How To Crush Multi-Stage Ultras

Mul­ti-day, ultra dis­tance run­ning races like the Tran­sRock­ies Run take a spe­cial kind of toll on the body. Run­ning, rest­ing and fuel­ing become com­plex jobs with just day-long breaks between marathon-length, high alti­tude trail races.

I com­plet­ed the three-day ver­sion of the Tran­sRock­ies Run in August, fin­ish­ing in sec­ond place in the open men divi­sion. This per­for­mance far sur­passed my 12th place fin­ish in the six-day run in 2012. While I was hap­py with just fin­ish­ing both events, these are some tips that helped me improve my times dra­mat­i­cal­ly in 2013. In hind­sight get­ting to the podi­um wasn’t easy, but with some plan­ning and strat­e­gy, it’s some­thing that many run­ners can accom­plish with sur­pris­ing frequency.

Hurt Dur­ing Train­ing
This doesn’t mean get injured; it means hurt. Run hard­er in train­ing than you think you can, at least dur­ing one train­ing day per week.

Do Speed Work
The long run is the heart and soul of a dis­tance runner’s train­ing rou­tine, but that doesn’t mean that speed work can be neglect­ed. Ded­i­cate one day a week to improv­ing leg speed and high-end out­put with sprints and hill climbs.

Set Real­is­tic Goals
Most run­ners should­n’t gun for the podi­um in a big name race filled with elite run­ners. Enter a race with a real­is­tic goal. For many races, just fin­ish­ing is a high bar to reach. For less­er-known races with great com­pe­ti­tion among cit­i­zen ath­letes, a shot on the podi­um might be a rea­son­able place to aim. Know your lim­its and be proud of meet­ing and exceed­ing them. 

Fuel Cor­rect­ly
On any race longer than an hour, fuel becomes a big fac­tor. The body just can­not burn fat for long enough to sus­tain a four or five hour effort with­out burn­ing sug­ar. I chose to con­sume at least 125 calo­ries each hour in gels, more if I can stom­ach it. I ate a large meal each evening and a mea­ger break­fast at least two hours before the start of rac­ing each morn­ing. I also grabbed hand­fuls of pota­to chips and Salt­Stick elec­trolyte replace­ment tablets at aid stations.

Test Fuel In Prac­tice
As impor­tant as race fuel is, one must test it out in train­ing. Nev­er try out a new food on race day.

Strate­gizeI went out slow on day one to feel out my fit­ness, the course and the effects of alti­tude. I chose to pick up my pace halfway into day one and charge hard on day two, which is a short, 13-mile sprint over 12,000-foot Hope Pass. My hard effort on day two gave me a 9‑minute cush­ion over the third place fin­ish­er — a cush­ion he was unable to erase on the tough 24-mile third stage.

Pre­pare To Suf­fer
Run­ning fast is hard. It’s going to hurt. Pre­pare men­tal­ly to hurt for a few hours. Just take solace in the fact that run­ning near the front of the pack makes the day a lot short­er than mov­ing more slowly.

Back-To-Back Long Train­ing
If fol­low­ing a marathon-style train­ing reg­i­men, add a few back-to-back long days as the stage race approach­es. The key to a strong mul­ti-day effort is link­ing mul­ti­ple marathon days with very lit­tle recov­ery time between efforts. It’s good to prac­tice this before hit­ting the course.

Train For The Course
The Tran­sRock­ies Run is very moun­tain­ous, with 30,000 feet of climb­ing in the six day edi­tion (which I did in 2012). Make sure to train on the same type of ter­rain you expect to race to build course-spe­cif­ic strengths.

Don’t Neglect Down­hills
Run­ning fast down­hill is tough but often over­looked by run­ners in train­ing. About a third of the Tran­sRock­ies Run is down­hill! With train­ing, you can take advan­tage of those scream­ing descents to knock down some super fast splits even late in the race, save time on your feet and enjoy a com­pa­ra­bly low heart rate.