Day three, 4:30am. I’m awoken by the relentless buzzing of my alarm. I feel broken. My body begs me for more sleep. As I crawl out of bed I feel like I’ve been pulled out of a bush backwards. I go about my usual routine to get ready while ignoring my brain’s insistence that the 40 odd km of running required today are simply not possible. I line up at the start still trying to clear the sleep out of my eyes and before I know what’s hit me, we’re off.
In order to complete a multi-stage event you will have to come face-to-face with all your doubts and fears and learn to tap into a deep inner strength you don’t even know is there. Ranulph Fiennes, a world renowned adventurer and holder of several world records says of long distance running and extreme adventures, “To discover a place where individuals take themselves to the extreme frontiers of the environment and their own physical capacity for endurance, is both inspiring and exciting.”
Be an inspiration
Very few human beings can sit and watch others pushing themselves to their very limits, without being inspired or motivated to demand greatness of themselves. There’s a very good chance that you’re looking to attempt a multi-stage race because you have been inspired by someone else who took on a challenge bigger than themselves. In their book, “Extreme Running,” Kym McConnell and Dave Horsley give two main reasons for taking on an extreme challenge saying, “one is the almost spiritual nature of this type of quest. The second is the desire to succeed, to conquer, to overcome a seemingly impossible physical and mental challenge.”
Regardless of the reason, I believe that inside every trail runner lurks an “ultra-beast,” fast asleep and often in deep hibernation. It’s awoken by the slightest sniff of adventure and desire to take on a seemly impossible challenge. When it begins to stir you’ll feel an itch, a nagging desire to take on any and every adventure. If it sounds impossible, insurmountable and downright nuts, chances are you’ll be dying to sign up.
So how do you scratch that itch? How do you take on a multi-stage event and ensure that you cross that elusive finish line days later? Trail ultra-marathon runner Daniel Rowland, winner of the Desert and Jungle multi-stage races, in an interview with Trail Talk SA gives four tips for mutli-stage racing. As a trail runner and running coach I expand on his tips below.
1. Include race specific training in your preparation
Multi-stage racing is very different to a single-stage event. Not only are you expecting your body to perform day-in and day-out, but you’re also throwing biomechanical changes into the mix. Single-stage events often require a very light or small hydration pack if anything, weighing roughly between 1 and 1.5kg. Multi-stage events on the other hand are often self-sufficient events where you are required to carry everything you’ll need for the day and sometimes for the entire event. This means that your pack will weigh anything from 3 to 15kg. Running biomechanics change dramatically with the weight of your pack. Including a few training runs with your pack at expected race weight will ensure that your muscles have adapted to your new running form on race day. Also make sure that include a few blocks of consecutive long runs. Weekends are great for this kind of training as well as double training sessions in a single day. For example, a typical peak training weekend might look at follows: Friday: am – 10km, pm – 20km; Sat: 30km; Sun: 30km.
2. Consider your equipment carefully
This is by far one of the most important aspects of multi-stage events. Finding yourself midway into a six day event with a broken strap or severe chaffing is either going to put an early end to your event or make it extremely uncomfortable and difficult to finish. You’d very quickly learn the error of your ways if you tried to knock a nail into a piece of wood with a candle. In the same way, you don’t line up at the start of a big adventure race with the wrong equipment. Make sure you have the correct shoes for the terrain you’ll be running on. Try on various hydration packs and with the assistance of an experienced sales person find a match for your body and shape. Get your hands on a shirt that’s not going to chafe and ride up your back with the movement of your pack.
3. Practice a recovery routine
With each passing day during the race you accumulate more and more mental and physical fatigue. In the build up to your event, make sure that you have experimented with and found a recovery strategy that works for you. This might be drinking a specific recovery shake, eating a certain meal or wearing compression tights. Everyone responds differently to different recovery methods and it’s important that you have established in advance what works for you and what doesn’t.
4. Pace yourself based on the entire length of the event
A multi-stage event is neither won nor lost in the first couple of stages. The winner is the runner who goes the full distance and slows down the least over the duration of the event. As you line up at the start of your adventure you will be bubbling with excitement and expectation and your inclination will be to go out too quickly on day one. Racing and pushing too hard on day one will leave you struggling to complete day three or four, which is often the longest stage of the event. Instead of standing at the start line getting all worked up, rather set out for a very easy warm up jog. This doesn’t need to be very long and 10 to 15 minutes is more than enough. You will find that this short easy jog gets your body ready for the day ahead and more importantly, settles your nerves and reduces pre-race anxieties.
What are you waiting for?
Multi-stage and extreme running is a fairly new and continually growing sports genre. There are a number of resources and runners’ race reports available to assist you in selecting an event. Trail Magazine, Trail Runner’s Guide and the internet provide endless resources on the many challenges available. My recommendation is to build up slowly and gradually to the point where you can take on your bucket list event with confidence. Start with a few shorter and smaller single stage events. Once you’re confident on the trails and have allowed your muscles time to adapt to the different movements you can then begin to move up to a two or three day multi-stage event and ultimately tackle the “big one.”
Day six, 5:35pm. With a new bounce in my step and a lightness in spirit I increase my pace at the sight of the finish line in the distance. It’s hard to believe that six days has come and gone. It’s hard to believe that what seemed impossible when I first signed up for this challenge months ago, it now, done. As the finish line gets bigger and bigger with each step I realise that I finish this challenge a different person to the one I was some 250km back. Life looks different. Nothing seems impossible and as I stride out on the hard beach sand my mind is already thinking ahead to the next challenge on my bucket list….