Tips to Help You Prepare for Your First Ultra Trail Run
Truckee local Rachel McCullough is preparing for her first long distance trail run – Sierra Crest Ultra Run 30k and sat down with trainer, coach and athlete, Chris Cloyd, of Performance Training Center by Julia Mancuso, to get advice on how to be prepared on race day.
What is a good overall strategy?
I think a good strategy is to aim for a negative split (assuming a balanced course). Make your 1st half of the run conservative enough to accelerate and finish with a faster second half. Obviously, if the course is hilly on the back end and flat in the beginning, this doesn’t hold true. If you train efficiency in your uphill running, walking uphill on a 30k distance shouldn’t be necessary. ALWAYS run within yourself though – respect your training.
How do your 5k and 10k paces compare to your pace for a 30k?
Night and day. I can’t stress that enough. It’s important to respect the distance and not go out at 5k pace and try and hold on for dear life. Start slower than you feel capable of and speed up throughout the day.
How do you know early on if you are running too fast and might burn out?
If you can’t string together 3 sentences of conversation without taking a winded breath, you’re going too hard for the start of a race.
Packs can be cumbersome, but vests are incredibly ergonomic and provide a ton of value. You ALWAYS have water and salt on hand (not waiting for aid station intervals), and you can bring “contingency” gear (special snacks to get you through the hard parts, a light jacket/shell, headlamp, etc.) and run more confidently. Of course, the cons hinge around affecting your running gait (vests shouldn’t much) and running with extra stuff you won’t need (running with weight will always slow you down).
Poles can be a great help on hilly courses with a ton of vertical in excess of 10% gradients, but they’re often more of a hindrance than a help if the course isn’t that punchy. They are allowed at most distance races around here, and (if the race policy allows you to start with them and not end with them, or vice versa) can be of help for certain sections, though, surely.
Do you tend to eat just at the aid stations or do you bring your own food? What kind of food is typically at the aid stations?
I fill my pockets and vest at the aid stations, not my belly. That way I can keep my fueling regular and eat when I need to, not wait for the race organizers’ schedule. You can expect bars/gels/blocks, in addition to some sweet and salty real food. I always try and eat real food when possible – it’s easier on my stomach.
What’s the atmosphere like at the aid station? Do you get a lot of encouragement or is everyone too rushed?
Aid stations are the best. Everyone is there to cheer you on, back you up, and support you however they can. It can feel rushed, especially at the front of the race, but taking a breath and a few extra seconds to get your needs addressed will serve you in the long run.
What is your morning routine on race day?
I wake up a good 90 to 120 minutes in advance, eat up, enjoy an espresso, do some body work (mobility, flexibility, etc), and run through the race and my strategy in my head, visualizing my ideal day. I check my gear and game plan for contingencies, then use the bathroom. I try to not have anything to do for 20 minutes before the gun, so I can just focus on my breath and my attitude – two of the few things you can fully control while racing.
What do you eat for breakfast and how long before the starting time do you eat?
I eat normally – a couple of eggs and spinach and red onion served with avocado, and I may throw some almond butter on a slice of bread or some cut apple slices. Don’t sabotage your race by bombing your guts with a bunch of sugar-laden garbage you’d never eat normally – your guts will revolt. Keep your body in rhythm.
What is one thing you can’t live without on race day?
Salt Stick tablets for electrolyte supplementation while racing in summer heat or humidity or at elevation. They’re high-potency, quality salt tabs with a great breakdown of essential electrolytes and will help eliminate cramp issues.
What is your favorite running book?
Where do you find the best running resources on or offline?
Your running community is the best resource. I’ve learned more from my friends in the Donner Party Mountain Runners Club than I could’ve ever imagined. Experience is invaluable.
What are the most common beginner mistakes in long distance running?
Not eating or drinking effectively, and not training those systems. People run a ton, but don’t practice their fueling and hydration strategies. You should dial in those systems and put yourself in a position to succeed on race day.
Will I get lost? Is the signage at most trail races pretty good?
Signage is typically great, although it’s absolutely the racer’s responsibility to learn the course and know your own race. The organizer is there to help you, not hold your hand.
Do you preview the course before you run the race? How much does this help?
I preview very few courses on my feet, due to travel for racing limiting those options. I do a ton of online research, looking at distances and gradients and stuff like that, then I try and train those skills building up to the race and I try and visualize the course in advance. I think all prep helps a ton, but you can absolutely have a great race having never set foot on a course before.
Do you get nervous before a race? How do you cope with that?
I rarely/never get nervous before a race. Racing is the fun part – training is hard. I constantly stress about my preparation when I get off-course in training and lose fitness, and that’s acceptable. At the start line, you’re as fit as you are – there’s no magic and no hiding. You’re either ready or you’re not. Jettison your hesitation, and allow yourself to run to the best of your ability – whatever that may be. You can’t “overperform” your fitness level, but you can run below your standard if you mentally defeat yourself by adding fabricated external stresses.
What are the best trail races to sign up for in Lake Tahoe and Truckee?
The Castle Peak 100k is the best long-distance race in the country, hands down. Grow long legs and race it! If that’s too rich, I think that the Marlette 50k is through some gorgeous terrain. The Sierra Crest Ultra run is awesome too and a great first ultra run!
If you’ve done a 5k or 10k and are tempted to challenge yourself with ultra running, the Sierra Crest 30k or 50k is a good place to start. We hope to see you there!
Click here for Part II from Rachel and Chris on Gearing Up for Your First Ultra Trail Run.
Rachel McCullough is an avid runner, hiker, mountain biker, rock climber, yogi, skier and photographer living in Truckee, CA. Follow @rachelmcphotos on Instagram for stunning images of beautiful Sierra scenery. When Rachel isn’t enjoying her free time in the outdoors, she’s teaching skiing at Northstar California or building gorgeous websites for her clients at McCullough Web Services.
Chris Cloyd is a Truckee, CA-based mountain athlete, competing at the national level in triathlon and ulramarathon racing over the past 5 years. He works full time as a trainer and coach out of Performance Training Center by Julia Mancuso while pursuing his own athletic career in the mountains. Find him on Instagram at @_trashtalk to follow all of his endeavors from behind the lens!