or out of reach. But your pacing is critical. Slow and steady is the name of the game.
One of the biggest factors towards being able to get back out after a big day on the trails the previous day is recovery. Now those of you with families probably already have the look of incredulity I’m sure, but what you do in the hours after a big run will have a big impact on how you feel the next day. Eat well and eat correctly, don’t be tempted to fill your face with junk food. If you’ve just done a tough 40-50km in the bush and you have another one planned for tomorrow, your body needs some good old-fashioned ‘healthy shit’ to recover.
Try to put your feet up too, but also mindful of keeping the blood circulating and those crucial warm-down and conditioning exercises that will aid the recovery post run too.
We touched upon it in the previous tip above, but while what you eat is important throughout your training period, your nutrition during the race will basically make or break you. Many of the multi-day stage races stipulate a minimum number of calories you’re required to take with you, and in the name of saving weight to make your life as bearable as possible while you’re running with an 8-10km backpack on, many will skimp on the food.
The reality is that you’re going to be in quite big calorie deficit during the race, which is where the body will begin to break down somewhat too. In the regard, try to get the balance right between saving the weight and making sure you’re refueled sufficiently too.
Nutrition for these races has moved on a lot since I ran in the MDS eight years ago, but the one thing I do recall doing well was making sure I took food I enjoyed, rather than food that simply did a job. I also made sure to treat myself too with a few items, so while it meant a few extra 100 grams here or there, it also made me mentally happier and in a positive mindset as a result.
One of the biggest causes for dropouts at these type of races is upset stomachs and people getting ill. I recall the tent I slept in at the MDS with seven of my fellow runners, and the night before the big stage of 92kms, one by one during the night, each one of them had to get up and spew their guts up just outside of the tent. I waited patiently that night for my turn to come, but it never came thank God!
It goes without saying, but keep everything spotless and your hands as clean as you can. It’s invariably the crap on your hands, which often ends up in your mouth via your fingers that can often make you ill.
#5 Sleep and rest
During multi stage racing, sleeping is tough. Again, to save on weight in the backpack, many people opt for minimal sleeping mats and bags for sleeping on the hard floor. Sleep therefore becomes quite a rare commodity, which means ‘resting’ becomes just as important too. Once you’re done with your running for the day, get off your feet and save the legs. The temptation is stand around and chat to people, which of course you’ll do, but getting horizontal and resting the body is really important towards having a successful race too.
Those are just a few of the basic tips to consider, there are more I’m sure, so feel free to share yours in the comments below if you have any.