How to Survive an Ultramarathon: One Runner’s Strategy

Today was the kind I dream about all winter – where you can just slip on a few clothes and onto the bike for a quick 12-mile evening ride. My post-Voyageur recovery is going so well, it’s hard to keep from overdoing it. But my next event – the Crim 10 miler – is just two weeks away, followed by Run Woodstock and my biggest race of the year. Plenty of sweat ahead!

Speaking of copious sweating, my revised strategy for the Voyageur did the trick, as I finished it without any of the nausea or disorientation I felt at my last two 50+ mile attempts. Following are the main changes I made.

First, here’s an idea of what a trail ultrarunner “goes to battle with” as one of my friends puts it. Some goes into my drop bag, along with extra clothes, but most of this I wear or carry.

Gear for Voyageur Trail Ultra

Gear-wise, I used triathlon shorts to minimize chafing, and compression calf sleeves (left of shoes), which save my legs from thorny bushes. The long-overdue change was adding a cap, which kept the sun off my head and could secure a wet towel or ice while running. It also has some UPF (sunblock) built in. I got this one at REI; it’s pricey ($25), but I will never run a summer race without one again.

logo_scaps_300I also believe a salt-water imbalance contributed to my earlier problems. Salted potatoes at the aid stations help, but time and amount are irregular. Salt tablets at regular intervals were the answer. After some research I estimated that two S-Caps (642 mg of sodium) per hour of running would meet my needs. I did supplement with ice-cold Powerade later in the race; it just tasted too damn good.

Hydration was about 20 ounces of water (one full bottle) per hour. Much more than that and it just sits in my stomach. A “fluids check” about every 12 miles showed that while I was getting dehydrated, it was manageable. And needing to do it was another good sign.

Crossing the Jay Cooke Swinging Bridge.

Crossing the Jay Cooke Swinging Bridge.

For food, I avoided the aid station offerings except for cold grapes and pickles, and relied on the energy bars and Gu in my pack. I did this to keep my stomach settled with familiar foods and to make use of complex carbs rather than simple sugars (candy and soda). One Clif Builder bar is around 300 calories (about what my body can process per hour while running) and also provides some protein to help prevent muscle breakdown.

Voyageur - Aid Station

While the results were everything I’d hoped for, there are still a few issues to deal with before I run the 100K next month. Feet, for one – I changed socks and shoes at the 25-mile mark and retaped my toes, but still had some blistering and pain at the end. More taping should help, and perhaps some Body Glide, but I welcome any other suggestions.

Taping for an Ultra

Mentally, I expect some challenges too. Not only is the 100K my longest distance attempt yet, most of it will be in the dark. I don’t run with music or radio, so it will be a long time (I estimate around 14 hours) of me alone with my thoughts. Fortunately, the aid stations are lively and the other runners are great.

So there you have my recipe for a successful 50-mile trail run. That, plus lots and lots of training. Fortunately, most of that is enjoyable, especially on an evening like tonight!

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