9 Prac­tic­al Strategies For Sur­viv­ing (And Enjoy­ing) A Multi-Day Race

Thomas Watson Head Coach and Founder at Marathon Handbook Headshot

Writ­ten By Thomas Wat­son

Thomas Wat­son is an ultra-run­ner, UESCA-cer­ti­fied run­ning coach, and podi­um fin­ish­er of sev­er­al multi-day races — des­pite com­ing 100th the first time he tried one. He likes run­ning, good beer and, “for­tu­nately for us”, writ­ing about the former! He also writes at MarathonHandbook.com.

28 April 2020

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Read­ing Time: 9 minutes

Run­ning a multi-day stage ultra mara­thon race is pos­sibly the best way to escape the routine of mod­ern life that I know of. Removed from your nor­mal sur­round­ings, you’re thrust into an oth­er­worldly set­ting with a huge group of enthu­si­ast­ic (and appre­hens­ive) strangers to go through a phys­ic­ally and men­tally chal­len­ging jour­ney. Unlike oth­er tours or well­ness retreats, in a stage race you’re thrown into the fur­nace on day one and have no choice but to move for­ward — every single step of the race can only be taken by you. There’s a vital­ity to the exper­i­ence.

It’s why I love them. I made a mul­ti­tude of errors in my first stage race in Mad­a­gas­car, so after limp­ing over the fin­ish line I became meth­od­ic­al about my gear, my train­ing, and my race strategy. I’ve now com­pleted five stage races, and ended up work­ing with some of the most exper­i­enced stage racers in the world and here are my top nine prac­tic­al strategies for sur­viv­ing — and per­haps even enjoy­ing — your next stage race.

1. Just think about the next check­point

The ini­tial stages of a multi-day race can be very daunt­ing; you’re just get­ting going, and you’ve got lit­er­ally hun­dreds of kilo­metres in front of you.

In short­er events, it’s rel­at­ively easy to com­pre­hend the dis­tance you have to cov­er ahead of you. But in multi-day racing, it can be ter­ri­fy­ing — if not over­whelm­ing — to reflect on just how far you’ve got left to cov­er. This is espe­cially true in the first couple of days.

Avoid men­tal over­whelm by for­get­ting all about the fin­ish line; don’t even think about each day’s fin­ish line — just focus on the next check­point. Ultra X check­points are around 10km apart — that’s an easy-to-digest dis­tance, some­thing you can aim for and get through.

And once you reach one check­point, just focus on get­ting to the next. Then the next. One check­point at a time.

2. Walk!

Per­haps the biggest mis­con­cep­tion around multi-day stage races is that the aim is to run the entire way — it’s actu­ally a very small num­ber of par­ti­cipants who do this (if any). The truth is that if you walk the whole event at a brisk pace you can usu­ally do quite well.

Over the course of sev­er­al days, it’s com­mon to see the ‘tor­toise and hare’ effect play out: a steady walk­er will gradu­ally catch up with, then over­take, a shuff­ling run­ner. Not only that, but a reg­u­lar walk­er will typ­ic­ally be more con­sist­ent across the whole race — they’ll suf­fer much less from fatigue and injur­ies than someone who is con­stantly push­ing as hard as they can.

This is where hav­ing a pace strategy comes into play. If you accept early on that run­ning every single mile isn’t some­thing you’re going to be able to do, then you can plan to run/walk as much of the course as need be. It means you can man­age your exer­tion levels — run­ning when you feel you can, and walk­ing when you need a break.

3. Listen to your body… or even bet­ter, your RPE

In the nor­mal world, you might log every single workout on Strava and ana­lyse your pace, heart rate, and rel­at­ive effort. You can track and com­pare each part of your per­form­ance, and adjust accord­ingly.

Dur­ing a multi-day race in some far-flung land (the rolling hills of the Azores, for example) you’re much less likely to have access to all of your per­form­ance met­rics. What’s more, the con­di­tions of exot­ic stage races — the tem­per­at­ure, humid­ity, and gradi­ents — often mean that your per­form­ance is much slower than it would be at home.

