It’s Not Complicated…
Let’s get one thing clear, multi-day racing is simple, it is often over complicated and this creates too many questions and too much confusion.
Let’s hark back to Patrick Bauer’s pioneering days and simplify the process, just like he did. Over the years I have interviewed and chatted with many runners in bivouac and after racing who have done just that, they had applied simple logic and worked out what would work for them.
Yes, they had taken advice, looked at websites, processed information but importantly they had found out what worked for them. They realized early on that they were an individual and as such, they needed a personal approach to multi-day racing and not a generic one. Not all multi-day races are the same, some are completely self-sufficient, some are semi self-sufficient and others are supported where all you need is transported for you.
When you break a race down, particularly a self-sufficient race, key things are really important:
Must fit and be comfortable when loaded. Have enough room (but not too much) for all your equipment and provide easy access to fluid. You must also make sure that your race number is visible as per race rules. Think about additional pockets, such as a waist belt for snacks.
Lightweight, packs small and warm enough. I would always recommend a sleeping bag and jacket as it offers more flexibility, reduced weight and reduced pack size. Popular sleeping bags year-on-year are PHD, Yeti and OMM. Read HERE on how to choose a sleeping bag.
You just need what you will run in. However, a spare pair of socks is often commonplace and many runners have one or all of the following: a warm base layer, a lightweight down jacket or waist coat, buff and maybe long lightweight pants. Remember, you have to carry everything, so, it’s all about getting the pack as close to minimum weight. At MDS that is 6.5kg plus water.
It’s optional but a good nights sleep is important and usually those who do not take one wish they had. It provides comfort and importantly an insulating layer between you and the ground. Two options exist – inflatable and roll out solid foam. The choice is yours. The inflatable ones offer more comfort, more flexibility in packing but with poor admin, you do run the risk of a puncture. I’ve used inflatable for many years with no issue. A solid foam Matt will last the week with no risks of problems but they roll large and need to sit outside the pack.
Shoes and Gaiters
Shoes (more below) are personal, just make sure they have a good fit, appropriate drop for your needs and suit your run/walk style with enough durability for you. I say ‘you’ because someone like Rachid El Morabity can complete the whole of MDS race in say 21-hours whereas most people won’t even do just the long day in that time – his shoe shoe choice will and can be very different to what most of us need!
Get your Velcro sewn on your shoes and make sure that when you get the shoes back the fit has not been altered. Plan in advance, don’t leave this to the last few weeks. Gaiters are essential.
You need a minimum amount of calories per day typically specified in the race rules and how those calories are made up are up to you. This for many is a difficult one. It raises many questions and yes, it’s good to find out what other people do and use but ultimately, YOU have to eat it. The decision to use a stove is another question mark but it would appear that most runners like that hot water option. Think about food that works with cold water too. Remember though, you can make a fire from twigs, shrub and branches that surround bivouac. Also note here that food choices and what you eat during running varies greatly depending on how fast you run. For example, the top runners are done and dusted on the marathon stage in 3-4 hours and they are using carbohydrate as a fuel, they therefore can get away with 1-2 gels. If however, a typical day for you will be 6, 7, 8, 9 hours or even longer, gels are not going to be a good choice. Fat and real food are going to be essential. Understand this now and you can start making the necessary adaptations in training so that food choices will work for you. Training on limited calories and getting fat adapted is a key element for a successful multi-day for many runners.
Food is also the heaviest and most bulky thing you will carry, think about repacking in smaller bags and making everything as small as possible. Remember everyday you get water in a bottle. Cut a bottle in half this makes a perfect bowl for your dehydrated food.
Water and Salt Tablets
- These are provided by the race and it’s easy really, take the tablets as recommended and drink the water. Dehydration is one of the main reasons someone will DNF at a multi-day race – water and poor feet management. Water is rationed.
Look after them, along with dehydration, blistered and damaged feet are a key reason for failure in any multi-day race. The biggest issues come from shoes that are too big and participants not understanding how much they will walk in a multi-day race. Learn to walk, make walking your friend!
