First thing is first, I do not profess to be an expert on this topic. However when I entered my first multiday race, the Big Red Run (BRR) in 2013, the first thing I did was Google “multiday racing.” This strategy had served me well in my preparation for a half marathon, a marathon and even an ultra marathon so I assumed I would get something of interest. I was wrong. There was nothing. Not a thing!
So I spoke to as many people as I could about multiday racing, posted on CoolRunning and Facebook looking for tips, read biographies by runners who had run multiday events, I even looked at multiday cycling events for tips. Eventually, I stumbled on Bryon Powell’s book, Relentless Forward Progress. While he doesn’t specifically deal with multi-day racing, his book is a bible for any ultra marathoner and I was able to take a few key pieces of information from it and apply it to multiday racing.
In the end, a few things worked well and a few things really didn’t work at all.
This year, I entered and raced the Atacama Crossing. I was able to tweak those things that had failed me during BRR 2013 and in the end I was pretty happy with the choices I had made.
So what leads me to this blog is not that I suddenly consider myself an expert on multiday racing after only two events. What motivates me to write is the knowledge that there is absolutely nothing out on the internet or readily accessible for someone contemplating such an event. So I want to share with you what worked for me and what didn’t work so well. I emphasise the word ‘me’ here. What works for you might be very different and before I go in to my tips, I leave you with Dean Karnazes tip for multiday racing (taken from the extras clip in Desert Runners) “Listen to everyone, follow no one.”
1. A 100 miler program is a good starting point.
I used a 100 miler program from Bryon Powell’s book. I then tweaked it to include the most important aspect of multiday training which leads me to point two….
2. Back to back to back runs.
Back to back to back runs are the single most important thing in training for a multiday race.
To begin with, I started with back to backs. That involved running anywhere from 20-40km on Saturday and backing it up on Sunday with a similar distance. The logic is that you need to get used to running on tired legs.
As you get stronger build up to back to back to back long runs. So for me, I would do 20-30km on a Friday after work (hitting the trails in the dark is also a great way to prepare for the long day where you will be out in the dark unless you’re super fast). Wake up Saturday and run another 30-40km. Then anything between 20-40km Sunday.
If I knew my motivation to run on Sunday was likely to be missing, I’d enter a race or plan to meet a friend so that I’d be accountable and make sure I got the session done no matter how tired I was. Remember, you’re going to be more tired than you could ever imagine running a multiday event – get used to running when you really don’t feel like it.
3. Train specific to the terrain
Really think about what this means. This was one of the things I didn’t do so well first time around.
BRR is a lot of sand, so every weekend, I would drive out to the Great Ocean Road to train on the beach. This was the most inefficient use of my time. Firstly, I was spending four hours return in the car – this was a waste of my precious time. Secondly, running on the sandy shore of Torquay did absolutely nothing to prepare me for the dunes of the Simpson Desert.
So, if you have dunes – go train on them, but for many of us who don’t live anywhere near the beach, all that driving is going to chew up time that you could be training, so focus on what is around you and how you can use that to mimic the demands of the terrain on your body. I live in the hills so I trained on those hills so I got stronger and better able to handle the ascents of the dunes. The rocky uneven terrain I used to mimic the uneven impact of the sand on my shonky ankles.
Second time around I didn’t bother with any sand training, I just ran all my miles on hills. By the time it got to race time, my legs were strong enough to handle the desert.
4. Hit the gym
You are going to be carrying that pack a very long way. You need to be strong to do this. As a runner you might have strong legs, but I bet your shoulders and back could do with a spruce up. You don’t have to start lifting like Arnie, but do some work to help your poor old shoulders out – they will thank you for it. While you’re at it, focus on your core strength too. That pack will make you its biatch if you don’t get strong.
5. Prehab is cheaper than rehab
Factor in recovery weeks during your training. Get friendly with a good myotherapist. Take your spikey ball with you everywhere and impress your work mates with your desk stretches – when they ask you what on earth you’re doing and you say you’re going to run 250km across the desert it gives you office credit to do what you like (two years later and I’m still working in a corporate office bare foot).
1. Test everything!
You do not want to stock up on freeze dried food to find that on day three of the race, you cannot handle another mouthful.
On one or two of my back to back to back run weekends, I ate only what I planned to take with me out in to the desert. To rid myself of the temptation of the pantry, I went camping on these weekends. This made the whole thing a fun adventure and come race day, I knew exactly what foods I could tolerate whilst running back to back efforts.
2. Don’t confine yourself to the freeze dried prepackaged meals
I have food allergies and I am a vegan so none of those pre-packaged ready made meals work for me. This was a blessing in disguise. Both races, I have had to deal with the envious looks of other runners as they sit down to a breakfast of spag boll while I indulge in oats with cranberries and chia seeds.
Those pre-packaged things are loaded with garlic which can upset your gut when you run. By the sounds and smells coming from the porter loos, they’ll also either block you up completely or have you risking a “code brown.”