That’s why I recom­mend using the met­ric ‘Rate of Per­ceived Exer­tion’, which is essen­tially a men­tal meas­ure of how hard you’re push­ing on a scale of 1 to 10 (1 being very light activ­ity and 10 being an unsus­tain­able sprint). This met­ric works as it takes account of your phys­ic­al exer­tion and the effect your sur­round­ings are hav­ing on you. I tend to find that main­tain­ing an RPE around 6 out of 10 (roughly the equi­val­ent of run­ning at a com­fort­able, con­ver­sa­tion­al pace) is some­thing that most trained run­ners can main­tain for a few hours in stage races.

If you’re con­tinu­ally push­ing your­self to the point where you couldn’t main­tain a con­ver­sa­tion, you’re prob­ably push­ing too hard. After all, multi-day races are all about keep­ing some fuel in the back pock­et for the next day’s run­ning.

4. Have a check­point strategy

Check­points are an essen­tial part of a multi-day race; you can top up on flu­ids, take some res­pite for a minute, and address any con­cerns you may have. In extreme con­di­tions, they can provide a great place for a 5–10 minute break from the heat.

Gen­er­ally, I find it a good idea not to dwell at check­points unless you really need to. If you’re feel­ing strong as you approach a check­point, my recom­mend­a­tion is to quickly top up on flu­ids and then con­tin­ue your race. When you stop at a check­point, it’s very easy to get com­fort­able and want to stay. And if you sit or lie down at a check­point, it gets harder and harder to get going again.

When I’m feel­ing strong, as I approach a check­point I’ll already have my water bottles in my hands and ready to top up, min­im­ising the time I’ve stopped for.

Don’t take any unne­ces­sary risks, but be aware that check­points can be a big time drain.

5. Get to the end of day two

Some time ago, I (rather ner­dily) grabbed the fin­ish­ing time data from thou­sands of run­ners of multi-day races from organ­isers’ web­sites, and sor­ted them into a spread­sheet. The main trend I noticed was that the major­ity of drop-outs occurred before the end of day two; in oth­er words, if you make it to the end of day two, your chances of fin­ish­ing skyrock­et.

While some of those drop-outs are inev­it­able due to phys­ic­al reas­ons such as injury or insuf­fi­cient train­ing, from exper­i­ence I’ve seen many cap­able run­ners throw in the tow­el in those first couple of days, simply because of how tax­ing the exper­i­ence is.

The first couple of days are often over­whelm­ing — the exot­ic envir­on­ment, changes in diet, sleep­ing out­doors — and when com­bined with ardu­ous phys­ic­al activ­ity, can be extremely uncom­fort­able. If you add on the men­tal bur­den of know­ing you’re only a frac­tion of the way through this exper­i­ence, it can be enough to con­vince even hardy ath­letes to throw in the tow­el.

How­ever, if you can sur­vive the first two days, you’ll be sur­prised at how your body and mind adapt over the rest of the event.   Sleep­ing in tents and run­ning all day becomes the new ‘nor­mal’. And with each day com­pleted, you get closer to that fin­ish line. 

6. Don’t drop out after com­plet­ing a stage

Anoth­er tip for your men­tal game — if you make it to the end of a day’s run­ning and want to quit, wait until the next morn­ing. As long as the med­ics are not recom­mend­ing that you drop out, stay in the game — at least overnight. You may be sur­prised how dif­fer­ent things look and feel in the morn­ing.

Drop­ping out after com­plet­ing a stage without good med­ic­al reas­on is a decision that could nag you for months or years after­wards — it often leads to run­ners going back and repeat­ing their race the fol­low­ing year.

If you’ve had a rough day on the trails, you owe it to your­self to get some rest before mak­ing any big decisions.

And in the morn­ing, if you can drag your­self to the start line, at least do that. If things are that bad, you can drop out at the first check­point. But if you reach the first check­point… you can prob­ably reach the next one. Then it’s just a mat­ter of tak­ing it one check­point at a time.