Mandatory kit is as one would expect, mandatory! So purchase what is on the list. You can save weight by shopping around. Simple rule; the lighter and smaller, the more expensive it will be! Optional extras are very personal and my advice would be take nothing extra other than a MP3 player and earphones. Apple iPod Shuffle is super small, super lightweight and holds plenty of music for a multi-day but you can no longer buy them… However, other small MP3’s are available with good battery – Sony for example. Phone? Unless you have a really legitimate reason for a phone (family emergency) I would say leave it at home. Do yourself and tent mates a favor and embrace the isolation, embrace a simple life – you will find you have a new perspective at the end of the race.
Hints and Tips to make your race better
You signed up for the challenge, you wanted to be on the start line and therefore you are responsible for the outcome. Believe me, the you that leaves the Sahara is not the same that entered. Arguably, you change the moment you pay the deposit; the transformation process begins. Embrace the journey and apply yourself. Most of us can lose a little weight and believe me, pounds shed in training make the race easier. Pointless striving for a 6.5kg pack and then to be carrying an extra 2, 3, 4 or more kg on your body. But keep perspective, multi-day running is a journey, an enhancement of you as a person. It’s easy to become obsessed, ultimately the majority of runners at any race are enthusiasts, if you keep that in mind the journey will be a complete one.
Plan ahead, formulate a long term plan and don’t rush. The sooner you start this process, the greater your chance of success and the less chance of injury. Plan stepping stone races and don’t be fooled into thinking that you need to run marathons day-in and day-out. You don’t! Training is about ALL the training you do and not about any one run. Count back from the race date and plan blocks of say 3-week build/ 1-week recovery. A really specific multi-day training plan can be 6-months and if you are an experienced runner, this can be 3 or 4 months.
Read about Planning HERE
Long Term Goal setting HERE
Mesocycles and Microcycles HERE
If we exclude the top 50-100 runners (who also walked) the majority of the field spend a huge amount of time walking. Many think, ‘I will run 80% and walk 20%’ – NO! It is the opposite and many are lucky to run 20%. Learn to walk! Believe me, it’s a huge tick in the multi-day box and rest assured that if you are able to walk at a good consistent pace (barring injury or dehydration) you will finish. Read an article HERE on a 5/2 strategy.
If you are looking to race a multi-day, figure in the top 10% and are able to run in ‘most’ scenarios, poles will not help your experience. However, once we get out of the top 10% and in particular, once you start to look at the mid to back of the pack, poles may well provide a huge advantage. They provide stability, momentum, drive and in soft sand (for example), they are a little like 4-wheel drive. My recommendation would be try training sessions with and without poles and see what works for you. Don’t get poles 3-4 weeks before a race and think it will be okay… Poles require technique and yes, they will impact on your shoulder, arms and neck. Poles are like Marmite though, some love them, others hate them. For me, they are something I would always take. Just make sure you get good ones that are light and that will fold small so that you can pack them when not needed.
Dare I open this can of worms? Shoes are personal and first and foremost you must consider your own run style – gait, pronation, width, drop and so on. NEVER take advice from anyone online that tells you that ‘X’ is the shoe to wear for a multi-day unless they know you and your run style. Having said that, certain considerations come into play which help narrow the selection process down. In previous editions of races I have seen Hoka One One shoes almost melt with the soft sand, but Hoka are one of the most popular shoes. Brooks have been a popular multi-day shoe in recent years and I have seen three pairs with horrendous soles that had started to fall apart, however, many runners have commented how well the Cascadia version of Brooks shoes performed. Altra with very low drop and a super wide toe box worked excellently for those who required a minimalist shoe. Nike Wildhorse and inov-8 Trail Talon are personal favourites. The key here is as a runner/ walker find a shoe that works for you. If you already have shoes that work, that cause no problems – why change them? It’s good to ask for thoughts but ultimately, ask 10-people, you will get 10 view points. Despite all this, there are always plenty of foot horror stories. Notably, going back to the walking point, multi-day participants often come prepared to run with shoes that work for running, in some scenarios, these shoes don’t work as well for walking. Think about this and walk in your run shoes! Also shoe size, forget the advice about going up a size or two sizes. It’s a recipe for disaster unless you know that your feet swell? A shoe that is too big will allow your foot to move, a moving foot causes friction, friction causes blisters and the rest of the story speaks for itself. General advice is that if you have a ‘thumb nail’ of room at the front of the shoe above the big toe, this generally works. Notice I say ‘generally’ – there are exceptions. One thing that may happen, is your foot may get wider (rarely or never longer) with the heat and additional time on feet, therefore a shoe with a wider toe box often works well for many runners.
