By HPRS Race Director “Sherpa” John Lacroix
I ran my first 50k ultra in 2005, my first 50 mile in 2006, and my first 100-mile in 2007. I have been race directing in some capacity since 2007, and in my vast experiences in the sport I can tell you that I’ve probably seen it all. I’ve also been guilty as charged. So please know that what I am about to share comes from a good place. I want to help you. I want to help you keep it simple, so that you can accomplish your goals without continuing to reinvent the wheel. It’s running. Not rocket science.
My first official ultra, The Damn Wakely Dam Ultra in upstate New York, had no aid stations. It was a 32.6 mile point-to-point run through the wilds of the Adirondacks, and never even crossed a road. The RD instructed us that we needed to carry all of our own gear for the duration of the event and provided a suggested gear list. At the time, the only running packs were made by Camelbak and they were crafted for mountain bikers. So my pack was already way too big, and by the time I was done stuffing it full of gear, it was obvious how I had earned the name “Sherpa.” I overdid it. Way overdid it. But I survived and couldn’t wait to get the damn thing off my back. When I returned to the same race a year later, I attribute my course personal best by an hour to the fact that I had dumped more than half the gear I hauled the year before.
The two photos above, is what overthinking looks like. The pain is real. It is unnecessary. It makes an already difficult challenge, that we tend to make even harder by exhausting ourselves in preparation, even more challenging. As I said, I too am guilty as charged.
Before I decided to get into running 100s, I head out to the 2006 Vermont 100 to see how crews cared for their runners during the race. I saw a little bit of everything. Crews with almost nothing, and crews towing half of a Walgreens around in wagons. So like many of you, when it was my time, I overdid it. I had “crew booklet” that was as detailed as the missile command manuals for NORAD. I had a sheet for each aid station.. and that sheet had a list of times. My “expected time,” the cut-off, the time I needed to arrive by for sub-24 hours, the time I needed to arrive by for sub-30 hours. It had a list of all the things I was going to want when I got to the aid station, as if I actually knew, so that my crew could be ready.
Then, there was the “crew bin.” A massive fabric locker of literal shit that my crew had to carry, or drag, to and from each station. This bin had everything you could possibly imagine in it. Medicine, ace bandages, medical tape, hand sanitizer, scissors, lancets, food, drink mix, extra clothes, extra clothes for the extra clothes, calamine lotion, vaseline, bag balm, diaper cream… you get the idea. Want to know how much of it I actually used?
Try less than 1% of it.
When I showed up to the Vermont 100 in 2017, the same folks who crewed me the first time I ran it in 2007 were back to help again… for the 6th time. I handed my brother-in-law the crew bag… and it was one small bag for the entire race. He took it, looked down at it, looked at me, looked in the empty back of my car with a puzzled look, then back at me and said… “This is it?!” I replied.. “yeah, what the hell else do I need?!”
I get it.. when you’re first starting out you are nervous as hell. You want nothing more than to finish the task at hand and you want to have everything you could possibly need to get it done.. and you don’t want to take any chances. But listen to me when I tell you…
Your overthinking it, is over working and over stressing your crew.
Your overthinking it, is causing you to waste precious time and energy.
Your overthinking it, is not helping you finish, it’s hindering your ability to JUST RUN.
Here are some tips to help you out…
DITCH THE SPREADSHEETS
What the heck are you doing? How does this spreadsheet actually help you on race day? Do you know how many variables there are in running a 50 to 100-mile race? Start time, weather, available aid stations foods, the taste and/or condition of the water, your training… this year vs. last year (it’s different), other runners, your mental space, trail conditions, atmospheric conditions, and on and on and on. How could you possibly plan for everything before the starting gun even goes off? If one variable is not perfect, your entire spreadsheet just went to junk. Stop it. STOP IT! You don’t need a spreadsheet.. you need to run. You need to think about your needs on the way to the next aid station, not days before the race… On the way. In the moment. In the arena, itself.
I have seen countless runners create a spreadsheet with their expectations for the big race, but how can you really have expectations for something with so many variables, or something you’ve yet to even do one time? I’ve seen countless runners not plan for their stomach turning at 100k, and for the last 38 miles of their 100 go to absolute garbage because your precious spreadsheet didn’t account for stomach distress. I’ve also seen countless coaches fail to prepare their clients for that inevitability as well.
