Some random thoughts as I prepare for the Rocky Raccoon 100, which is just a couple of days away.
The logistics of running an ultramarathon are quite different from running a more traditional distance event like the marathon. The logistics get even more complicated as the distance increases from a 50k to a 50-miler to a 100k to a 100-miler. While far from an inclusive list, here’s a quick primer for those of you who haven’t yet made the transition from road races to longer ultramarathons (which are most often trail races).
You won’t find anyone standing with a cup of water in their hand, ready to hand it to you as you fly past them like you would in a road race. In fact, you likely won’t see any cups at all. In most (if not all) ultras, you’re expected to be self-sufficient when it comes to how you drink your fluids. The race will provide water, Gatorade, whatever, but you’re expected to have your own water bottle or hydration pack. Part of this stems from the fact that most ultras are trail races, and littering in the forest is generally shunned. Another reason is that it’s just not feasible for most runners to be able to stay adequately hydrated over 100 miles if they are only drinking when they are at aid stations.
Another unique aspect of ultras is the food that you’ll find at aid stations. Very few runners will consume only gels. At my first 100-miler, they had sandwiches, boiled potatoes, bacon, hamburgers, chips, fruit, and more. At one aid station, they even had a slurpee (slushy) machine. Seriously. It was awesome.
Despite the kick ass aid stations, and the amazing volunteers who will help you with anything you need at aid stations, many racers still like to have their own “crew.” Your crew can help you at aid stations, but generally not anywhere else. Getting food, helping change socks/shoes, quick leg massage, and refilling water bottles are generally the most frequently performed tasks. Probably the most important job of the crew is psychological though. As a runner racks up the miles, their brain generally starts to shut down. Having a crew member who knows the runner well (spouses make excellent crew, assuming they’re willing!) can be a life saver, as they can spot changes in the runner’s coherence and mental state much easier than a random aid station volunteer. The crew also generally knows what the runner has eaten, or if they’ve not been eating, and can encourage (force) the runner to eat before moving on.
Ultramarathons are the only athletic events that I can think of where an athlete can have someone participate alongside them for the sole purpose of psychological support. The word “pacer” is somewhat misleading, as unless you are an elite runner, your pacer is probably not going to be doing any pacing at all. They are just going to be running (walking) with you, making sure you’re safe and that you keep moving. A pacer is not allowed to offer any other kind of support to a runner. “Muling, which refers to carrying something for the runner (food, fuel, water, clothing, anything), is strictly forbidden. Many races require that pacers remain behind the runner, thus preventing them from leading the way on the trail. In most cases, you can only have one pacer at a time, but multiple people can pace you over the course of the race. Pacers generally aren’t allowed to start running with you until the last 1/3 to 1/4 of the race.
I’ve never heard of a marathon runner having hallucinations mid-race, but it’s a relatively common occurrence in 100 mile races. Seriously, you should do a quick google search on the topic. You’ll find some pretty funny stories. Odd things happen to a sleep-deprived, over-worked body.
Running at night:
Everyone who runs a 100-miler will be running through the darkness at some point in the race. It’s a weird experience at first, and something that should be practiced before race day. Most racers opt for headlamps, as it keeps their hands free and the light is always pointed in the right direction. Others will opt for a handheld flashlight, as having the light source lower to the ground shows shadows and creates a better sense of depth perception on more technical terrain. Some opt for both. Whatever you choose, make sure you have extra batteries. You’ll need them.
You will be in pain. Lots of pain. Embrace it, and just keep moving. If you think about it too much, you probably won’t finish. 100-milers are more a test of your mental strength than they are of your physical strength.
“Running is 90% mental. And the other 10%? That’s mental too.”
– Scott Jurek