Everyone faces tough moments in Ultramarathons, and you have to be prepared to deal with those you can predict and be ready to think your way through those that you didn’t see coming.
Jason Koop, Training Essentials for Ultrarunning.
Any Ultra has the potential to present you with hurdles to overcome, and rarely will you finish without something challenging you (beyond the distance and terrain!). A lot of potential issues can be prevented effectively before you start, but there will always be unforeseen problems.
How you respond is covered in our article here, where we discuss ADAPT (Accept, Diagnose,Analyse, Develop a plan, Take action)
One of the best things to do prior to an event is to work through the likely scenarios and consider how you will respond and what you will do to overcome the problem; we use an if/then approach i.e. if thing X happens, then I will….
We can’t list every conceivable issue, but what follows is a list of things we’ve seen and/or dealt with (sometimes more than once!)
First, relax. Getting more lost is not a good option. Take your time. Better to spend 10 mins working it out than 10 mins running in the wrong direction. Don’t fall into micro navigating – use big features first to gain confidence. Importantly, use confirmation markers – once you have decided where you are and where you are going, work out something you should see if you have got it right i.e. when I turn the corner of this ridgeline I should see a river in the valley below. Plan the confirmation markers before you start moving again (otherwise you risk fitting what you do see to the map, rather than the other way round).
Less likely with a vest style pack but we’ve seen shoulder straps detach, clips break. And we’ve seen big rips/tears turning a pack into a ‘kit spreader’…
Solutions: a couple of zip ties and a length of Duck tape can work wonders. If your pack splits but everything is in dry bags then all you have to do is find a way to keep your dry bags in your main pack – tape them in!
Clips/straps etc finding a way to connect things with zip ties (possibly lightly padded with a buff and some tape) should get you to where you need to go.
Losing kit is a nightmare, especially when you need it! So plan ahead, tie on the important stuff and make sure everything is kept secure and zipped in. Building habits during your training so everything has a place, and is kept in its place will help when the brain is not working.
Carry a small powerbank and the requisite leads. If you are relying on electronic nav devices on an unmarked course we recommend always having a paper map back up and the skill to use it. (Or have more than one electronic nav device…but a map is lighter!)
GPS tracking… you don’t need a GPS watch. It shouldn’t be an issue if you lose battery on it. But it will annoy you and sap your mental energy if it does. Plan your power arrangements and don’t change them on the day (like switching on additional battery sapping features!).
Treat any hot spots early (pre-event taping can help prevent hot spots in the first case). Leaving a blister too late can result in a DNF so it’s better to spend a few minutes dealing with an early hot spot than waiting for a fully blister to form.
The causes of cramp are still the source of much debate and many myths. Whatever the cause, if you cramp there are sensible steps you can take. Firstly, ease off (jog or walk if you need), then assess – are you behind on nutrition and/or hydration? Is it unduly hot? Regardless, we’ve found getting some nutrition and having a good long drink tend to work wonders.
If sun is forecast get the cream on early. But bear in mind sweat will wash it off eventually! We are fans of staying covered if its sunny, especially the head. Hot weather arm warmers can be useful and if you are fair skinned or susceptible to burning leg cover might be a wise move.
If you are dehydrated you get the water on board! Dehydration can often link with heat issues – if that’s the case, cool down as well as hydrating. In extreme heat you will need to ease off…especially if you are sweating heavily.
Look after you feet, and they’ll look after you! The longer and wetter an event, the more of a problem immersion injury can be. Whilst you can’t stop your feet getting wet (especially in the UK) you can ensure you look after them. That includes airing and drying them at checkpoints. Use some powder if you can. But make sure you let your feet breathe and dry whenever you can; if it’s really wet we will remove footwear first in a check point, and put it back on last.
The signs of getting behind on your nutrition can be subtle and insidious. But recognising them is a critical skill for the Ultra athlete. With a well developed nutrition plan (see here) you should never fall behind, however, it can happen to the best of us (and getting behind on plan is common!). Key signs are around your pace and ability to push (the tank is empty) but often it aligns with increasingly random niggles and pains. The niggles and pains are the brain’s attempt to get you to stop – it knows you are under-fueled and it will protect the body. In this case a gel straight away helps get some calories in but make sure you follow it up with a good amount of food/nutrition.
Regardless of the cause the first step is again to think ADAPT…most importantly do not panic. Some injuries will walk off, others are going to be more ‘problematic’. If your injury prevents you from continuing your first priority is to stop things getting worse. If it’s cold, layer up. If it’s raining, get dry. If you are bleeding, treat the wounds, etc.
Secondly, if you need help, action the emergency plan given to you by the event organisers. This could be calling a central number, using your emergency beacon, or in a bad situation calling 999.
If you stop to help someone else, your first priority is still to stop things getting worse. And that includes looking after yourself. The first step at any incident is to ensure we do not become a casualty ourselves!
On an Ultra you will get mentally fatigued. Use your training, including things like visualisation, to recognise mental fatigue and do not let yourself be seduced by the easy option (aka quitting!).
Building mental resilience is a key factor in Ultra training. The mental ‘black hole’ can take many forms but ultimately is that deep vacuum that saps your morale. Having a very clear goal to hang onto and focus on will help get you through the other side. And having someone you can call (assuming mobile signal) can also help – ensure your ‘phone a friend’ is someone that will be supportive but get you back on track and moving, not someone that’s going to tell you to stop!
One golden rule we have is ‘never quit in a checkpoint’ (unless you are physically incapable). Checkpoints make it ‘easy’ to quit mentally so always get yourself out the door and on the road, just doing that can often be the small victory you need to start climbing out of the mental hole you are in.
If you go long enough without sleep, hallucinations are likely to pay a visit…they are normal (if you do abnormal things!), so generally nothing to worry about.