Cheering runners atop Hope Pass.

So You Want to Run a Stage Race?

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It was a cool, clear August morning in Buena Vista, Colorado–home to the start line of the much-fabled TransRockies Run–a 6 day, 200 kilometer jaunt through the rugged Colorado Rockies. A few hundred runners were anxiously filing into the start chute for the sold-out 2015 event. For many of these runners, the race is a once-in-a-lifetime adventure and this moment represented the culmination of months–even years–of dedicated training. A tactile electricity filled the crisp mountain air. Go time.

For me, the event would profoundly change the course of my life in ways that would take me years to fully comprehend, all while solidifying the multi-day run as something of a minor obsession.

The multi-day requires mastery of endurance on a slightly different scale than other events. Some are designed to maximize suffering, while others aim to provide luxurious comfort to participants. Either way, it takes a special kind of person to invest countless hours of training, vacation time, and financial resources into days of consecutive marathon-distance runs, often hundreds or thousands of miles from civilization.

Consequently, there’s a distinct subculture of stage racing in trail running, its members racking up dozens of finishes in the harshest of environments. Think blistering-hot deserts, suffocatingly humid jungles, and oxygen-depleted mountain tops. The motivation of these athletes is no different than in any other endurance endeavor–some are seeking answers, some are testing their physical and mental limits, and others finding enlightenment in the suffering. Occasionally, its far less complex, as elite Saudi Arabian runner Mo Foustok explained to me during the 2015 Atacama Crossing in Chile’s Atacama desert: “It’s just how I travel and get to see the world”.

What all of these folks share, however, is a collective of wisdom, gleaned from countless hours of not only running, but also training, planning, traveling, eating, drinking, failing. And in the true spirit of trail running, this knowledge is passed on to anyone willing to ask and listen keenly.

If you’re thinking about pulling the trigger on your first stage-day race, here are a few tips that will help you get to the finish line, hopefully relatively unscathed and with your feet intact.

1. Take Training Seriously

Sounds like a no-brainer, right?

Having raced and worked several multi-stage events, I’ve seen more than a few completely preventable, trainwreck-grade disasters. Sure, we’ve all toed start linesa little undertrained and lived to tell the tale. But while you might be able to show up and just wing it at a stage race, don’t. Not only does this substantially increase your chances of injury, it will almost certainly reduce the amount of fun you have during the race. Regardless of whether you’re in-it-to-win-it or not, spending more time on your feet will reap massive rewards out on the trail.

Start by making sure that your training volume is appropriate for the length of race you’re undertaking, and that it includes adequate back-to-back long runs that give ample experience running on tired legs. If you’re not sure how to structure a training plan hire a coach, talk to race veterans, or ask race organizers. Many races make training plans–often written by elite runners–freely available to entrants. These training plans will be high quality and can be used long after you’ve crossed the finish line.

This will also give you ample time to dial in your fueling strategy, which may turn out to be considerably different than what you’re accustomed to.

In a self-supported event like 4Deserts or Marathon des Sables, you’ll be required to carry all of your food for the entire week on your back (yes, this means no aid stations). A checkpoint at a supported race in Europe will have a substantially different menu than an aid station in the United States or Canada. And sucking down the same gel or sport drink for eight hours a day, seven days in a row might not be tolerable to either your tastebuds or your stomach.

All these things will inevitably impact your fueling strategy, something that must be obsessively rehearsed. And it will probably take way longer than you think to perfect. Give yourself enough time to experiment.

2. Use Your Free Time Wisely

At most events, you’ll probably have more down time than you will time-on-course. This isn’t necessarily idle time though–you’ll be tending to important matters like prepping your gear for the next day, showering if you’re lucky enough to have access to one, maybe even doing some sightseeing. Be purposeful with how you spend this time. Sitting at a bar imbibing late into the day might seem like a good way to take in some culture, but a nasty hangover could torpedo your next stage. Have a beer, a glass of wine, or a margarita if that’s your thing, just be smart about it. Focus on organizing for the next day, studying course details, eating well, hydrating, and doing bodywork.

