Ultra-marathons are very different than road races. There is a lot more race strategy that is needed so, it is common for racers to not perform their best on race day because of some very common mistakes.
What are the most common mistakes? Let’s dive into them.
Going out too fast: The majority of ultra-racers go out way too fast. They focus too much on pace and splits vs keeping the effort level low. They overestimate how long they can maintain what feels like a somewhat easy pace at the start of the race, leading to getting so beat up towards the end that they drop out or do the ultra-death march to the finish line.
How to avoid this mistake: During the first 1/3-1/2 of the race, focus on how you want to feel during the last half. Is the pace you are running now truly realistic at the end? If you have even the slightest amount of doubt, then you need to slow down. The first 1/3-1/2 of the race should feel VERY easy (unless you are doing a 50k in which the effort will feel more like marathon effort)…but that pace the last half of the race will progressively get harder and harder to maintain.
Running too much of the first half: I can’t emphasize enough the importance of speed hiking during the first half of the race. If you aren’t in the front 10% of the race, then I HIGHLY recommend speed hiking up all of the hills. I couldn’t tell you how many people have run past me up a hill during the first half of an ultra as I am hiking and they say to me, “You are racing really smart.” And yet, they don’t slow down. What end up happen is that I pass them the last half of the race because they are so incredibly fatigued from running the first half of the race.
Speed walking is an amazing skill for ultra-racers for so many reasons.
It is your slowest moving pace. Making your slowest pace faster will lead to your overall race time being faster.
Hiking helps to save your running legs so you can continue to move at your faster speeds throughout the whole race vs just the beginning
Hiking helps to keep your body temperature under control, keep your heart rate down, makes it easier to take in more calories, and gives your running muscles a break. All of these things will help you have an overall great race vs just a great first half.
During Big Horn 100, I did a ton of hiking throughout the whole race. With over 17,000ft of elevation gain and being at higher altitude, I knew that hiking fast would be key during this race.
How to avoid this mistake: Step one is to change how you perceive hiking. Hiking during a race doesn’t mean that you are “slow” or “not a real runner.” It is a skill that ultra-runners need to master in order to continue to dominate harder challenges and perform better throughout a full race. The next step is to practice hiking during training so that your hiking efficiency improves. The last step is to force yourself to hike during the first half of the race. Be patient and know that the race will get much harder and once you are towards the end of the race you will be thankful that you did a lot of hiking the first half.
Not eating enough: Most ultra-marathons don’t have aid stations as often as road races and it takes longer to get to them since trail miles are slower (generally) than road miles. This means that you will need to carry calories with you between aid stations. Not taking in enough calories leads to your body becoming completely depleted during the race and that is a hard hole to dig yourself out of.
How to avoid this mistake: Make sure you take in 100 calories or more every 30 minutes. Along with that, know how many calories are in the types of fuel you are taking in. Watermelon, oranges, and pickles can taste really good, but they don’t have calories in them. The higher the calories are in your fueling sources, the better! Give your body the energy it needs to keep you moving strong throughout the whole race.
Expecting everything to go perfectly: No matter how much planning and preparation you do, it still does not guarantee that you will have a “perfect” race. This especially applies to much longer ultras (100k or longer) where there is a lot more time for things to go wrong. GI upset, painful feet, blisters, overheating, chaffing, nausea, and so much more.
During Big Horn 100, the course was super muddy in spots, there was snow and standing water. I dealt with massive blisters, overheating, nausea, dizziness, getting lost, chaffing, and mental lows.
How to avoid this mistake: Rather than going into the race with the expectation that everything will be flawless and feel good, go into it knowing that problems are going to come up. That is part of ultra-racing. These are not things to get overly frustrated about or a reason to drop out, but rather are thing to problem-solve in the moment and move on. Have a plan for how to address issues that might come up during the race, so you know what to do in the moment. This will help you address the issues effectively and will reduce the amount of frustration you have if they happen to pop up.
Not planning ahead: Lining up at an ultra without first going online and knowing about the race is a recipe for disaster. It can lead to getting lost, not carrying enough calories on you, not carrying enough water/electrolytes on you, not pacing yourself well, not having the right clothes/gear for specific parts of the race, and so much more.
During Black Hills 100, unexpected rain came through and I didn't have a rain jacket. This lead to me getting extremely cold and having issues with temperature regulation and intense fatigue for the rest of the race.
How to avoid this mistake: Make sure you know what course markings look like and the general route of the course to help avoid getting lost
Know how far apart the aid stations are and what is provided at each aid station. This will help you plan how many calories you need to carry and how much fluid to have on you.
Check out other aspects of the race – terrain, vertical gain and loss, weather, etc so you can plan gear, drop bags, and pacing accordingly.
Another option is to check out race reports. Race reports are a great way to get advice from runners who have already done the race.
Trying new things: Trying new things on race day is a recipe for disaster, especially for ultras. Trying new things on race day increases the risk that problems will arise – blisters, chaffing, GI upset, etc.
How to avoid this mistake: Avoid trying new shoes, new gear, new types of fuel, literally anything that you have not already tried during training. Stick to what has worked in the past!