Ultra marathons take a long time! You are on your feet for many hours, getting cold, tired and hungry, all of which are massive contributing factors to making mistakes. I have made plenty myself and will no doubt make many more in the future, so here are 10 of the biggest ultra marathon mistakes to avoid in your next race:
1. Setting off too fast
At ultra marathons of all distances at least a third of the field tend to set off as if they are running a 10km! Nerves and adrenaline make us all inclined to run too fast at the start, particularly as your easy ultra marathon pace often feels ridiculously slow. Always ask yourself if you are running at a pace that you can sustain throughout the race and if the answer is no, then slow down!
2. Trying something new on race day
It’s always tempting to change something on race day, whether that’s the shiny bit of kit that you couldn’t resist buying in a twitchy moment of taper madness, or the fancy gel your super-fast mate swears by. Don’t do it! You might get away with it, but the more likely outcome is that the swanky new shoes will rub raw blisters on your heels, or the gel will have you throwing up in the bushes while the rest of the field streams off over the horizon. Stick to the kit and nutrition that you have practised with in training and you will minimise the things that might go wrong on race day.
3. Forgetting to eat and drink
Another victim of that race day excitement, it’s easy to forget to eat and drink enough early on and then often difficult to do so later as your body begins to struggle. Have a plan to eat and drink little and often right from the start and stick to it!
4. Thinking you’re invincible
As you prepare for ultra marathons and run longer distances in training and races, it’s easy to start to believe that you’re invincible. You feel fit and strong and nothing can stop you! Don’t forget that your body still needs rest and recovery, and don’t neglect the strength and conditioning and regular sessions with a foam roller. Above all, a long ultra running career requires gradual conditioning of the body and time to recover from hard efforts – avoid running too far, too soon, or racing every weekend without a break, despite the best advice of your running friends on Facebook!
5. Assuming the runner in front knows where they’re going
Take responsibility for following the route yourself in races; all too often if you follow someone you will discover that they didn’t know where they were going either. If you can’t read a map, then forego your next planned purchase of fancy kit and invest in a navigation course instead. Remember that even on a fully marked course signs can be tampered with or blow away, so it is always worth having a rough idea of where you are.
6. Giving up too soon
While marathon runners talk about hitting the wall, ultra runners discover that they are out there long enough to hit several walls, and run out the other side of them. If you are feeling terrible in an ultra marathon, there is every possibility that you will be feeling fantastic in a few miles’ time (and vice versa, unfortunately). Always focus on trying to work through any problems and push on through bad patches to see if things improve. Never quit in a checkpoint, where the decision is easy to make, but try heading a mile further up the trail to see if things improve.
7. Failing to address small problems early
It’s easy to ignore the slight rub of a trainer or feeling a bit thirsty, but small niggles can easily become big problems if not dealt with early. If you notice something doesn’t feel quite right, stop and deal with it straight away, rather than waiting for it to become a potentially race ending issue later.
8. Wasting time in checkpoints
It’s cold, wet and miserable outside and the checkpoint is so lovely and warm and cosy, with caring volunteers and tasty food! It’s all too easy to linger, but only a few minutes longer than needed at each checkpoint can quickly add up to an extra hour on your time by the end of the race. Not only that, but it’s easy to start chatting to people who are still there because they are thinking of stopping and to be infected by those feelings of doubt. Have a plan for what you need to do as you come into the checkpoint and get straight back out of that door as soon as you have sorted everything you need.
9. Getting overwhelmed by the enormity of what’s ahead
It’s easy to be daunted by the scale of what you are trying to achieve and to be overwhelmed by the number of miles still to cover. Make sure that you break the race down into manageable chunks and try to stay in the moment, only allowing yourself to focus on the section to the next checkpoint (or sometimes to the next tree at particularly low points!).
10. Neglecting mental preparation
As ultra runners we spend a lot of time on physical training, but despite the oft repeated adage that ‘ultra running is 90% mental and the rest is in your head’, we dedicate far less time to mental preparation. With ultra running, knowledge is power, so spend plenty of time before race day becoming familiar with the course through recces, Google Maps and Streetview, as well as reading blogs from other runners. Spend time visualising and planning how you will deal with different issues and think in advance about the situations which you would consider acceptable reasons for not finishing. Most importantly, think about the reasons why you are doing this – you need to remember these when things get tough!
When you are out running for the length of time of an ultra marathon it is almost inevitable that things will go wrong and you will make mistakes; the most important thing is how you deal with them. I’d love to hear about the biggest mistakes you have made in ultra marathons, particularly as it might help me avoid some of them myself!