Going Self-Supported | September 18, 2013
There are so many well-organized, convenient, epic-cool ultras on the calendar nowadays that you can pretty much pick and choose to your hearts’ delight. Still circumstances arise where you are intent upon a certain run at a certain time and the only way to make that happen is to go self-supported.
For example, say every year there’s a race you’d love to run but it always falls on a date that is blacked out for you because of an anniversary, a work commitment or maybe a competing race where you run or volunteer. So pick another weekend, use the information about the race that’s on the web to dial in the route, and run the course self-supported.
Or maybe you’re traveling near the locale of an established race but not on race day. Nothing’s stopping you from recreating the race and doing it alone. You couldn’t ask for better training for the actual race than to preview the whole course in a self-supported effort. Another possibility is that you know of an area that you thought would be perfect for an ultra. Well, you can always go test your theory by yourself.
But I’d like to suggest there are other compelling reasons for mounting a big self-supported outing beyond just wanting to do a certain course on a certain day. A self-supported ultra is a qualitatively different experience from an organized event. In some ways, it’s a purer ultra experience. There are no friendly aid stations crowded with helpful volunteers, no fellow runners offering solace or encouragement. There are no flags guiding the way, no signs at crucial junctions, and no reflective markers in the night. You’re on your own. It’s quieter, lonelier and more intensely all about you and the sheer demands of running an ultra distance.
Running self-supported highlights just exactly what you need to get the job done. Since you are only going to have available what you brought along yourself, it’s going to really drive the lesson home if you’ve forgotten something or brought something along that is superfluous. In that respect, it’s fantastic training, helping you discover what’s essential and what’s not, what works and what doesn’t.
Doing a self-supported run is also an adventure and a way to keep the excitement about ultrarunning alive. My running partner and I do the same late winter 50K every year as part of our big early season training push. We wouldn’t miss it for the world. Last year, however, we couldn’t make the race date so we recreated the race for ourselves a week later. We visited all the same old spots, climbed the same killer hills, picked our way through the same maze of trails, but it seemed all fresh and new because we were all alone and making our own way through the course.
A self-supported run will also help you appreciate just how spectacular it is to be able to show up at an organized event and have all the planning, logistics, supplies, trail marking, and safeguards taken care of for you. After you’ve had a shot at providing the support crew, buying all the supplies, working out where everyone has to be and when they have to be there, and getting everything to the run site and out again when you’re done, then you’ll be thanking race directors and volunteers with a lot more energy the next time you go to an organized race.
The most important thing to realize about a self-supported run in a remote area is that you have to provide your own safety net. If you get confused about your route, you aren’t going to be able to stop and wait for the next runner to save your bacon. There are no confidence flags and no stripped ribbons to warn you of an impending critical turn. No ham radio operators are standing by to let everyone in the county know that you are an hour late getting to the Bear Lake aid station. And finally there is no race director working with the Forest Service weeks in advance to get the word out about flooded streams, bear activity, rerouted trails, fires, or other conditions that could turn your stay in the woods into something permanent.
For course planning and navigation during the run, a good trail map will suffice in a state or national park with a well-marked trail system. But if you are going to venture into more remote areas, you need a good topo map or a GPS device that can accept a route and keep you on course. Either way, on run day, you will want to leave word at home and with the office that has jurisdiction over the area where you’ll be exactly what your route is and when you expect to return. The local office can also keep you up to date on any unique conditions or potential dangers in the area where you’re going.
If you have a crew helping you, visit all the locations where you expect to rendezvous during the run beforehand, establish “windows” of time when the crew can expect to see you, and check cellphone reception. You should establish some kind of trigger as well for calling help. For example, if you are more than three hours overdue at a checkpoint, the crew should assume that you are lost or incapacitated in some way and need help.
As far as supplies and equipment are concerned, you’ll probably need to carry more with you than you would in an organized event. You’ll want an abundant water supply and some way to make use of water from streams, either a filtration system or tablets. Extra food, energy gels, or supplemental tablets should also make the trip. You’ll need to bring along extra clothing or rain gear depending on the conditions, and things like sunblock or skin lubricant. Some things can be cached along the route so you don’t have to carry everything at once. Of course, ideally you will arrange for a crew or at least one other person to provide you an “aid station” at different points. Trade this duty off with another runner and you can help each other with each other’s self-supported run.
As with any ultra, the whole enterprise may hang in the balance due to one unexpected circumstance. We’ve all been derailed by a badly turned ankle, a wrong turn, an uncooperative stomach, intense heat, or other unforeseen obstacle. My partner and I were in the first five hours of the ultimate in self-supported runs, a 100 miler on a very difficult course of a discontinued race that we had tried and failed at before. We didn’t think we’d have any trouble following the trail but in the dark we came to a spot in the forest where the trail disappeared at a campground area. It looked like the trail might follow a stream bed downward from there, and we imagined that farther below the trail reemerged. We’d already backtracked twice and couldn’t find any trace of a turn off so we were just about to commit to the streambed when my partner said, “Let’s go back up the trail one more time.”
There it was! Just up from the campground the trail branched right but a tree had fallen over and it’s still leafy branches had totally hidden the trail junction. We ducked under the branches and saw that the trail climbed a bank and disappeared off into the forest. If we’d followed the streambed, we could have been lost for hours, triggered the search and rescue alarm, and turned our self-supported ultra into a huge, expensive failure.
In the event, we prevailed over the course, our old nemesis, in one of the most spectacular and satisfying adventures in all my ultrarunning career. So there’s the rub, you need to approach a self-supported run with lots of caution and respect, but the rewards can be awesome.