Race Preparation Tips | January 22, 2009
Your first ultra’s coming up and you’re nervous as a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs. And why shouldn’t you be? It’s a trip into the unknown.
Solid training in the months before the race is the best way to make sure you’ll succeed. But there are a lot of things you can do just before the race to assure you’ll get off to a good start. Here are some race preparation tips that will help you deal with all the last minute details.
First of all at your computer, get the basic logistics for race morning dialed in well ahead of time. Print out the general race information with the date, start time, check-in instructions, parking directions, and start/finish location. Take that info along so you won’t be relying on memory. Likewise print out the driving directions to the start, check the driving time, and block out your morning schedule. For instance, alarm at five, in the car by six, arrive at race by 7:15, race start at eight.
Also check the weather forecast for race day. Freezing temperatures at the start or the promise of a blazing hot afternoon could alter your dress plans. Conditions like rain, snow, or high winds are good things to know about when you’re standing in your bedroom with all your gear spread out on the bed deciding what to take, not so good when you’re catching hell in the middle of the race.
Keep race morning as uncluttered and simple as possible by pulling everything together the night before. Well before bedtime, make a pile of the stuff you’re going to wear out the door. This will include your race outfit: race shoes, socks, running shorts, shirt, hat, and any extra clothes you’re putting on to keep warm: long pants, jacket, sweatshirt, gloves.
Next to your pile of what-I’m-going-to-wear stuff, set your race bag. Everything else you will need at the race goes into that bag. This includes the printed instructions and directions to the race, a change of clothes including comfortable shoes for after the race, and any extra running clothes that you might decide to race in at the last minute, like a long sleeve shirt instead of a short sleeve one, a rain shell, or tights.
Also in the bag put your hydration system for the race: a bottle with a fast-draw holder, a fanny pack with one or two bottles, or a fully assembled hydration pack. Preload the pockets of your pack or your running shorts with the pills (electrolyte tabs, ibuprofen), energy gels, or other consumables that you are taking along on the run. Put a little toilet paper in a baggy and stuff that in a pocket as well. You can even dump your wallet or purse, cell phone, camera, and keys in the race bag. The idea is to be able to put on the clothes in the morning, pick up the race bag, and walk out the door confident that you have everything.
Anything else that can be done the night before the race, do it. Take a shower, clip your toenails, set up the coffee pot, double check the alarm clocks, and lay out what you’ll need in the bathroom, which includes sun block, antichaffing lubricant, Band-Aids for the nipples, and lip balm. Then hit the sack.
When the alarm rings on the big day, you’re probably going to feel a little panicked. Don’t worry if you didn’t sleep well. A good night’s sleep before a race is a luxury, not a necessity. As long as you were rested in the days before, you’re fine.
The first order of business out of bed is to armor up with the sun block, lubricants, and Band-Aids. (If you like to do this stuff just before the race, you’ll need to add those items to the race bag.) Make sure to smother yourself in sunblock. Ten or more hours of exposure is a lot. If you scrimp here, the day after the race, you’ll look like they pulled you off the raft of the Medusa. Lots of antichaffing goop is a must as well. (In a cold bathroom you might have to put the tube in a basin of warm water to get it flowing.) Slather it liberally around your toes, on your inner thighs, and anywhere else you tend to chaff. Put some between your butt cheeks, too, in order to counter a condition that can arrive late in the race called “ring of fire.” You want to avoid “ring of fire” like you would want to avoid getting hit by a runaway bus. Affix the Band-Aids over your nipples, also a no brainer.
What to eat and drink before a race is always a question, but for ultrarunning, there’s quite a bit of latitude. The breakfasts they serve at the Western States 100 Mile training camp, for example, would make Michael Phelps happy. Common prerace items are toast, bagels, bananas, or muffins. Most runners enjoy having some coffee as well, which can have the added benefit of getting your GI track going. A “thorough” trip to the bathroom before the race has a lot of advantages. Before leaving, fill up your water bottles or hydration pack. There’s not always fresh water at the start.
The staging area for a big city marathon can suggest Napoleon getting ready to invade Russia, but most ultra starts are very low key affairs. When you arrive, the first step is to check in and get your race number, which typically will not be mailed out ahead of time. Ultrarunners like to fold the number up so just the number shows and pin it to their shorts or hats. (Shirts get changed, taken off, used as sweat rags, covered up.) You’ll need to put on the sunblock and antichaffing lubricant if you didn’t do that before. Give yourself some time for a last pit stop. You can stretch out, but a lot of hard jogging isn’t necessary. Most ultrarunners use the first couple of miles of the race to get warmed up.
Review the course map if one is available. Check what the distance is to the first aid station and start thinking about what you’ll need to do there. Leave your cell phone in your race bag. Reception is usually bad at race locations. There won’t be any staging corrals, or start groups, or differentiating among runners. The race director will have a few words to say about the course markings, the condition of the trails, or some helpful tip about a tricky turn on the course. Pay attention since it could save you going miles off course, which wouldn’t be unusual in an ultra. At the gun–and there is seldom ever a gun–everyone just jogs off together.
So that’s it. From here on out, whatever happens is going to happen. Have a good run, relax, and enjoy the race.