7. It’s all about the long day

It’s com­mon for 5–6 day stage races to include one par­tic­u­larly long day, often towards the lat­ter half of the event (for example, Ultra X Sri Lanka day four is 69km and Ultra X Jordan is sim­il­ar — the exper­i­ence of anti­cip­at­ing the long day is some­what fabled). Race organ­isers just love to throw this in as a wild­card, some­thing to keep us on our toes.

The good news is that if you can com­plete the long day, you’re almost guar­an­teed to com­plete the remain­ing slightly-easi­er day (or two) and reach the hal­lowed fin­ish line. The bad news is… you’ve got to com­plete the long day.

That’s why it’s prudent to base your entire week’s strategy around that long day. If you have any doubts about how you’re going to hold up dur­ing the long day, then be con­ser­vat­ive in the first few days.

For my first two stage races, I was very appre­hens­ive about the long days: my entire race strategy was ‘get to the start of the long day in the best pos­sible con­di­tion’ — this meant I went very cau­tiously dur­ing those first few days.

8. Be aware of the down­sides of going slow

Although I gen­er­ally advoc­ate being con­ser­vat­ive in stage races, it’s import­ant to be aware of the costs of choos­ing a ‘tor­toise’ strategy, and why you should still try to make good time.

The main down­side of going slow is that you’re out on the trails for longer. If you’re in a hot loc­a­tion and the race begins in the morn­ing, this means that you’re going to be out in the sun dur­ing the hot­test part of the day. This can be extremely phys­ic­ally and men­tally tax­ing, even if you’re con­serving energy by not run­ning. Heat-related ill­nesses like sun­stroke are unfor­tu­nately com­mon in hot stage races.

Anoth­er down­side to going slow is that you reach the next camp­site hours later than a run­ner would. This means less time to relax, social­ise, and recov­er. It can also mean arriv­ing to camp after sun­set, which means you have to go through all your post-run­ning routines (chan­ging, clean­ing your feet, attend­ing to any blisters, pre­par­ing your food) in the dark. If you arrive late into the even­ing, it also impacts how long you have to sleep. All of this can lead to a much more stress­ful and exhaust­ing exper­i­ence.

My recom­mend­a­tion is that when you walk, try to adopt a good march­ing pace. Over time it’s much faster than a reg­u­lar walk­ing pace, and not that dif­fer­ent to a slow jog — but much more sus­tain­able.

Inev­it­ably, some­thing always does not go to plan dur­ing a multi-stage race and when that hap­pens (it will hap­pen for every­body) you don’t want to find your­self already hov­er­ing around the cut-off times.

9. Anti­cip­ate dis­com­fort

This one may sound like a no-brain­er, but you should expect your stage race to be uncom­fort­able. Anti­cip­ate that it’s likely that at some point you’ll want to quit, and you’ll be temp­ted to throw in the tow­el and head back to the com­forts of a nearby hotel. Being pre­pared for this moment before it comes can help you deal with it once the pro­spect of drop­ping out is dangled in front of you.

And it’s not just the run­ning that will make you uncom­fort­able — it can be the relent­less heat, the humid­ity, the lack of shade, poor sleep — and even your diet. A recent study* of a self-sup­por­ted stage race (one in which you carry all your own food) showed that by the end of the race, every par­ti­cipant was in ketos­is — mean­ing their body was get­ting the major­ity of its energy from burn­ing fat as opposed to stored car­bo­hydrates. Mak­ing the trans­ition to ketos­is is in itself an uncom­fort­able, drain­ing exper­i­ence — lay­er­ing this on top of a multi-day stage race can make you miser­able. It’s not to say that ketos­is is a giv­en in sup­por­ted stage races, but it could be a fur­ther factor that amp­li­fies any dis­com­fort. Fur­ther­more, as Ultra X allows com­pet­it­ors a bag which is trans­por­ted between camp­sites (the events are not self-suf­fi­cient) the cal­or­ie defi­cit which is com­mon in races like the Mara­thon des Sables is not so com­mon­place.

Pre­pare your­self by anti­cip­at­ing that dis­com­fort, and ration­al­ising that it’s all part of the jour­ney.

*Car­bo­hydrate intake and ketos­is in self-suf­fi­cient multi-stage ultramara­thon run­ners, Edwards et al 2020.

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