Why is there an ever-growing number gruelling multi-stage ultra marathons through some of the most formidable landscapes and inhospitable climates on earth? To meet an ever-growing demand of course. More and more people are seeking to go beyond a marathon and push themselves through environments that are equal parts stunning and punishing. Around the world runners are seeking the next big challenge and are looking at the world’s deserts, forests and mountains to find it.
Unlike point-to-point or single stage ultra marathons, stage races require a different set of training and running skills. Running through the Sahara, Amazon, Arctic, Atacama, Gobi, Himalaya to name just some, appeals to elite and amateur runners alike.
Who should consider such a challenge? Having completed Racing the Planet’s Sahara Race and Gobi March I can attest that the start line of 6-day, 250km, self supported races are littered with a spectrum of professional athletes, seasoned marathon runners, weekend joggers, complete novices and the speculatively hopeful. That is to say, and forgive me if this sounds trite, anyone able to put one foot in front of another can complete some of the toughest endurance races on the planet.
“Sahara. The very word itself tantalised explorers and fortune hunters, wanderers, mystics and madmen for centuries. The Sahara conjured so many images of adventure, adversity, challenge and achievement. No, my eyes had not deceived me, there was actually an event where people ‘raced’ over 250 kilometres of Saharan sands to finish at the Pyramids. I read on, runners are self sufficient, carrying their own food, clothing, protective and medical kit. A 250 kilometre footrace race finishing at the Pyramids and people pay for it? Thoughts of setting a ludicrous goal silently bubbled in my mind. When I found the Sahara Race I knew I had found my version of ludicrous. I couldn’t complete a 10 kilometre run at the time but I could do this. I had to do this.”
In my experience the ability to successfully complete a stage race, finishing is a common goal for the first timer, is reliant on preparing the mind and body to recover quickly and prepare itself for consecutive days of long distances. Combining race specific training with a careful selection of clothing and equipment and other unique aspects of stage racing will open up a new world, literally, of racing experiences.
Over the coming months we’ll be posting regular updates on the many facets of stage racing including:
- Race selection and planning
- Clothing, equipment and footwear
- Hydration and nutrition
When I signed up for the Sahara Race each of these subjects were completely new to me. Learning about all these potentially race-effecting issues was both intimidating and part of the exciting build up to a life changing experience. What I learned very quickly was that I was not alone, even the most cursory scan of other competitor’s blogs uncovered common threads of anxiety. The great news for those new to stage racing is there is no end to social media forums, chat rooms, blogs and other advice from previous competitors, experienced ultra runners and race directors aimed at giving you every chance of crossing your chosen finish line.
If you’re considering a stage race and not sure where to start, here’s a few resources that’ll whet your appetite:
- Marathon Des Sables: http://www.marathondessables.co.uk/
- Racing the Planet’s 4 Deserts series: http://www.4deserts.com/
- Beyond the Ultimate Series: http://www.beyondtheultimate.co.uk
It’s by no means an exhaustive list and as I discovered, the deeper you look the more you’ll uncover. You will find conflicting claims of being ‘the toughest race on earth’, the longest, the coldest, the hottest or the otherwise most lethal. I’m not going to support or dispel any of those themes. Each stage race offers runners a unique experience, camaraderie and challenge.
Over the next few months I’ll share the lessons I’ve learned, often the hard way, from racing in the Sahara and Gobi deserts and as I prepare for a 250km race in Madagascar in August. In the process we’ll assess theories like ‘the hard day/easy day principle’, managing ‘back-to-back-to-back-to-back’ long runs, terrain specificity, load training and acclimitisation.
For now we’ll close with a secret. These races are grueling but they’re immensely rewarding and have a high completion rate. Race directors do not want you to fail. Very few runners ‘run’ the full distance, most will combine walking and running while others will walk the entire distance. The secret? These races are not confined to the elite and are VERY achievable for the average plodder – trust a proud plodder! One old adage holds true. If you think you can run one, or you think you can’t; you’re probably right.
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