Minimum pack weight is 6.5kg plus water, get as close to this as you can. Additional weight is additional stress and just makes the journey harder. Luxuries are ok if they improve the journey and make it easier, music is a good example of an additional extra. I can’t really think of anything else…
You are going to share bivouac with 7 other people and you are going to have some serious highs and lows. These tent mates will pull you through and motivate you. They will become friends for life. Ideally find tent mates before you head out to your chosen race.
The legs, lungs, heart and feet will only get you so far. The mind is what will get you to the finish. Broken individuals with bodies in tatters but mentally strong finish the race. Always amazing to watch people leave a CP with a smile, hobbling at a snails pace and then to see them cross the line later in the day. Despite the hardships and pain, they embraced the journey and mentally where superior in strength. It was the mind that got them to the line.
Winning is finishing the distance you set yourself, however humble it might be. Speed is a gift your parents either gave you or couldn’t. You had little say about it, so the time you take to run your distance doesn’t say much about your spirit.
But endurance and persistence are qualities that are largely trained and learned.
Finishing is a victory of strong spirit over weak flesh.
Losing is dropping out for no other reason than weak will.
Quitting in the face of actual or potential injury is wisdom, but giving up to moderate inconvenience or mild discomfort is defeat.
Winning is measuring yourself against yourself. It is learning to take pride in your improvements, no matter how small. – Joe Henderson
If you laugh, you are having fun. Laugh when you hit rock bottom, why not. Laugh when you are going the toilet in a brown plastic bag and most of all laugh with and at your tent mates and fellow runners. The comradeship of a multi-day is quite unique, embrace it.
Admin and preparation that you may not think of:
- Take essentials on the plane and wear your run apparel and shoes. That way, should a baggage disaster happen your chances of racing improve. And trust me, baggage does get lost!
- Take food with you for the travel and on the plane. If I were running, I wouldn’t eat plane food!
- The journey from the airport to race start can be lengthy, MDS, for example, will provide a picnic and water but I would still have my own supplies.
- Night 1 and night 2 in bivouac are usually NOT self-sufficient so take extras such as an inflatable bed, food and luxuries that you are happy to give away to race staff. May as well have 2 comfortable nights and a comfortable day before racing starts.
- Personally, I’d take food with me that would at least allow me a ‘safe’ option. This is food in addition to your ‘mandatory’ requirement so it can be as much as you require and it can weigh as much as you like.
- Admin day is often a lengthy multi-hour experience, just make sure you take some water and a little snack food.
- Keep sun screen on and keep hydrated. No need to drink vast volumes – drink to thirst before the racing starts.
- Have additional items such as a base layer, sleeping bag liner and other items that may be on a ‘question’ list for the race. On night 1 and before you go to admin, you can make final decisions of what to and what not to take. Particularly important if you think you may be cold at night.
- Remember that after bag drop and check-in you have no access to any additional items, however, you only become completely self-sufficient when you start the race. With that in mind, you can have additional food and luxuries with you until day 1 kick-off, it’s a useful tip and does mean that you can have additional comfort for a good 12-hours.
Racing a multi-day is a magical and life changing journey. It really is a true challenge of mind and body to race over many days, irrespective if you complete the race in just over 20-hours or 60+ hours. It’s a hark back to a more primitive time, a time without clutter and modern technology.
Embrace this. Embrace the silence of the surroundings and the simplicity of placing one foot in front of the other, eating, resting and sleeping and then doing it all again.
As I said previously, multi-day races are all relatively simple in process, you need a minimum of kit, some food, regular water and a level of fitness to complete the challenge. Yes, it is THAT simple.
Plan ahead, do some research on kit but it’s not rocket science. Just find out what works for you and then pray the the multi-day gods are on your side. Drop out rates are relatively low considering the challenge, however, shit happens that you just can’t plan for.
Ultimately get the mind in the right place and the body will follow. A plan ‘A’ is great but have a plan ‘B’ and ‘C.’
Finally, set yourself a realistic goal (that may just be to finish) so that you manage not only your expectations but pace. Way to many start off too quick and most dropouts come on days 1 and 2.
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