Last updated: 06-Nov-18
By Luke Jarmey
In the second of our interviews on multi-day racing with three highly respected ultra runners on the circuit (Damian Hall, Robbie Briton and Sarah Lavender Smith), we talk to Sarah about how to run a multi-day race. She is a seasoned ultra running and coach, a writer and, has some excellent takeaways on preparing for a multi-stage. So, how does she do it? What’s her secret? Read on…
Q. Let’s start with your background. When did you first start running ridiculous distances? And at what point did this morph into multi-day racing?
A. I graduated from trail marathons to 50kms in 2007, from 50kms to 50 miles in 2010, and eventually to 100kms and 100-mile races. In 2012, I heard about an inaugural event called the Grand to Grand Ultra, a 273km (170 mile) self-supported, six-stage race modelled after the format of the Marathon des Sables.
It’s called the “Grand to Grand” because participants run from the north rim of the Grand Canyon in Northern Arizona, to the Grand Staircase formation near Bryce National Park in Southern Utah.
I had never considered doing this kind of event, but as a writer for Trail Runner magazine, my editor suggested I participate and write about it. I assumed it would be a fish-out-of-water story about me being entirely out of my element and struggling just to finish. Instead, I thrived on the challenge. I loved the combination of camping with running, the challenge of carrying all of my calories and gear for the week on my back, the sensation of running all day, day after day, and the camaraderie that developed among participants.
I ended up finishing 3rd female and 7th overall. I returned to do that event in 2014 and finished 2nd female, 13th overall. Recently, the race directors of the Grand to Grand Ultra launched a new event on Hawaii’s Big Island, called the Mauna to Mauna Ultra—250km, six stages, self-supported. I participated in that inaugural race this past May, and finished 3rd female, 14th overall.
Q. Going into that first multi-day event, did you have any particular preconceptions about that style of racing vs single day affairs?
A. Before my first stage race, I assumed it would be extremely challenging to do back-to-back runs, through sand and technical terrain, while carrying a pack that weighed approximately 20 pounds. In the first five stages, we ran a marathon to 50km distance each day with a 50-mile long stage midweek. Given the daily demand, I assumed that recovery at camp—that is, spending time to take care of my legs and feet, to rest, and to eat smart and rehydrate well for the next day—would be essential. I also assumed, and worried, that I would be at a disadvantage because I hadn’t yet graduated to 100-milers and my experience as an ultra runner was limited at the time. I thought the best, fastest ultra runners would certainly do the best in this stage race.
Sarah racing in the self-supported, 273K (170 mile), six-stage Grand to Grand Ultra in 2014. Photo credit: Grand to Grand Ultra.
Q. Now, then and since, which of these preconceptions have been proved true or false?
A. The first points above certainly proved true. Fortunately, I trained assiduously by completing long back-to-back runs with a weighted pack in the months prior to the event, and I also spent a great deal of time on my feet walking around during the day as much as possible rather than being sedentary. It was also true that recovery following each stage is critically important. Consequently, the mid-to-back-of-the-pack runners have an exponentially more difficult challenge, because they arrive in camp very late in the day, with limited time to take care of their feet, to dry out their clothes, and to rest and recover compared to the faster participants. They arrive in camp early in the afternoon and have several more hours to rest and recuperate for the next day’s stage.
Thankfully, my concern about not being well suited for the event because I had only done 50kms and a couple of 50M (80km) races prior, proved to be unfounded. With proper training and strategic planning, I did just fine, whereas some of the faster, more accomplished ultra runners who had excelled at 100-mile events suffered in the stage race because they were not well adapted to the steady pacing and self-care required for multi-day running with a backpack. Some of them went out too fast, their feet fell apart, or they had digestive issues that sabotaged their race.
Q. Diving deeper into this for a second, why do you think some of these misconceptions exist around multi-day racing?
A. First-time participants sometimes underestimate the importance of foot care, calorie choice, and specific training (e.g. back-to-back, slow-paced runs with a weighted pack). Being a fast, agile ultra-runner does not guarantee success in a multi-day, self-supported race. One must also be strategically smart and plan for blister care, rationing of limited calorie supply, ultra-lightweight gear, and psychologically as well as physically adapting to the unforeseen challenges and extreme weather that crop up over the period of a week.
Q. Looking at it from a different angle, have there been any unforeseen aspects of multi-day racing that have surprised you?