If you’re at an unsupported race in some remote part of the world, you’ll have to get creative. Bodywork implements and stage info will be limited at best. Solicit veteran racers for course intel, and cozy up to nature for rolling, stretching, and soaking sore muscles. A high-end, supported race will likely have a tent with stacks of self-serve massage tools, vendors offering access to luxuries like pneumatic recovery boots and percussive instruments, and a small army of paid massage therapists. Splurge if you can. If a massage or time in some squeezy boots will help you get to the finish, do it. Take advantage of every option you can.

Most importantly, get to bed early. In Good to Go: What the Athlete in All of Us Can Learn from the Strange Science of Recovery, former elite cross-country skier Christie Aschwanden notes that quality sleep is the best piece of recovery equipment we have in our arsenal: “Insofar as there exists any magical secret for recovery, sleep is it,” says Aschwanden. And It’s wholeheartedly true–an early night will pay massive dividends, especially as fatigue begins to accumulate across multiple days.

3. Pace Yourself

Think about the last time you did a big back-to-back weekend. That Sunday run was probably a lot tougher than the Saturday run. Muscle fatigue, caloric deficit, dehydration, stress, and sleep debt all accumulate and work against you.

That’s exactly why pacing a six-day, 250 kilometer race isn’t the same as six individual 42 kilometer runs. How hard to go out on day one will have a substantial impact on your performance the rest of the week. Regardless of how well trained you may be you absolutely must throttle back. Build into a sustainable pace over the first few days as your body adjusts to your new reality.

Also, don’t forget that pacing applies to more than just your velocity. Several other components will factor into your performance–pacing nutrition, for example, when the number of calories available might be limited. At that same race in Chile, I ate all of my camp food–critical to staying healthy and in the game–long before the finish line was remotely in sight. Huge rookie mistake. It was only through the selfish kindness of other runners–who had significantly over-packed and were looking to drop excess food weight from their packs, also a huge rookie mistake–that I was able to eat and ultimately finish the race.

4. Ask Questions

Ideally, you should be asking questions about an event–especially one that you’re new to–before you register. There’s a tremendous amount of tribal knowledge circulating amongst veterans of these races. Getting the low-down on the course, race vibe, gear requirements, and the like from experienced participants might sway you one way or the other. All races are not created equal.

These small details can have a big impact on what you pack and how comfortable you ultimately are. At desert races, a common newbie question is, “Do I need sand gaiters?” The answer is almost always, “It depends,” but in a race where you’re literally counting ounces in your pack, you don’t want to show up with a bunch of stuff you don’t actually need. The room those six extra pairs of shorty shorts occupies could be filled by some extra food or a warm shirt for camp.

Similar tricks can be found at supported races. Participants are usually issued a forward bag, a gigantic duffle that the race moves from camp to camp each day. Runners complete each stage carrying only their running pack, bulky camp items magically appearing at the next stop. This affords an opportunity for more comfort, but some things you should pack won’t be super obvious. This is where asking for advice can really pay off.

For example, runners at the TransRockies Run camp on the second night in a gigantic baseball field in Leadville, Colorado. If you knew that field was surrounded with a massive chain-link fence that–coupled with a handful of lightweight clothespins–makes an excellent drying rack, you’d be able to air out your gear on a day where it will almost certainly be soaked with sweat.

And where’s the best place to ask these types of questions? Usually Facebook. Most races have a group where participants hang out. Introduce yourself and ask for help, and you’ll probably get it.

5. Take Care of Your Feet

Medical issues take on a new meaning in austere environments. An otherwise innocuous injury that would be overlooked in a day-long event could be life-threatening in a remote part of the world. Managing your health intelligently could literally mean the difference between crossing the finish line and a very expensive helicopter ride to the hospital.

The number one culprit? Your skin.

Debilitating blisters, severe sunburn, and chafing in your nether regions are all injuries that could end your race early. “I’ve assisted with everything from mildly inconvenient blisters to debilitating foot injuries. Taking care of your feet before and during your event helps you focus on the experience and scenery that surrounds you,” warns Paramedic and member of the TransRockies Run medical team, Michael Tobiassen.

Sage advice. I’ve personally witnessed blisters so bad after a single day of running that the racer was pulled from the event by the medical staff and evacuated. The conventional wisdom of “don’t mess with your feet” simply falls apart during a multi-day race. You have to be proactive with both blister prevention and blister management, which means you need to learn a little wilderness medicine.

