One thing I love about ultra-running scene is hanging out with some of the coolest, most genuine and wonderful people on Earth. But every once and a while, people can suck at it. Looking for a go-to guide on how to be the worst ultra-runner you can? Look no further. Ahead I explain how to turn not only your race day but the one of those around you, for maximum misery. I’ve worked many aid stations in a few different countries, ran as a pacer and sweeper, even organized my own race series, so I feel like I have perfected the skill of having an awful time at your big race day.
The first pack to hit the aid station are the gods and goddesses of the trail. They deserve to be treated as such. First thing’s first: toss your bottle at the unwitting teen and demand them filled 3/4th with sports drink, 1/3rd water, add this Tailwind powder, then shake it but not too much. Remember, the unpaid volunteers here are basically a pit crew, and you are the all-star driver. Their efficiency will make or break your race, so feel free to bark orders at the help.
Don’t forget: as an elite front-packer, you are exempt from all gear-checks.
Bro, I know the race director. It’s cool.
-Actual quote overheard during Translantau in Hong Kong, when a man donning no shirt and running with just a hand water bottle before the massive climb to the (now raining) Sunset Peak was stopped at the mandatory gear check.
Don’t forget to berate the volunteers with extremely specific questions about your current pace, the distance between first and second place, or where your buddy with the red (or was it blue?) shirt is right now. Ask the current elevation, versus that of the peak and the expected time it will take to get from the following aid station to the one after that. By wearing a “volunteer” shirt, they are all experts on the course, meteorologists, physical therapists, and topographers. Never mind the fact that they were busy all morning since before the sun was up erecting a tent in the middle of the forest and carrying box after box of water, food, and supplies, and were probably making a sandwich when that guy you’re asking about (he was actually wearing a purple shirt) was here.
Do your own research. Know what the race director requires ahead of time, and understand that mandatory gear is mandatory. Don’t fret it. If you need to pack a jacket on a 35-degree day, everyone needs to. If it slows you down, it slows everyone else down, too.
Ask simple questions. Start with maybe, “hey guys, how’s your day going?” You can ask when the girl cutting the apples last saw a runner, but don’t expect her to know how many seconds behind you currently are. When you’re filled and ready to go, let them know you appreciate them. Give some high fives, fake a smile and thank them.
Up next there’s a small break while we wait for the middle-packers, or as I like to call them:
Emerging through the woods is a pack animal. The zombie apocalypse (or at least it smells that way) is a herd of dazed, exhausted, festering bodies.
You start by blowing through the chip check-in, converging on the aid station like jackals tearing at a downed antelope. Scrape the watermelon plate clean, chug bottle after bottle of Coke while standing directly in front of all of the drinks. Set down your bottle caps and cell phones in various locations creating an Easter egg hunt of your personal belongings. Then paparazzi-mob the check-in counter, pulling at their clipboards and asking questions to see what your current rank is, never mind the fact that they need this clipboard to organize the mass of people who just walked in.
Then, check the menu. Sure, they have three types of crackers, chips, sandwiches and rice balls, but WHERE ARE THE NOODLES? Ask every volunteer you can find if they have noodles here. It’s what you factored into your race plan, and besides, you have been thinking of pasta for the past 3 miles, so you deserve them.
When you tire of harassment, pull up the chairs, set up hammocks and nest into the station as your personal restaurant/hostel/spa. And do so directly in front of traffic. Careful with the watermelon knife, as you may accidentally decapitate a napping runner sprawled on the aid station counter.
Then, stick around a while! Now, I’m not saying if you are crashing, you shouldn’t try to take a second to regroup; I’m talking about that guy on his 3rd bowl of rice, looking for the salt to put on his banana-tomato sandwich, and maybe just 3 or 4 more chocolate bars. Oh, you have a grill set up? Sure we can whip you up a hot dog. They’re frozen now, but you can just sit around blocking the way until it’s cooked.
Dude, you got here at 2:00. It’s almost 3. Go.
While you’re here, this is a good time to vent every frustration you have pent up in since last aid station. Remember, these volunteers are here as emotional therapists as well, so let it all loose. Be sure to blame everything on the course, those around you, and the weather. Do whatever you can to avoid blame that the reason why you barely hobbled into the aid station was because you are severely under-trained for this kind of event.
This course is too dangerous. I slipped earlier, you know. Look at my arm. See that dirt? I fell down.
-Said by some runner from HK donning what must have been 50k in Salomon S-lab gear at this year’s The Beast Trail.
