Ultra events are just about keeping going. One foot in front of the other, right?
This would be fine, if the race had no cut off, but as most race directors actually like to go home sometimes, there will always be time limits. Some cut offs can be a little deceiving though. You may think that 12 days to finish 10 iron distances sounds like you have plenty of leeway. Hell, you’ve got time to put your feet up and have a massage. Even have an ice cream or two…
During my first attempt at the Enduroman Continuous Triple, I arrived at the run section (having just managed to make the bike cut off), and looked at the time I had to run 78 miles in, and thought ‘I can do that easily’. Cut to the early hours of Monday morning and you find me having a desperate conversation with the race director, Eddie Ette. I had 5 miles to go, he had already extended the cut off, (as he tends to every year) but couldn’t (and rightfully so), push it anymore.
I had 5 miles to go.
We looked at the remaining time and we both knew that there was no way I would make it. I reached down and undid my timing chip, handed it to Eddie and then sat and cried in my van for half an hour. I was exhausted and heartbroken. And the worst thing was, I knew that I had wasted at least an hour during the run. Probably more.
Since then, I have worked very hard on ensuring that I have plans, lots of plans, for each event I do. This doesn’t mean I finish them all, but I go into every ultra, super prepared for everything. So, below are the things that I have tried and tested over the last 5 years for taking on, and hopefully finishing, the crazy, ultra shit.
During long events, you start fresh and clear headed and obviously get more tired and befuddled as the hours go on. It is inevitable that you will start to struggle remembering stuff. You will find yourself on the bike without your gloves or, god forbid, missing your timing chip! These little things will seem small (not the chip), but all add up and affect your mental and physical state.
The forgotten timing chip, however, will just break you…
When I have a sleep / rest break, where I’m removing kit, I will always lay them out by the door of wherever I’m resting. Be it a van, tent or hotel room, if it’s by the exit, I literally cannot leave without tripping over it (I also use this method during normal life, because I have virtually no short term memory. Or long term, come to that…).
However, the timing chip goes IN THE SHOE. No matter what, always, IN THE SHOE.
Everything else, coat, hat, gloves, drink bottle, lights.. All that I need, is laid out by the door. So, when you do some long or multi-day sessions at home, practice it then and make it a habit.
I bloody love lists, I do. For someone who likes to get a lot of shit done, they’re essential in my everyday life. But I now use them in events too. During the 1×5 Quin in Switzerland, where I was crew-less (or ‘screwed’ as my ultra buddy, Joey calls it), I wrote on the inside of my van, everything I needed to do before I went to sleep, (get my swim kit ready, drink my recovery shake, timing chip IN THE SHOE etc.) This meant that no matter how tired I was, I kept to my routine.
And don’t worry if you haven’t got a Ford Transit to write on, it’s fine to use paper.
Don’t get plans confused with lists. They are completely different.
You need a plan for all areas of your crazy ultra shit. One for the pacing and lap times, one for your food and drink and one for crew (if you have them).
The food / drink and crew plan can be relatively straight forward, although if you have multiple crew, you may want to build in a contingency plan, in case someone can’t make it. And it’s also a good idea to have a ‘normal’ food plan and a ‘when you can’t eat anything anymore’ plan. You obviously still need to eat, so having something that your crew can fall back on, is a good idea. If you have to finish the doubletriplewhatever on Jammy Dodgers and green Jellybabies, so be it.
The pacing and lap time plan is a little trickier, as it’s almost impossible to control all the variables that will affect your pace. So I have 2 or 3… A ‘best case’ plan, a ‘thing’s are still kinda ok’ one and ‘oh fuck, it’s all falling apart just try and finish’ plan. I tend to end up on the latter, but by having that one in place already, I still have a sense of control, which helps with keeping a positive mindset.
