Prepare to Succeed in Ultramarathon Running and Cycling || Mont-aux-Sources Trail Ultra

This is a different type of race review and I’m excited to share it with you to help prepare your sporting events towards success.  If you analyze why many of your races go well and especially why they don’t go well, you can identify opportunities to make events go better more often.

I will look at the 9 risks and concerns I had and how I was able to manage them or not towards finishing 2018 Mont-aux-Sources Ultramarathon Trail Challenge in South African in a whopping 9 hours and 39 mins!  Believe me, I was tired by the end but very happy!  You, too, can prevent many of your risks and concerns.

Watch the Prepare to Succeed in Ultramarathon Running and Cycling || Mont-aux-Sources, South Africa YouTube video for amazing race footage. Please click Like and Subscribe!

In brief, what were my big risks and concerns for this tough event?  (Scroll below for the details for each point.) 

  1. The 50km race distance in high mountains at high altitude and with almost 3,000m of climbing and descending
  2. My training
  3. Gear selection and packing
  4. Cramping in my legs
  5. Blisters or chaffing
  6. Sunburns
  7. Injuries or falls
  8. Weather
  9. Altitude

Be proactive and do your analysis from your unique perspective and the conditions of your event.  I’m convinced we can always improve our preparedness.  What are the problems, worries and risks you can identify for an upcoming race or that you have frequently encountered in past events?  This could be leg (or stomach) cramping, injuries, hitting the wall, being late for the start, being nervous, and so on.

Here were my biggest concerns and risks for the 2018 Mont-aux-Sources Ultramarathon Trail Challenge:

1.    The 50km race distance in high mountains at high altitude and with almost 3,000m of climbing and descending

I’ve been competing in road and cross-country running for over 30 years and thoroughly love it, but this race was a new level of difficulty for me.  50km is only a bit further than a marathon’s standard 42.2km race distance, right?  Well, not this race!!!  My goodness, with technical trails up 2,800m and down 2,800 the massive Drakensberg mountains, this was not simply going to be a mere 8km further than a standard road marathon.

Toward completing this event, I knew it was going to be tough and I ramped up my time on trails and especially technical trails with tricky footing.  You might recall the Better Preparedness episode I did about bicycle helmets which was actually following a big fall and hitting my head during a 25km trail race three weeks prior to the Mont-aux-Sources race.  About 4km into the Magaliesberg Mountain Trail Challenge, I tripped on a low-lying thorn branch and fell, and couldn’t get my hands out in front of me quickly enough.  This meant I hit my head near my eye very, very hard into the hard dirt ground.  So, believe me, I knew I’d have to be in full concentration for the entire race distance.

2.    My training

Training was clearly going to be my biggest weakness and concern for this event.  I had been injured for a few months earlier this year and had only resumed quality training about 4 months ago before the race.  I focussed on building my trail and road mileage as rapidly as possible but not too quickly as to risk a relapse of my calf muscle injury or my tibia stress fracture from a couple of years ago.

My goal was to be as trail fit as possible by race day but most importantly to be healthy and injury-free.  This was a big success.  I stood on the start line knowing I wasn’t as fit as I would have liked but I felt pleased to be standing there with no existing injuries!

One of my trail-running buddies had a fantastic and intelligent 8 months of building up to the race and he stood on the start line injury-free and (to my jealousy) really fit.  He had an awesome race.

3.    Gear selection and packing

I did a Better Preparedness episode called How to Pack for a Trail Ultra-Marathon // South Africa Mont-aux-Sources which detailed how I packed for the race and provided the reasoning behind each item.  This included my race clothing, hydration pack, and all the mandatory items and those extra preparedness that I like to have.

My gear selection and packing were spot on.  The cool, sunny and windy conditions suited me quite well and meant I could start and finish without putting on or taking off more layers. In any case, I prefer to under dress. Many fellow competitors had much warmer clothing than I did so it always comes down to the individual.

The tough 25km trail race I did weeks prior to the ultra was my opportunity to test all my planned gear and so I had (hopeful) confidence in advance that my gear wouldn’t harm me like blisters or chaffing.  This ultra was a lot longer out there so plenty more time for issues to develop…

My Ultimate Direction pack has two front water bottle holds (for a total of about 1.4L) and numerous small pockets across the front where I stashed gels and energy bars.  Since I didn’t need to access any spare clothes or emergency items from the back of my pack, the front bottles and food items were accessible the entire race. I had everything within reach while I ran.

To film parts of the race for the Better Preparedness YouTube channel, I used my trusted running belt to store my mobile phone. The phone was also easy to access whenever I need it.

4.    Cramping in my legs

While I’ve been a big fan of marathon and ultramarathon distances in running, cycling, multi-sport, and cross-country skiing for decades, one of my biggest biggest biggest issues has been leg muscle cramping.  Trust me, I’ve put soooo much effort and time in trying to prevent it and yet cramping has ruined or slowed many past big events.

What I have tried successfully in recent years is drinking far, far more sport drink and bringing electrolyte tablets such as EDiscs and Clif Shot Bloks. This has been a big help for me.

Whatever strategies you try, ensure you practice those hydration and nutrition strategies during your training so you know what works or doesn’t work for you.  Do you want to risk stomach pains or “the runs” during your big event because you hadn’t tried those products in the safety of the training environment?

5.    Blisters or chaffing

Blisters and chaffing really suck.  It prevents you from performing at your peak and your running and cycling technique will quickly start to suffer.  I think it’s a right of passage that many runners and cyclists go through.  The big question is whether one identifies the solutions to prevent it and also to deal with it if it still materializes.

For this race, it’s very long time out on the course and combined with sweat and dust meant that I wasn’t going to just hope for the best in terms of chaffing and blisters.  As with nutrition, remember to test these strategies in your training!

