Getting to the Start Line of a Major Event

What does it take to get to the start line of a major Ultra like the Spine?

Getting to the start of a major Ultra event is no mean feat, it takes months of dedication, training and preparation. Using our most recent experiences from the Montane Summer Spine Challenger, this article focuses on some of the key aspects we’ve found that are needed to get to that start line healthy, fit and ready.


Let’s face it, signing up for an Ultra of any distance shouldn’t be done lightly. The longer the event, the larger the commitment! Building towards your event will take time, money and a significant amount of focus. Throughout training being clear about your ‘why’ is important to get through the inevitable niggles and minor tantrums; when the training schedule is tough and you’ve had a hard day it is all too tempting to skip that hard session, or make the long run shorter…we know because we’ve been there. Yet something drives you out of the door, and more often that not that ‘thing’ is your primary motivation, your why. Don’t lose sight of it…you’ll need it later!

Financial commitment is obvious when it comes to race fees, but other costs can quickly mount up – from new kit ( 😉 ), to nutrition products (even if you avoid the expensive sports nutrition market you still have to fuel your runs), and potentially travel and accommodation costs for the event itself as well as any reconnaissance (recce) runs you intend to do.

Finally, time. Your time commitment to training will grow as the weeks pass and as you progress to your training peak. For a major event like the Spine training included three weekends away for Recce runs (three pre-event Ultras!) with the peak training week being 16 hours running (aprox 135km) plus nearly 15 hours travelling.  And this commitment isn’t just yours, it’s a commitment that those around you will need to ‘buy into’ and support because chances are someone else is missing out whilst you are spending all that time running.

A Strong Support Network

Your support network can’t just be there for you on race day, you will need their support throughout your training. Accepting the early starts, late finishes and missed weekends/events. Finding ways to involve friends and family in your adventure will be essential if you are to avoid your dream becoming their nightmare. Family, friends, coaches, mentors all have a part to play in your ‘journey’ to the start line. And being honest up front about the commitment is key. It’s not just the time spent training, its the time spent: thinking about training; planning; packing; recovering (aka sleeping on the sofa!); travelling; not going out because you “have a long run tomorrow”; etc, etc.

You will also need mental support. There are going to be concerns, worries, niggles, and dips in confidence. You will need people to pick you up and boost your confidence, to listen and understand, and to sympathise. All of the worries, the niggles are normal. Everyone has different stories and sometimes just hearing that it’s not just you is sufficient.

As the Spine loomed closer the dedicated Facebook group became a source of comfort as well as information; it is all more bearable knowing that others are having the same issues, have the same questions and are worrying about the same things. And of course I had the benefit of the team here at Ultratraining.club; people who knew me, and what I was going through, and were there for every last minute drama I had (including which shoes to wear).  Ultratraining.club was developed for exactly this…an experienced community able to offer that advice and support when needed.

Consistent Training

Every coach will tell you that consistency is essential for Ultra training . This means consistent effort, yes, but importantly consistent and controlled growth of your training load. Our plans all build gradually over time, aiming to avoid any unnecessary peaks in load which has been scientifically shown to significantly increase the risk of injury.  For an event like the Spine our focused training plan began months in advance, building on a solid base and slowly introducing longer runs balanced with high aerobic effort sessions once or twice a week. In the last few months this transitioned to back-to-back long runs at the weekend, and eventually very long recce runs (two 45km runs and one at nearly 60km). Keeping training consistent and balanced means the risks of injury are reduced and allows the body to adapt to both the effort and the ability to recover from it.

Top graph shows acute to chronic workload, a measure of how much each week is building. The bottom graph shows absolute load, a product of effort and time.

Preparation & Planning

You don’t normally fail an event on the course, you fail it in the preparation phases. During an event where your brain is going to be less than sharp, preparing and planning for all eventualities removes  a lot of the stress and mental demands. Decision making is about executing prior plans rather than ‘winging it’. And good mental preparation allows you to overcome the inevitable ‘wobbles’ whether they are physical or mental (or both). Throughout our plans we encourage you to think ahead, we work on your mental resilience, and we give you tools and tips to make the event as smooth as possible. All of these things are important on an event (but don’t panic when things do go ‘off script’!).

Kit lay for Spine Challenger

For an event like the Spine packing kit is an endeavour in its own right; packing the running pack (pre and post check point), drop bag for the Check Point (arranged and labelled for a smooth transition), and overnight bag for accommodation before and after. We are checklist people, you don’t have to be, but we had some mighty long check lists! And despite this, I still seriously sunburnt my face because I didn’t complete the CP checklist and left my sunscreen (and watch charging lead) in my drop bag (AAGH!). See our ‘Reflection‘ article for more lessons.

Before an event, we seriously advise a rehearsal. Walk through every stage and concentrate on the ‘What Ifs?’ working through your drills and plans for various scenarios that can be thrown your way. On the Spine several (in the tens) pre-rehearsed drills were used, things that had been ‘whatiffed’ for when things went wrong, ranging from:

  • dealing with cramp, to
  • being navigational challenged (aka temporarily lost!), to
  • limited fresh water on the course (knowing where the taps and springs were), to
  • weather issues (severe heat, and then rain and near freezing overnight temperatures), to
  • mental challenges when the brain started debating quitting (“let’s not worry about that yet, let’s think about it when we get to X”, to
  • personal care (blisters).

A Dose of Good Luck

Fortune favours the brave. Let’s face it you, and your support network, have a lot of skin in this game. Sadly, there is still so much life can throw at you to prevent you getting to the start, even if you are fit and well. Travel (cancelled planes and trains), disease (obviously 2021 so still dominated by positive CV tests), family issues, food poisoning, the risk list is infinitely long. Not that there’s a huge amount to control here so it really isn’t worth worrying about. BUT in a quiet moment it is worth contemplating what if I don’t get to the start line, on time and in good shape?

Like what you see?

Try one of our holistic training plans to really increase your chances of success

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Our plans are broken down into a 4 week blocks, with each block focused on a specific aspect of your training. Our team have built plans using their own experience, knowledge (and quite a collection of personal ‘lessons’ such as those above) to help you fully prepare and avoid some of the pitfalls, mistakes and pain we have suffered on our own Ultramarathon journeys. Each 4-week block includes details on preparing physically and mentally, as well as ensuring your equipment is ready and won’t let you down on the day.

When you purchase one of our plans, we will give you access to our members only Strava Club and Whatsapp group so you can talk to, be encouraged by, motivated and helped by other runners. It’s a club after all, and seeing other runners working towards their goals, sharing their highs and lows, and ultimately becoming your tribe and support network, will hugely increase your chance of success.

Our plans can be found here.

If you don’t see what you need in our standard plans, don’t hesitate to get in touch.

And then…

There’s just the minor matter of getting to the finish line!

More like this:

Finishing a big ultra – what does it take?

On reflection – reviewing performance at the Spine Challenger

Reflections on Resilience

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