Over all terrains, Marco Consani is a leading international ultra runner. He’s raced many ultra marathons over distances up and beyond 100 miles. Here are Marco’s top-10 tips what NOT to do in an ultra race.
1 Thou shalt not leave anything to chance
Plan everything meticulously. Wherever you are racing, take with you the food you want to eat both for your dinner the night before and breakfast. Only by doing this can you be 100% sure that what you eat will not upset your stomach. Plus, it means you won’t be stuck looking for somewhere to eat at 10pm the night before the race! Practice your race-morning routine several times in advance of the big event. If you are going for a long training run then treat that entire morning as if it was race day. Eat breakfast as you would on race day and start running at the same time the race will begin.
Some pro cycling teams have their routines down to a fine art. Riders even take their own bedding with them so they have the best chance of getting a perfect night’s sleep. Okay, this may look a bit strange at the airport check-in desk – and to be honest it’s probably too expensive for us mere mortals to try and carry sheets, duvets and pillows around the world – but the point is that little things can make a big difference, especially before an ultra running race. As well as food, I take my own coffee and cafetière to every race so I don’t have to force down the harsh hotel breakfast coffee. Oh, and just in case there isn’t a kettle (a lot of European hotels don’t have one) I’ll take one of them too!
2 Thou shalt not go chasing the calories
So you have your evening dinner and breakfast sorted, you’ve checked your kit a hundred times or more and then you decide, in great wisdom, that maybe you should blitz-fuel yourself ahead of the following day’s race. I don’t know why but there is something – and I’m as guilty as charged – in an ultra runner’s brain that makes us think we need to eat mega calories in the final 12 hours before a race.
Do you normally eat a bag of Danish pastries or a massive pack of chocolates before your long training run? No, of course you don’t, so why do it before a race? If you do you will likely spend half the race looking for the nearest bush or have to brave the portable toilet that everyone else who ate pastries and chocolate has already used.
3 Thou shalt not follow the fashion
It’s amazing how many people still fall into the trap of thinking that if you buy some super bit of high-tech gear because some other runner happened to win a race wearing it the week before it will give you magical powers. No gear (no matter how amazing) will make up for inadequate training or injury. Be smart. Train in your race gear, sleep in your race gear, do whatever you want in it, but make sure you know it inside out before that race starts.
4 Thou shalt not go off too fast
Anyone can run the same pace as an elite ultra runner for the first mile or so…. but can you keep it up for 100 miles? Know your limitations and keep asking yourself the same question: Can I sustain this? An ultra race doesn’t really start until it enters the last third, so if you race the first half I guarantee that when you get to the final third you will feel like you’ve been shot. This is a common mistake made by many, including myself when I first started running ultras. I still see it happening in every race I do now. Start conservatively and save your best running until the final third of the race (like the track runner in the video below!)
5 Thou shalt not take it out on the crew
Be nice to your support team. These guys and girls are there to help you and have given up their time to do so. Smile and thank them every time you see them. The last thing you want to feel on a long ultra run is guilt, but this is exactly what will eat you up if you snap angrily at your support crew because they handed you they wrong flavour energy gel! If you are happy then your support crew will be happy, and in turn they will be of greater assistance to you. A win, win for everyone.
6 Thou shalt not cheat
Cheating in an ultra can take many forms – taking a shortcut, a lift in a car, not carrying the required safety kit, the use of drugs. Don’t do it; you are only cheating yourself. If you do you will feel a complete fraud when you go home wearing that new race t-shirt that you don’t deserve. Ultra running is a fantastic sport that relies on the honesty and sincerity of everyone that does it. And while its profile continues to rise and commercialisation of the sport increases, I hope that it keeps the values that make it so great. Anyone found to have intentionally cheated should be banned. No arguments.
7 Thou shalt not take oneself too seriously
Ultra running should be a sport that works in tandem with other important things your life, and ultimately makes you happy. Don’t take it too seriously and don’t let it completely take over your life. Make sure you still have time for family and friends… and don’t bore them to death with tales of chaffing, toilet visits, time splits and pacing!
8 Thou shalt not try to be a hero
So you’ve trained for six months to prepare for a 100-mile race. Your family are all there cheering you on but your race isn’t going well. You’ve had stomach problems, foot issues and are way behind on schedule. You’ve still got 25 miles to go and it’s looking likely that you’ll have to walk it all. You finish to cheers from the crowd shouting, ‘what a hero’. Yes, you are a hero… but nobody will remember this when you start your six-month recovery back to fitness.
I know a lot of people will agree with me when I say you are not a failure if you do not finish (DNF) a race. For me, I think it takes guts to admit defeat and pull out of a race. I believe this is far better than soldiering on and finishing, but at the same time ruining your body in the process. You only have one body and you have to treat it with care and respect. Push it to its limits too often and it will start to fall apart.
In my opinion it is much better to admit defeat, wipe your wounds and have a shorter recovery, which then means more consistent training and a chance at another race. I’d much rather be this person than the one who ran 100 miles with a broken foot, and, although having a good story to tell, is side-lined for six months.
9 Thou shalt not bite off more than one can chew
You have just run your first ultra – 33 miles and you loved it. What a feeling! During that adrenaline-surged post-race high you sign up for two 100-mile races, the next one being in six weeks time. Let me tell you how much you will love those races – not at all! It’s much better to take ultra running baby steps and ensure you recover fully between each race. The first time you step up the distance it will take longer to recover properly, so avoid the temptation to go too big too soon.
10 Thou shalt not race the recovery
I’ve seen it before when you look at a race forum page and spot runners posting messages on Strava saying how macho they are that the day after a 100-mile race they managed a four-mile recovery run. Good for you. You are my hero. Don’t do it – your body needs time to recover. I take at least a week off after racing a ‘shorter’ ultra and up to two weeks for a longer one. I will, however, walk, swim or cycle, as they can all aid recovery, but I don’t do any running. Having this time off helps you reset, both physically and mentally. Or in my case, get all the DIY jobs done around the house! Yes, I can hear my wife, Debbie, laughing at that one!
*** Related post: The A-Z of Ultrarunning ***