Here’s what you need to do. Show up and run. There is an A and a B. Your goal is to get from A to B. It doesn’t matter how long it takes. Throw all expectations out the window because the best plan for running beyond 70-miles, is to not have a plan at all. Immerse yourself in the experience and roll with it. Eat what your body craves, when it craves it. Drink as your body craves, when it craves it. No spreadsheet in the world is going to tell you what you’re going to crave at mile 82 to get your stomach right.
DITCH THE WATCH
Speaking of spreadsheets, why do you need a pace chart? What happens if you get off pace.. and then start doing “stupid runner math” in your head to figure out how you’re going to recover from it? What happens if you can’t recover from it? One thing you may not be considering is how much being “off pace” can screw with the mental aspect of your race, and these races are 90% mental. Again.. There is an A and a B. Your goal is to get from A to B.. and frankly, traditionally, so few people care about your time out there that it only truly matters to you. Having a watch is a trap. You spend so much energy looking at it. How far you’ve gone, what mile you’re at, if your watch is accurate, if the race’s mileages and charts are accurate, your average pace, your current pace, etc. My god.. do you have any idea how exhausting constantly doing math is? Is this really how you want to spend your mental energy on race day?
I’m old school.. I wear a Casio that tells me the time of day. It’s so I know when it’s breakfast time, lunch time, and dinner time. It’s so I know when the sun is going to go down. I don’t do math. I run.
YOUR HEELS ARE YOUR WHEELS
There are two things you need to take care of the most during an ultra and that’s your mind, and your feet. If you lose control of either one of them, your day will soon be over. I like to have one change of socks for 50 miles, and 2-3 changes of socks for 100k to 100 miles. Each time that I change my socks, I wash my feet. Blisters form due to grit, excessive moisture, and friction. So.. dust and sweating while trying to run 100 miles could be an easy culprit. So try and wash and dry those feet before you put a new pair of socks on them. Use light lube on any hot spots.
You can do things to help toughen your feet up, or callous them. I used to know a guy who lined the insides of his shoes with concrete so he could toughen them up for a barefoot half marathon. Because ya know.. you have to wear shoes just about everywhere you go. I used to soak my shoes over night before running in them in preparation for a race where I knew my feet would be wet the entire time. I always ran in wet socks that spring too. These are extreme measures, but they are things “some people” have done to train their feet to handle the trauma of ultra running.
Your heels are your wheels. Without proper care for your feet you’re not going anywhere. Learn what that “skin fold maceration” is and how to prevent it before it happens, or deal with it after it does, and eliminate one more excuse from your DNF vernacular.
KEEP IT SIMPLE
You need a rain or wind jacket, gloves, your drink mix, some extra socks, extra shoes, and some lube. Some runners enjoy the comforts of a Zofran or some Vitamin I. Maybe you have a specific diet, and foods that you worry the race won’t have that keep moving you along.. that’s all great too. But if you can’t fit it all in to one, medium sized, easy to carry bag.. you’re seriously over thinking it.
Over the years I have discovered that all I really need to have in my drop bags, or with me, is the list I provide above. Drink mix, socks, weather related gear, and some lube. Maybe I’ll fry up some bacon to bring with me. Otherwise the race should have what I need, that’s what I’ve paid for.
If you bring a crew, try and limit its’ size to 3-4 people MAX. Yes, I know this means you’ll need to make some tough decisions. It really helps a race out if you limit your crew to what you NEED (not want), and to ONE vehicle. Try and have one or two pacers. The more people you try and juggle, or have others juggle for you, on race day; the harder you’re making it on everyone involved including yourself.
So, do your crew a huge favor and don’t have them lugging the entire beach aisle, or camping section, from Walmart around the mountains with them, on top of your massive crew bag full of crap you’ll never use. You can’t spell analysis without anal, so ditch those pointless spreadsheets. The race has what you need above and beyond. Ultra running is an eating and drinking competition with some running thrown in. We’re not going to war or to the moon. If you were expecting more from this article, you’re probably someone who could use focused time simplifying.
Good luck out there.