Here are some foods I took with me to the desert that worked really well (they’re all wheat free, fructose friendly and vegan):
– Corn cous-cous (though if you eat wheat or gluten you could opt for regular cous cous or spelt or khamut).
– Rice noodles
– Dried seaweed flakes (yummy and salty)
– Dried fruit (cranberries, blueberries and bananas)
– Textured vegetable protein (TVP – available at health food stores and most Asian grocery stores)
– Oats (soak overnight for easy digestion or use quick oats)
– Chia seeds and sesame seeds (both high in tryptophan which will help you sleep at night)
– Trail mix
– Vegetable chips
– Banana chips (Coles banana chips don’t contain honey)
– Sunwarrior protein powder
– Cliff bars
The only freeze dried foods I took were plain rice and a plain vegetable mix (no spices or added garbage).
1. Test everything!
Things will start to chafe in places you never thought could chafe. Test everything you plan to take with you and test them in racing conditions. For example, I have a Solomon skirt that I adore racing in. It’s great for ultras. However, after three days of running with no wash, the fabric created a weird rash on the outside of my thighs. I of course did not discover its ability to do this until day three of the Atacama Crossing. Had I just worn the compression shorts I had tested and planned on wearing right up until the morning before the race, I would have had one less rash to deal with.
2. Find a pack that suits your body type
Not many packs fit a female body well. I ended up using an Inov8 Race Pro 2 30 litre pack for the Atacama Crossing. I took out the back padding and replaced it with my Thermarest as I could inflate it slightly so that the back of the pack contoured into the shape of my spine. I then made a whole heap of changes to the pack which included adding front bottle holders so I could keep a better tab on how much I was drinking during the race and I cut off every loose strap as they not only add weight but they annoy the crap out of me when they flap about in the wind for 250km straight!
For an event like BRR, it’s not necessary to carry everything you need for the full week so you can get a smaller pack and that generally means you have more options. My advice on this one is try before you buy. I have four packs sitting in my gear closet right now and only two of them ever get used – the perils of buying online. One is too long for my torso and the other chafes my collar bones. If you’re going to be using that pack for 250km, it needs to be comfortable.
And make sure you start training with your pack early!
3. Buy big shoes
This was my biggest learning curve. For BRR, I wore shoes one size bigger than my normal size. Over the course of the week my feet swelled and by the final day, I could not take my shoes off for fear of not getting them back on. The result of swollen feet in tight shoes was disastrous. Had it not been for the amazing and creative medics at BRR, I would have had to drop from the race.
Second time around, I bought shoes two sizes too big for me. They were perfect. Minimal blisters and minimal toe nail carnage as a result.
4. Look after your feet
If you get a hot spot, stop and tape it. Read up on blister prevention before the race. Stock up on Hydropel and/or moleskin if that works for you. Take gaiters (sand will annihilate your feet) and make sure your sneakers are not the type that will let all the sand in through the front mesh of the shoe.
Don’t underestimate the importance of socks. My feet were such a mess during BRR and that was partly due to my sock choice. I wore Injinji trail socks with compression socks over the top. This worked great on training runs in the cold, wet Dandenong Ranges but was a nightmare in the hot Simpson Desert. This combination caused my feet to overheat. The compression socks were such a pain to get on and off that I ended up leaving hot spots because I just couldn’t be bothered to deal with them. They soon turned into nasty blisters on blisters on blisters.
Second time around, I wore Injinji liners and Drymax socks over the top. This was a great combination. I didn’t use any cream or powder to prevent blisters and my gaiters broke midway through the race. I had river crossings, sand and heat to contend with and only had four very small blisters by the finish and didn’t lose a single toe nail (compared to about a zillion blisters and no toenails at the finish of BRR).
5. Give poles a go (or not)
I didn’t take poles to the Simpson Desert. This was partly because I totally underestimated how slow I would be running at times and how much I would need to walk at times.
I decided to take poles to the Atacama Desert thinking I would only use them on the long day. I ended up using them from the very first to the very last moment of the race. They saved my back, helped me climb and kept me steady when I was fatigued.
To each their own – if you’re a fast runner and plan on running the whole thing, you certainly won’t need poles. But if you are a mere mortal, give them a go. Personally I loved them and wouldn’t do a desert race without them now.
6. Don’t be cheap on sleeping gear
I took only what I needed and I paid for it dearly. I was so cold during the desert nights of the Atacama Crossing that I didn’t sleep for any more than two hours a night. This just added to my fatigue and delayed my recovery.
If there is ever a “next time” for me, I will be investing in a warmer sleeping bag/liner and sleeping mat and warm clothes (thermals and jacket – I was cheap and nasty primarily because I didn’t want to ruin anything with a 4deserts logo, but in hindsight, a good night’s sleep is worth its weight in gold).