A. The degree of difficulty of the long stage—the 50-mile stage midweek—surprised me. When I first did it, I did not anticipate that it would feel more like a 100-miler and take nearly as long due to the cumulative fatigue in my legs and the extra weight on my back from carrying my supplies. Plus, we traversed sand dunes during the long stage, which makes for ridiculously slow going due to slipping, sinking and sliding in deep sand. Stage racers should anticipate each stage feeling much harder and taking much longer than the distance may suggest due to their cumulative fatigue. Add in the challenges of high heat, sandy footing and extra weight from a pack (if it’s a self-supported event), and it becomes imperative to mentally and physically prepare for being slow and taking hours longer than you ordinarily would take to cover that stage’s distance.
Sarah finishing a rain-soaked stage of the Mauna to Mauna Ultra on Hawaii’s Big Island. Photo credit: Mauna to Mauna Ultra.
Q. Interesting. So, moving on to race prep, obviously every event is different, but in general how does your training approach differ to a single-day ultra?
A. For a multi-day, self-supported stage race, in the 8 to 10 weeks prior to the event, I prioritise the following:
back-to-back long runs every other weekend
a two-a-day at least once a week; for example, a high-intensity hard run in the morning, then a late-afternoon or early-evening slow run with a lot of hiking mixed in
wearing a weighted vest or backpack throughout the day, whenever I’m walking around. For example, when I go shopping, I walk to do errands and carry my stuff in a pack, rather than driving, for added time on my feet
refuelling mid-long-run with more calorie-dense food such as trail mix, rather than many energy gels, and intentionally “bonking” by running low on calories toward the end of some long runs and maintaining a slow, steady pace, to adapt to the discomfort and promote more fat burning for the stage race. Unlike a single-stage ultra with ample opportunity to refuel at aid stations, self-supported stage racers must carry all their own food supplies. Consequently, it’s important to become as efficient with calorie consumption as possible and to adapt to better fat burning rather than refuelling exclusively with quick-burning carbs.
Q. Does your nutrition tend to stay the same? I could imagine certain ‘quick energy hit’ products, may prove unpalatable day after day.
A. See above! Yes, my nutrition becomes more like that of a backpacker. I consume more calorie-dense, salty, slower-burning foods that combine protein and fat with carbs, such as nut butters and dense bars, rather than a lot of quick-burning energy gels. Stage racers—especially those in self-supported races, carrying a backpack—move much more slowly and at a lower heart rate than ultra runners racing at a higher intensity. Therefore, eating “real food” less frequently, rather than simple sugars frequently, is a smart and more sustainable strategy.
Q. Right, three quick questions to finish… hardest multi day race you’ve run?
A. The Mauna to Mauna Ultra in Hawaii. It was the hardest due to extreme weather (relentless rain the first three stages, followed by high heat); high altitude on the long stage (up to 9200 feet on Mauna Kea mountain); very technical footing (lava rock) but also very runnable stretches on pavement, so we had to race like road runners at times; and, a cumulative gain of more than 22,000 feet. I ran low on calories and often felt hungry. I did not pack quite enough, because I did not anticipate my body burning so many calories in the high altitude and unexpectedly cold stages.
Q … dream event you’ve yet to run?
A. I’d like to do the Atacama Challenge in Chile, part of Racing the Planet’s 4Desert series, because I would like to combine it with travel around Chile. Moreover, the challenge of the high-altitude, stark desert terrain appeals to me.
Q. And finally, any parting words of advice for the first time multi day racer?
A. You need to mentally prepare—and embrace—the immersive experience of being off-the-grid technologically and in the wild for a full week, living with minimal supplies and having your only “job” be to get from Point A to Point B each day and to take care of your body along the way. This stripped-down, rugged lifestyle for the week is a gift, in my view, in today’s modern world.
More info about Sarah and useful links to her books and blogs
Sarah is 48, a mother of two teenagers, a running coach and writer, and lives most of the year in Northern California and part time in South-western Colorado.
She is the author of the recently released book The Trail Runner’s Companion: A Step-by-Step Guide to Trail Running and Racing, from 5Kms to Ultras.
A professional running coach, she has finished dozens of ultras and was named RunUltra’s 2017 Overall Best Blogger for her blog, TheRunnersTrip.com.
She blogs at TheRunnersTrip.com and has a category devoted to posts about preparing for and racing the Grand to Grand and Mauna to Mauna stage races.
A useful article for new stage racers: “Five Ways to Know If a Stage Race Is For You”.
Sarah also writes for Trail Runner magazine and co-hosts UltraRunnerPodcast.com.