After recently completing the South Wales Wildhorse 200 I have been reviewing how it went not only as a runner but also as a coach. I think whether an event goes well or poorly it is important to step back and take a look at what you can learn from the experience.
Asides from the obvious fitness aspects and needing to build your endurance and strength to get through an ultra, there are a lot of other factors that I feel often get overlooked by both athletes and coaches when preparing for long races and they can be make or break, especially in the longer events of 100 miles plus. Having to tough it out might be viable for 10 miles to finish a 50 miler but it isn't going to be much fun for the final 60 of a 100 miler. So here's a few things to think about:
1. Hydration & Nutrition
It goes without saying that you are going to need to take in substantial amounts of calories and carbs as well as fluids and as this is just an overview I am not going to get into the nitty gritty but it really is important to test them thoroughly in training. Testing on one run just isn't going to cut it, partially because that doesn't tell you how you will respond in different conditions and partly because that doesn't allow the body to adapt to taking on nutrition during activity. The body adapts to this just as it adapts to hill running etc. You need to test this thoroughly because various factors will impact how you respond to the nutrition and you need to learn to adjust based on how you feel, for example the more carbs you consume, the more fluid the body uses to process those carbs so you may need additional fluids to stay hydrated. What you eat and drink interact with each other and you need to experiment with this in advance, if your stomach starts to feel yuck what works for you to settle it, less gels, less fluid????
Your feet are ever so slightly important yet at every ultra I have been to damaged / blistered feet are one of the biggest causes of runners struggling to finish. Test out your trainers, test out your socks, test all socks in all trainers then get them soaking wet and do it all again. There are various anti blister products out there these days so trial them out, just because vaseline works wonders for your mate you may find that anti blister talc works better for you, maybe one product works best in the heat and another when it is wet or works with one brand of socks but not another. Do your feet swell in the heat or after many miles, you may need to take bigger trainers or a wider trainer and a selection of thick and thin socks to allow for the differing sizing of your feet, have options.
Whatever navigation method you are using practice using it lots, get used to it's quirks and the fact that sometimes it will cut corners or just be offset and learn to recognise this. I use a handheld GPS device and always have at least two sets of batteries for it on me from two different batches, I don't want a dodgy batch of batteries going dead on me and then having the same issue with the spares (I have known it to happen). Don't only practice with your primary navigation device but make a point of practicing your backup nav as well, during the Wildhorse at the top of a mountain in the Beacons with a thick mist and zero visibility my handheld GPS went a bit crazy leaving me with no idea which way I had come or where I was going, even a traditional compass didn't work, the navigation on my phone however worked fine and allowed me to still progress (admittedly slowly), I had been sure to load the route and store it for offline use and I was very happy at that point in time that I had!
4. Know your kit
Test your kit and in every combination you can think of. Maybe this seems like overkill but if you can test your various clothing layers together you will get to know which are comfy together and what combinations are right at different temperatures. It may not seem like a big deal for shorter races but for 100 miles plus the smallest things can really irritate so staying comfortable can make a huge difference to your motivation. Know how everything works and how long it will work for, do you know how long your headtorch will last, does it give you a warning flash when the battery is getting low? Knowing this could mean that you can change your battery on a rocky outcrop planned and calmly rather than halfway through boggy marshland when you weren't expecting it.
5. When it goes wrong
When you are out running for 24 hours plus it is incredibly unlikely everything is going to go to plan, it doesn't matter how much you have trained, tested your kit or planned something at some point will throw a spanner in the works. In the Wildhorse for me this involved AWOL drop bags leaving me without fuelling for a number of sections and unable to change as well as the usual issue of paths that either didn't exist or were in a totally different location. When this happens you need to be able to adapt on the go and the simplest way to do this is to stop, accept and assess what you are faced with, decide on a course of action to overcome it and then action that. It sounds simple, and I guess it is, just not so much after 140 miles but being able to do this is key. So what do you do if your action doesn't work and you are still faced with a situation, you follow the same process again following a new course of action and repeat until you are back on track. Problem solving is all part of the challenge (even if it is just figuring out how the hell the gate opens)!
This is far from a comprehensive list but gives an indication of the things that need to be considered beyond just the fitness of an athlete, this is the reason that when I am scheduling an athletes plan I include instructions to test hydration and nutrition on particular runs and will advise them to test out kit and download an unknown route onto their navigation device and go exploring. The logistics are often overlooked but how disappointing would it be to DNF an event feeling strong simply because you timed out as unable to find the way or your socks caused blisters and you couldn't continue.