“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” the old saying goes. Taping your feet properly goes a long way to preventing blisters, potentially eliminating them altogether. Specialty products like kinesio tape and Elastikon tape both do a very good job on large parts of your feet–and, incidentally, can also be used to cover chafing “down there”. Narrow paper tape works wonders on your toes, particularly useful for preventing blisters in between and on the bottom of your little piggies. Duct tape will work in a pinch–wrap some around your water bottle or a trekking pole so that it’s always at hand–but probably won’t stay put in your swampy trail runners for more than a few hours.

There are as many ways to tape your feet as there are types of tape–check out some how-to videos on YouTube and practice, practice, practice. Ten minutes before the start of a stage is not when you want to be fumbling around your feet with a knife trying to figure out what you’re doing.

But even with the best of taping jobs, blisters sometimes still crash the party. Eventually they’ll break open and–because you’ve got your feet crammed in two steamy wet Petri dishes for half the day–become a major vector for infection. Endocarditis, a rare but life-threatening heart infection, frequently starts in the feet or hands, for example. In other words, you need to be proactive here too–dealing with a blister early on will keep it from growing to the point that it becomes a real problem and will help you to keep it clean.

Again, there’s a huge arsenal of tools available. The easiest way to get what you need is to buy a pre-made blister kit. Rough Country kits are common in desert racing circles, but there are plenty of other setups out there. Whatever you buy, learn how to use it before you leave home–a good kit will come with detailed instructions, and there’s tons of good foot care information on the Internet. Once you’ve learned what everything is and how to use it, you’ll be able to restock most of it at your local drug store or on Amazon.

Better yet, sign up for a Wilderness First Aid (WFA) course before your race. This will give you the requisite knowledge to deal with an emergency, and could save your life or life of someone else around you. Organizations like the NOLS Wilderness Medicine Institute and SOLO Wilderness Medicine are highly reputable and offer classes year-round all over the world.

6. Make Friends

The relationships I’ve forged through running and, more specifically, in stage racing, are precisely what have had a profound impact on the direction of my life. Solidarity in suffering, it seems, is a powerful catalyst for true human connection.

Multi-day races tend to be highly social events. This can be somewhat challenging for introverts or when you’re just damn tired and don’t want to be bothered. Try to step outside your comfort zone. The people that you’ll encounter running for days race through some remote part of the world tend to be profoundly interesting.

They also tend to be unusually kind–once I spent two weeks driving across the US and never slept in a hotel. Literally in every major city I visited, someone I knew from running offered me a warm bed and a hot meal. At a race in Colorado a few years ago, British Airways lost two UK-based racers checked luggage, which contained all of their running kit. Other runners–many of whom they’d never met–rallied to carve out enough gear for them to race until their bags arrived several days later. The only piece of equipment they had to purchase was shoes.

There’s two other groups you musn’t neglect: the race staff and the medical team. They’re fascinating folks too, but this is some healthy enlightened self-interest. These are the people busting their asses to make sure you have a great time (ask me how I know), but are also the casino valets of the racing world–they can get things done. Need an after hours ride back to camp after you ignored my advice and spent all night at the bar? Need help fixing your feet when they’re mangled and covered with blisters? Lost a shoe (yes, I’ve seen this happen) and need a replacement? The race staff are the folks that can make sure you’re at the start line the next morning. Get to know them and small miracles can happen.

7. Have Fun

Make no mistake, this will be a difficult undertaking. You’ll experience low points, and at times you may want to quit. Your entire body will be tired. Everything will hurt. You’ll be dirty, wet, cold, hot, stinky, chafed, angry, and frustrated–quite possibly all at the same time.

You will also be joyus beyond explanation. You’ll experience high points, and at times you’ll hope that it will never come to an end. Magnificent places in nature, unseen by most other human beings will be your background, your reality for days on end. Food will taste better than you can remember. You’ll be host to a multi-day long high that you might not notice until it leaves you, one that you’ll never be able to truly quantify for those that haven’t experienced it.

And you should enjoy every single bit of it. Even–no, especially–the low points. After all, this is supposed to be hard.

Find meaning in the journey and the rewards will be that much sweeter.

See y’all on the trails!
-k


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