When people ask me about preparing to run an ultra, there are a few things I always give as top tips to finish an ultra. Working on your mental prep is obviously the biggie for me (and why I started this site!). Getting your eating and drinking sorted, working on a pacing plan, recce-ing the route, testing all your kit, following a proper training plan… All are super important. But one of the absolute key things for me is to find other people who have run the race and ask them what it was like.
Reckon you don’t need to do this? You’re not alone there. On my first race I didn’t do even the tiniest bit of research into the course or condtions, and I suffered for it. In the van on the way to the start I overheard some of the other runners saying that the course was super wet and boggy, and that shoes with big lugs were needed as it would be very slippery. They weren’t wrong. I slipped and slid all over the place during that race, wearing my more modest trail shoes, and was much slower than I would normally have been. I could have run the course a lot faster had I been wearing my more heavy-duty shoes, and would have known about the course conditions if I’d taken the time to contact someone who had run the race previously.
My second race, The Oner, on the other hand, was much, much better for many reasons, but not least because I found and contacted two people who had run it before, both of whom gave me excellent advice that I hadn’t seen on online race reports. The two most important tips I was given were that I should take trekking poles (not something I had ever used before, but they turned out to be a godsend on the steep climbs), and that I should change into inov8 Mudclaws or similarly rugged shoes after the halfway point.
At the start there were people who actually scoffed at me for my plan to change into Mudclaws, and nobody else I met thought I’d need such heavy-duty shoes for the race. I’m so glad I listened to my contact though, as he turned out to be absolutely right. The course was insanely muddy and after the halfway point was where the serious hills started. Other runners slid all over the place, but I stayed relatively stable and only actually fell over when a cute bloke smiled at me on Portland when I was running on tarmac – oops!
So why contact people as opposed to just reading race reports online? Because I’ve found that the advice you get first hand is often much more specific, and you can ask specific questions. When I’m asking for advice now, I always ask if there is a kit item that the runner wishes they’d had for the race, as this is often super helpful. For the race I’m doing in November, a 135-miler in Wales called Rebellion, I contacted the one lady who finished it last year on Facebook. She recommended taking multiple pairs of waterproof socks as last year the course was soaking and a lot of runners ended up with soft, mushy feet. I would never have thought of taking waterproof socks from reading the race reports, but am now planning to run the race in them, and am training accordingly.
Another key reason to contact people who have run your race is that the contact will help you mentally. Being in touch with people who can tell you that, yes, it was very hard but they got through it, is very reassuring. Generally runners are also very, very kind, and will go out of their way to cheer you on in their advice, and this will give you great confidence that you can take with you on race day. I’ve also ended up very good friends with a few people who I contacted to get race advice, so it’s an awesome way to expand your circle of running pals too! One guy I contacted, the saintly Rab McAvoy, even paced me during the final section of The Oner, ensuring I got in before the cut-off with time to spare. (Mate, you’re a bloody legend.)
So there you go. Get advice, ask specific questions, make new friends, have fun, and come out full of confidence for your race. Easy!