Written By Thomas Watson
Thomas is an ultra runner, UESCA-certified running coach, and podium finisher of several multi-day races. He likes running, good beer, and writing about the former! He also writes at MarathonHandbook.com.
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.
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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