Researching Your Event’s Route

Each Ultra event is different. Knowing the details of your event and the route itself means you can tailor your training to prepare for the specific demands of the event. For example, if your event is all on road  you can focus all your running to road; equally if you know the vertical profile of the event you can ensure you are getting sufficient hill training in. Specificity is key.

We have provided a worksheet to allow you to detail your event research here.

Although our plans encourage you to research your event in the first block of training, it shouldn’t be a static (once only) activity. The further you go through your training the more you will learn about yourself, your kit and the event. Use this to keep your worksheet up to date and to ensure you keep everything specific to your event (e.g. kit you are carrying, clothes you are wearing, and paces you are aiming for),

How do I research my event?

There are a few key resources for event research; the organiser, weather, previous participants (including online forums), maps, and reconnaissance (recce).

Organiser. Most organisers will provide maps and vertical profiles for their events along with details on checkpoint locations, distances between them and cut off times. All of these details are important and should be used to populate the ‘event research template‘ provided. The organiser will also likely provide a minimum kit list; this is the minimum, not the absolute.

Weather. Researching normal weather conditions and considering safety coverage will allow you to make informed equipment choices. Good sources for weather include the Met Office (for the UK) and some of the mountain weather websites (e.g. MWIS or Met Office mountain weather)

Previous participants can tell you a lot about the course, the demands and any specific details to consider. Look for forums and ask questions, or talk to people you know that have done the event before. They can tell you which bits are particularly difficult or provide details on aspects that caught them out – note all of these for your research.

Maps. If the organiser provides a map or a GPS file (.gpx) take a look and study the route. Identify the terrain and likely surface from what you see on the map (this can be cross referenced with satelite images or recce runs). Use maps to help you understand the proportions of the route that are on different surfaces (e.g. Road, Trail, Forest tracks, etc). Maps can also be useful to get a sense of gradients (most mapping tools allow you to see gradients as well).

Recce. If you have the luxury of pre-running (or walking) parts of your route you will get a really good sense of the terrain and conditions under foot. Although this isn’t always possible it is the best way to understand the detail of your event. Take note of key aspects like tricky navigation, water availability (if water isn’t provided), where the tough hills are, what the terrain and underfoot conditions are like (and how it might be in different weather conditions), where toilets are, road crossings, emergency bail out routes/options, key features, etc.

Anything you can learn about your route before the day is invaluable (although for some a recce takes away the magic of doing something new and exciting on event day). If you are short of time for recce we would highly recommend prioritising any stretches where you will be in the dark, or where there’s a lot of trails crossing (they all look the same on the day!)

Collating your research

Completing our free work sheet will allow you to collate the key details for your event. Remember though, this isn’t a static piece of research, every time you learn something new ensure you update your research so it is as complete and detailed as you need (want) it to be.

The worksheet is only a suggestion, we often supplement with a paper map so we can scribble details on it. Studying the map is also useful pre-event as part of your ‘visualisation‘.  We wouldn’t expect you to memorise the whole route (!) but doing a paper based ‘fly through’ can be useful; doing this alongside your research will ensure you are as prepared as possible for what’s coming.

How to use your research

Your research can be used for three key things: ensuring your training is as specific as possible; to ensure you are appropriately equipped; and to ensure you understand the paces and timings you will need to meet.

Understanding the terrain – Specificity in training

Use your research to understand gradients, terrain, vertical coverage, and distance between checkpoints/feed stations. Using this information you can ensure you tailor your training (especially your long runs) to match the demands of your event. Specifically you can:

– Ensure your hill training matches (or is harder than) the gradients and lengths of hills on your course.

– Carry the amount of water and food you will need to carry between feed stations. Or if there are no feed stations calculate what you will need to carry.

– Break your long runs into the same ‘chunks’ you will have on your event and practice stopping. Eating/drinking, and getting going again after each break is a mental challenge you must practice.

Optimising your equipment

Knowledge of your event specifics will help you optimise your equipment. How you optimise may include consideration of:

What to carry.

Given the terrain, distance from support/help, and weather norms you can make informed decisions about how much and what kind of safety equipment to carry. For example, if your route is mountainous, in autumn, with few competitors, and up to 2 hours from potential help your safety equipment needs will be significantly more than if the event is 10km loops of a country park.

Minimum kit list versus a sensible kit list. Event organisers will normally mandate a minimum kit list; this is the minimum. But don’t scrimp on safety kit. An event’s minimum kit list is just that!! If you are expecting to be mid-pack having extra warm/dry kit beyond the event minimum is a smart move.

What to wear.

Similarly what you choose to wear (and the options you have available at the start line and in drop bags) will all be driven by your research. Key factors to consider are footwear and your clothing. Your shoe research (see our article on What Shoe do I need?) should be conducted early so you can train in the shoes you intend to run in. For clothing you will need to cover a range of temperatures and weather conditions. Layers always work. We tend to have (at least): baselayer, midlayer, wind proof layer and water proof layer. This is supplemented by hat, gloves, buff/neck gaiter, and sunglasses.

Nutrition and hydration.

How much you carry will depend on what the event provides. Some events will have regular feed stations providing a variety of foods and drinks. In this case you will only need to carry enough water and food to get you between stops (you will calculate how long that may take in your research).

Planning nutrition for Ultras in a big topic which we have covered here. And you need to train your gut just as much as your legs. This research should inform you of the types and quantities of calories you need to start training to consume.

On unsupported events you may not be able to carry sufficient water for the event, in this case you will need a filter of some kind, and knowledge of usable water sources on the route. Water treatment will depend on where you are and the water sources you have available.

Filters or purifier?

Water filters remove particles and protect against bacteria and parasites; purifiers protect against bacteria, parasites and viruses. In the UK you probably only need the former (unless you are taking water from near a popular wild camping spot where there’s a risk of human waste getting into the water supply).

How long?

Knowing how your event breaks down into ‘chunks/legs’ and how long each may/should take is a key aspect of your research. A lot of events have time cut offs so being aware of these, and the pace required to keep inside them is important. You can use previous event results to understand the spread of times, some events will include CP times in the results to give you a more detailed understanding of the real times people take across the terrain (terrain and underfoot conditions can affect on the day pace significantly).

If your event has multiple checkpoints calculate the distance, vertical coverage and likely time for each leg. Also note the cut off times, and required pace between each check point to achieve the cut off.

If your event doesn’t have multiple check points, or there are large distances between them, break your route into smaller chunks (around 10 miles each). Use significant features to delineate each ‘chunk’ (e.g. a road or river crossing) and use these to compete the ‘leg’ details as discussed previously.

In summary

Researching your event and its route is a key aspect of mental preparation for your Ultra. It will allow you to tailor your pre-event preparation as well as helping you visualise your challenge. This includes breaking the route into bite-size chunks…on the day one chunk at a time will help you keep some of the mental demons at bay…

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