Plains vs. Mountains

mountain sunrise

Vs.

sunrise-over-the-great-plains

Is the ultrarunning experience different when you run a flat race compared to a mountainous race?

Obviously, every course and every race is going to be a unique experience; even if you run the same race year after year there are just too many variables for it to be the exact same race.

But mentally and physically, there are differences when you are running a mountain race as compared to a flat race. Most 100 mile races and even 50k and 50 milers are in the mountains. It’s just easier to plot a course when you have hundreds of miles of trail to choose from and you don’t have to deal with streetlights, cars, and all the complications a city would create. I’m not saying putting together a trail race is easy. It definitely has its own challenges, but I would rather have those issues than the city issues.

Some mental challenges are similar and others are different. Similar: comprehending the distance you are running; mental exhaustion; working through aches and pains; working through the amount you have left to go (such as when you’re at mile 25 and you realize you have an entire marathon or three left to go. This becomes more of a challenge at mile 50 and 75 because you are more tired). Different: in a flat race the lack of variation can become tedious, especially if there isn’t much vegetation; you get bored more easily. With a flat race, you think it is going to be easier. It’s not. When you get out there and it’s just as difficult, or more, discouragement sets in and can cause you to slow down. The entire race is runnable, so you become frustrated when you have to walk due to heavy legs, sore feet, or whatever.

Some physical challenges are the same and others are different: Similar: you’re going to hurt, eventually, you’re going to have to eat when you don’t want to, and you’re going to be physically exhausted. Weather conditions can very and you need to be prepared for those. Stomach issues still need to be anticipated. Different: during a flat race, you are using the same muscles in the same way the entire time. In a mountain race, you incorporate different muscles as you climb and descend. This can lead to more aches and pains. The entire race is runnable, without mountains, there aren’t automatic hike sections, thus making you push harder or not take rest walks early in the race, which leads to being more tired than you would be if you had walked a bit at regular intervals. If you think the race is going to be easier, you may not stay up on your fuel, hydration, and electrolytes. This will lead to all kinds of problems making a schedule and sticking to it is going to prevent this.

As you can see, the physical challenges are linked to the mental challenges. Training is the sure fire way to find these challenges/differences and learn how you can deal with them. Every runner is going to deal with them in different ways. Training properly, will alleviate many of the physical issues which will then reduce the mental challenges as well.

Making the Leap to the Ultra-World: Food

making the leap 5

Fueling your body during a run is, as I’m sure you can imagine, a really big deal. Many runners use gu during events of a half marathon, and close to 90% use some form of sports energy during the marathon.

For an ultra, mishandling your food can destroy your event. Trial and error is the only way to figure out what is going to work for you. The one factor that is the same regardless of how you fuel is using small amounts frequently rather than eating a larger amount. A quarter of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich is going to be easier than the whole sandwich. The other rule, which cuts across all aspects of running, is train with it before you race with it. After that, there are four approaches to maintaining your energy during an ultra.

First, is to use sports energy options, such as gu, stinger, or hammer gel, throughout the run. There are a few ultrarunners who do this. Sports energy delivers a fast supply of sugar, which is what your muscles are burning. Personally, I’ve never been able to do it this way and none of my runners have been able to do this. The gels and such become torture to get down. Even if you like them, by mile 75, you won’t. Your body needs a little more than just sugar when you are moving for more than 24 hours.  That’s where the other approaches come in.

Second, is to use a mix of sports energy and regular food. A lot of the runners I work with, even marathoners, choose this option because it gives them quick energy and a more sustained slow burn energy. To implement this strategy, find some foods you think are easy to digest such as fruits, potato chips, candy, cookies. These still give you the carbs you need, but they take a bit longer to get to the muscles. You can throw in small amounts of protein as well, which slows the breakdown of the muscles in the later part of the run.  Be cautious and chose easy to digest proteins such as nut butters and protein bars or drinks.

Third, is all regular food. I use solid regular food throughout my runs. You want a mix, again, of slower and faster digesting items. With solid foods, you need to keep in mind it takes longer to digest so you will need to eat before you need the energy, rather than when you are starving. The other problem with waiting until you are hungry to eat, is you over eat. Over eating can cause stomach irritation.

Fourth, is low carbohydrate. Low carb is a life style not merely used during an event. It requires the runner to stay below a certain amount of grams of carbs everyday, which allows them to burn fat rather than the glycogen in their muscles. Fat is an excellent source of energy. However, being low carb also requires the consumption of a lot of fats as well. Consuming a lot of fats is not necessarily bad. The research is a mixed. The type of fats a person consumes does make a difference. Anyway, low carb runners have to bring their own food (same as vegan runners). In theory, they don’t have to consume many calories because they are burning the fat. That was not my experience. I was low carb for 18 months and found I was not able to consume enough fats to maintain the energy I needed to run ultra-distances. Some low carb runners use a product called Vespa which enhances the body’s ability to burn fat. Others supplement with high doses of sugar at strenuous times (big climbs) during the event to give them the extra boost. The sugar hits their system fast and furious because it doesn’t get it very often.

Regardless of the approach you use, practice during training runs is the key. You have to train your body to digest at the same time it sends energy to muscles. Use trial and error to find what works for you. Keep in mind that it is best to try one thing at a time and to give your body a couple of weeks to decide if it is alright with it. When you introduce a new thing, it may cause some issues at first, but those may go away with continued use.

The 100 experience

run 100

People ask me all the time how I run 100 miles and if I’m feeling factious I say one step at a time. But I know they want to know more, how is it possible and how does it feel to run 100 miles without stopping.

Running 100 miles becomes possible through passion, dedication, and a lot of training. Just like running any distance, you have to work up to it. You really shouldn’t just decide one day to go run 100 miles and then do it. The training takes six months, and that’s if you have a good base to build on.

Okay that’s all fine and good, but what happens and how do you feel during the race? This varies from individual to individual and there are good races and bad. I’ll tell you about both extremes. Most races, for me, have had a little of this and a little of that.

The good: running down trails is just amazing no matter how you look at it. You soar on the runners high while you bomb down the slopes jumping over and around rocks, roots, and branches. You crash through creeks. For a runner, there is just nothing like it. When the sun comes up on the second day, it brings you out of any down mood. It’s the most beautiful sunrise you’ve ever seen. You feel like one of the pack because the comradery and respect among trail runners is second to none. Aid station volunteers greet you with a smile and lots and lots of tasty food. They are always very helpful and happy to see each runner regardless of the weather conditions, at least in my experience. Many of the volunteers are ultrarunners themselves. Even if they aren’t they are dedicated and come out year after year.

The bad: it can get really ugly out there sometimes. You are going to go through low periods and possibly question your sanity. Hallucinations are not uncommon. I’d put these on the good list because I think they are funny, but I can see how they would be unnerving to some.  You’re going to hurt at some point in the race. Your feet could get blisters. You could have chafing. You could be vomiting. You might have diarrhea. You could get heat stroke, hypothermia, and hyponatremia. Much of this is preventable if you are prepared and know your body.

The more 100’s you run, the more you learn about how to address these problems. Notice I didn’t say prevent them. One of the things you can and should count on is at some point in the race, things are going to get tough (or interesting depending on how you look at it). There is a saying among ultrarunners: It’s not if, but when you have problems. Count on having them, and then have the knowledge and gear to reduce their impact on your race.