Chaffing Prevention

To help prevent chaffing, before the race, I applied cycling short skin lube called Chamois Cream in my arm pits, across my chest (nipple) area, and in my crotch. This helped lube the skin. I also put a small amount of petroleum jelly in a little container and put that in my backpack in case I needed to apply more while out on the course.

Since men often have only one layer of clothing on their chest area and that clothing rubs back and forth, a painful situation is what I call “bloody nipples” and this is evident on a runner’s chest by blood visible on the nipple area.  What’s even more painful is after the race during the shower when that soapy water hits your injured nipples!  I had that in my first half-marathon over 25 years ago and said “Never again!!!”  I have previously tried the other technique of putting a band-aid across the nipple but removing that is as painful as bloody nipples itself.

Blister Prevention

As I note in the video, blisters on my feet during running and cross-country skiing marathons were a major problem for me in the last 5-7 years. I just couldn’t figure out why it was happening.  I tried changing my shoes and socks, tying my laces differently, and sometimes applying a coating over the problem areas.  What finally stopped my mega foot blister problem was ceasing to use my custom orthotics during a physiotherapy treatment for a calf injury.

I also take care to remove the insoles of my shoes before a race and clean out any sand or debris that could create blisters.

Another tip is that before putting on my socks, I wipe my foot with my hand to be extra sure that I don’t have any debris on my foot.

My compression socks of choice have also proven very comfortable in long training sessions and in the preparation race with no blistering, so I was hopeful that they would work well in the race.  Yippee, they did! 9 hours and 39 minutes later I didn’t have a single blister or skin irritation on my foot!  Success!  An unplanned bonus of those socks is that since they go up to just beneath the knee and given the quite cool temperatures, the socks provide additional warmth and also some abrasion protection during the dangerous rocky gully descent.

Do not just accept repeat problems.  If you make note of issues you have, you can see what you should address.  Do you need a change of gear, different nutrition, expert evaluation, medical assistance, …?  Figure it out.

6.    Sunburns

We started in darkness with headlamps and shortly thereafter it was blazing high-mountain sunshine for the rest of the event. While sunburns are more likely to impact a person after the event in terms of pain and skin cancer, I prefer to avoid them. I applied a very liberal coating of SPF45 suncream before the race and I wore my trusted full brim quick-dry hat. I’ve become a big fan of these hats for the far greater sun protection on sunny days than a baseball cap.

Another benefit of that style of hat is that there is a chin strap. Usually I wear the hat with the strap tucked inside the hat but given the insane winds on the mountains during the race, I used the chin strap in windy areas. We were so exposed to the wind that I imagine many competitors either lost their hat or had to remove it.

There certainly were many competitors I saw during the race with sunburns. At high altitudes and such strong sun, I was happy with my sun strategy.

7.    Injuries or falls

Given the nasty fall during my 25km race weeks before this ultra, I was certainly concerned about tripping, injuries or falls.  9 hours and 39 minutes was a long time to stay focussed!  I took it cautiously during sections of the trails where grasses grew over the narrow trail preventing me from seeing the hazards and rocks.  Past injuries to both ankles meant that I have to be careful and my lovely wife was not going to be happy if I finished this race injured, so I was careful!  😊

8.    Weather

We got perfect weather in my opinion.  Maybe because most of my sporting career has had colder northern hemisphere weather and temperatures but I found the chilly race temperature to be perfect.  Many other competitors wore much warmer clothing than I did, so you need to know what works for you.

The dry weather leading up to the race also meant that the trail was a bit dusty and that dust infiltrates your shoes increasing your risk of blisters.  The flip side is that dry and dusty is still better than wet, muddy and slippery, in my opinion!  My goodness, it would have been a different race in wet and muddy conditions.

9.    Altitude

Altitude and altitude sickness are not something to ignore.  Given the rapid climb during the race from about 1,400m to 3,100m (more than 10,000ft), people faced potential altitude issues such as headaches, shortness of breath or decreased concentration.  Although I could feel the decreased oxygen in the higher section of the course, it was not an issue for me in the race.  I think this is in large part to the fact that I currently live and train at about 1,400m-1,500m of altitude.

I did encounter a number of competitors on the high section who were struggling a bit with the altitude and I encouraged them to keep going and start descending as soon as possible.  I think those who struggled the most were likely from the coastal cities such as Durban or Cape Town.

Identify your particular risks and concerns

If you want to succeed in your sporting goals and adventures, take a few minutes and write down what works for you and what challenges you face.  Don’t let problems repeat themselves.  Remember that you are you, and you need to identify your needs and solutions.  While you can learn from others, make sure you test and practice your strategies and techniques during training.  If needed draw on expert assistance.

Remember your emergency preparedness for if things go terribly wrong

I highly recommend you read through the following material and ensure you are equipped should things ever go wrong or terribly wrong:

Bringing ID Could Save Your Life when Cycling, Running, and Outdoors

Build your Minimalist Emergency Kits for Cycling, Running and Hiking

10 Easy Steps to Building your Ideal First Aid Kits

Be proactive.  What are your major emergency risks and what do you need to do to decrease the likelihood and impacts of those risks?

In Conclusion

This was a tough race and it was ambitious considering the less than desired level of ultramarathon fitness but I was very pleased with how I dealt with most of my risks and concerns, and extremely pleased with how I finished the event.  Had we had really bad weather like I have faced before, many of my strategies would have been a bit different but that’s how it always is.

As in life, in the work place, on the road, and at home, learn to identify your risks and concerns, and take action to prevent, prepare, mitigate, respond and recover.  It’s far better to prevent problems than it is to resolve them when they happen.

What works for you?  What valuable lessons have you learned along the way?

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