Also, with pacing, if you work on a walk / run plan during the run section, ensure that you stick with this at all times (or at least until you are truly unable to maintain it). So, if you plan to run for 5 minutes and walk for 2, make sure you don’t start running for 3 minutes and walking for 4. It’s easily done and another way to lose precious time. Also, make sure your run pace isn’t the same speed as your walk. Not that I would know ANYTHING about doing this. Not. At. All.
Make your plan FAFF-FREE! You always need to be moving forward. The only times you need to stop is when you are sleeping or on the loo. Don’t do either of those on the go, it ends badly. When you start stopping every lap for a quick chat or find some excuse to get off the bike (mainly because you now hate it with every fibre of your being) for no real reason, you are FAFFING. Realise that you are faffing and have a strong word with yourself. Faffing leads to DNF-ing.
This is an obvious one, but it’s amazing how many people don’t do it. Rather than just packing all your kit into one huge bag or loads of smaller ones, think about the type of kit you will need (if it’s Wales, then just bring everything). And then sort it into bags or boxes that are clearly labelled (it’ll be the middle of the night when you or your crew are rummaging around for that missing sock that you have to have).
Put your wet weather kit in one box and top and bottoms in separate bags too. It all saves time and helps keep your head clear. And, if you are able to, have a bag of spare stuff, which you can put out the way and hopefully not need. Knowing you have a spare wetsuit or rain jacket, will make you feel really smug.
The same goes for bike parts. Bag them up and label if required. Make it as easy as possible to change your cleats or fix your chain should you need to.
And when it comes to kit, think very hard before leaving items at home. Yes, your race is in the summer, but don’t think for a second that you won’t get a freak storm and end up putting plastic bags on your feet, because you didn’t think you would need your overshoes… (the bags worked really well actually, but still…)
If you are lucky enough to have crew, make sure you use them properly. Meet up before the race and go through your plans. Ensure they come to the race briefing and have read the info pack (y’know that really important document the race director spends hours on and everybody reads really thoroughly?).
During the event, if they aren’t doing something quite right, speak up. Unless they are experienced, ultra racers themselves, they may not know that you have to have your mashed potato at an exact temperature and correct consistency. And make sure they know all your drink mixes. Write the number of scoops on the side of the container or the box. Try and make everything as idiot-proof as possible.
And, speaking of idiots, ensure you pick the right people to help you. Having rubbish crew is sometimes as bad as having no crew…
Finally… Be nice to your crew. The amount of athletes I’ve seen ranting at their support, because they haven’t got the cereal bar or forgotten a certain item of kit… Remember, they’re just as tired as you are, and they don’t get a medal at the end of spending 4 days in a cold, wet field in Wales either.
All the small things:
During shorter races, you can get away with ignoring certain things. Saddle sores during an Ironman? You’ll be fine. Blisters in a marathon? Whatever. But during the multi-day stuff… Do not let these things slide. You may think that you don’t have time to stop and sort your feet out. But when you have 3 marathons left, you really, really need to. Forgotten to apply chamois cream? Stop as soon as you can and deal with that. Damage limitation is a must at all times during ultra races.
And ensure these little, but oh so important, details are on your crew plan too. That way, when you forget, someone else will be there with the vaseline, talcum powder or sun cream (unless it’s Wales, of course).
The last tip is not really about time management, but it’s damn good advice that I stole from another ultra athlete. Setting multiple goals is a neat trick to get you to the finish line. For Mexico, I had 3 goals. The first was, just get to the finish line. The second goal was, to just get to the finish line and finish the swim in a badass time. The third goal was, to just get to the finish, a badass swim and be on the podium. So, on this very, very rare occasion, I actually managed to reach all these goals, BUT there was a moment during the run, where the podium went completely out the window and just finishing became the only plan. By setting multiple goals it helps control any negative mindset you experience when shit goes down, and lets you re-focus and keep moving.
So, there you have it. All my years of making mistakes, trying to learn from them and going back and do it again. And again. And sometimes again…
And you never know, one day, I might actually finish the Enduroman Triple…