You can stay as long as you want, as long as you’re not bothering those around you, and you’re not bordering cut-off times, but all you’re doing is loading your stomach with stuff it needs to digest later when you start running again and flooding your legs with lactic acid that will harden up and feel achy when you leave. Grab some food, fill your water bottles and eat while you’re walking out the trail. Bananas come with a toss-on-trail friendly peel.
Sit if you want, but don’t let your body fall into resting mode until the race is over and it will keep running smoothly all day. The most painful part of an ultra isn’t running, it’s starting to run again after you sat down for too long.
Stay positive. It’s an ultra. It’s supposed to hurt, and when it does, don’t try to pass the blame onto things around you. We aren’t going to apologize that there was a tree root that jumped up and tripped you. Laugh it off.
Use what we got. Unless it’s Wings For Life (shots fired) we probably have everything you need, as long as you’re willing to be a little flexible. Also, if you’re really worried about the aid stations having exactly what you need for race day, bring it with you!
Now the chaos is over, but runners are starting to trickle in slowly. Incoming are…
When you heard there was an ultra in your hometown this summer, you thought signing up would be a great way to motivate you to get in shape. Starting next week. Okay, you’re busy that week, too, but it’s on the list right there: “Get in shape for Ultrarun 50k in Localtown.” Then life happened, the months went by and you were shocked by an email from the race director warning you that the race is coming up in just a few weeks. Well, crap. You already paid the fees, you might as well see how you do.
Now, I’m not talking about the people who fought obesity, those aging runners who are still kicking ass, or those who overcame some kind of shortcoming and are on their way to punch the ticket and complete a goddamn ultra. I’ll stop and say that these people are the most inspiring people on the trail. I raise my virtual glass to you. Keep doing you.
This one is for you: mister ‘I did a marathon a few years ago, how much harder could a 50k be?’ or you miss ‘I thought I’d just sign up and just go slow.’ Telling yourself that you’re just going to take it slowly does not nullify the difficulty of an ultra. If anything, spending 14 hours on your feet mosying through up and down mountains is far more exhausting than just running and getting it over with.
“Yeah, well I’m just here to have fun, okay?”
-Someone at basically every race I’ve gone to. Doesn’t look like you’re having much fun while you’re dejectedly staring into the void the moment we tell you that you’re less than halfway done and just starting the difficult part.
And then, when you arrive to the station later than the cut-off, don’t forget to argue with the aid station manager to let you continue. Tell them about that one time you got lost for 5 minutes (due to your lack of hydration, when your mind turned to scrambled eggs and you forgot to look where you’re going.) Or tell them a sob story about how you had to DNF last year, too, and you flew back to this country to try again (but didn’t learn anything from your last DNF and didn’t actually train for the event.) Threaten to give them a bad review. Or even try to sneak onto the course after the cutoff. I’m not kidding, this has actually happened a few times.
Know your limits. If this doesn’t feel like your day, take the advice of the people around you. When you look at photos of yourself later and see the way you looked when you got to this station, you’ll understand why we cut you off. There are ultras everywhere, all year long. The race is meant to be a celebration of the hard work you put into your training, not an impossible task you force yourself to overcome.
And if it does come down to it that you need to end your race day early, listen to the advice of those around you. They probably have a better idea of what you’re going through than you know.
How to be an Awesome Ultra Runner:
I’ll admit I basically wrote this because I was so inspired by a runner swept at The Beast Trail 50k last week. We’ll call him “Tiger” (he likes that name) and he’s well past his middle age but has completed the 50k every year that it has been in existence. I ran/hiked with him for almost 6 hours. In that time, he never once complained, blamed the trail or the weather, despite the grueling heat and a chafe so bad that he was bleeding. Like the Duracell Bunny, he pushed hour after hour alongside me while I cleaned the arrows and marking off the trail, closing the event out. I saw him go into every aid station, thanking those around him, trying not to impose on anyone. He tried to get in and out quickly, knowing his and my presence meant that they could finally pack up the last of the gear and go home.
He reached the road in the final 3k with a huge grin on his sweat-drenched face. His feet scraping the ground and echoing into the darkened mountains while I walked alongside him. He told me about his family, the stresses in his life, and how much it meant for him to finish this year. He wiped tears from his glasses while he gave me a clearly well-rehearsed ‘thank you, I appreciate you coming with me’ talk. When I asked him if he wanted to slow down and take a break, there’s no cut-off time to get into the finish now that we passed the last aid station, he told me that people at the venue are tired, they want to go home, he doesn’t want to keep them waiting.
You’re my hero, Tiger.
Don’t suck at ultras. Be a Tiger.