A Grab Bag of Tricks from Running One Hundred Ultras | May 11, 2011
Ultrarunning is always a learning experience whether you’re running your first ultra or finishing your hundredth. As Keith Pippin puts it, “Each time you run you will receive lessons. You have enrolled in the school of ultrarunning. You may like the lessons or think them irrelevant and stupid. What you think makes no difference; the lessons will be presented until they are learned.” Some of these “lessons” cover critical things, like how to stay hydrated on a hot day or how to dress for running through the night. Ignore those lessons and you can face a DNF or even worse. But then there are myriad other little lessons that may or may not break your race, but can make the running more comfortable or safer.
Over the course of running a hundred ultras, I’ve been exposed to a lot of lessons and picked up a few tricks as a result. Here are some things I’ve learned that might keep you from having to learn every single lesson of your own the hard way.
First, some creature comforts. Bring an empty sandwich bag along when you train or race. It gives you a place to stick all the used, oozing energy gel packs and other trash that will otherwise gunk up your pockets. In a long race, stow your extra gel packs that are in your drop bags in a fresh baggy. It will keep your gel packs together until you need them and, presto, you can replace the trash-filled baggy with a new one for the next part of the race. Also throw a hand towel in each of your drop bags. It will be the first thing you reach for to wipe off the dirt and the sweat (“AHH, now I feel so much better”) and the last thing you use to clean up with before you hit the trail again. Likewise, pack an extra shirt in each of your drop bags. A fresh, dry shirt feels great against your skin and can make you feel like you’re off to a new start.
More creature comforts? Clip your toenails before any long run. You’ll remove the corners that can dig into neighboring toes and prevent an overly long nail from pressing up against the inside of your shoes’ toebox and killing a toenail. Don’t skimp on the sunblock during any long exposure to the sun, and make sure you refresh the sunblock from time to time. If you’re dousing your head to keep cool or just wiping your face a lot, you clean all the sunblock off after awhile and leave yourself exposed. Take along some hard candy like Lifesavers or ginger candies. Having something to suck on is a great distraction and the ginger can settle an upset stomach. Talk to the people around you even if you’re miserable and don’t feel like talking. If nothing else, it will pass the time, and lo and behold, if you force yourself to act like you’re calm and collected and doing fine, you can actually start feeling that way.
Little things to keep you safe. Tuck a tiny button light away in your pack. It gives you a light source if you need to change a bulb or batteries in your main light in the dark, and in a pinch, it will give you enough light to follow the trail if it gets dark before you reach the drop bag where your lights are waiting or if all your other lights fail. Make a super lightweight shell (jacket) part of your standard running gear. It weighs so little, you’ll hardly notice it, but it can really come in handy to keep you warm during a cold, early morning start or to add an extra layer when it gets cold at night. And if you really get lost, you’ll have more than just a t-shirt with you if you’re stuck outside for a long period of time. If you’re listening to music out on the trail, use just one of the ear buds. No matter how safe the area might seem, you just do not want to block out all external sounds and cut yourself off completely from what’s going on around you. You never know when something surprising or unexpected is going to happen, thus the words “surprising” and “unexpected.”
Finally, a few things to keep you on track. Enjoy the company of other runners but never expect that the other runners are paying attention to the trail. Even when you’re the middle runner in a “train,” watch for flags and other course markers. Having a whole group of chattering runners miss a turn is classic, as they all follow the leader who in turn is distracted by all the fun stories and jokes. Likewise, when you’re cruising along all alone and grooving out on your music, be careful not to get so mesmerized that you stop noticing the trail. If you suddenly realize that you just ran a couple of miles in a complete mental fog, you’re not going to know if you passed up a crucial turn along the way. If this happens, start monitoring for confidence flags and hope that some part of your subconscious was paying attention. Of course, if you do stop seeing course markings, back track until you come to the last one you passed and try again.
As Pippin says, ultrarunning lessons will be presented to you over and over until they are learned. I’m usually good at following course markings, but once at the Heartland 100 in the Flint Hills of eastern Kansas, I was cruising along enjoying my conversation with another runner I had just met. We hadn’t seen any flags for a long time but in this race, with long stretches and few turns, that wasn’t unusual. A pickup truck pulled up next to us and a guy in a battered cowboy hat asked where we we’re going. I confidently said, “We’re going to Texaco Hill,” which was the next aid station. Just as confidently, he said, “No, you’re not.” It turns out we had blown right by a well marked, major turn off of the road we were on. Believe me, after the long hike to get back to that turn, there was one lesson that I had learned.