The new 9 trails race approaches and I realize that many people running it have never done a trail race before. These are some things that I have learned over the years. Some things learned are just what the problems are (without good solutions), while others are more useful. Not everything will apply to everyone. So these are more things to consider than precepts set in stone.
Things marked with a * are things my coach, Mike, has told me (and therefore should carry more weight than things I’ve learned myself).
There is a different vibe in a trail race than a road race. The pace is much slower, and this seems to make people take it less seriously. But to me it is still a race. I may be running more slowly, but I’m just as focused on winning my age-group (at my age winning the race is out of the question) as I am in a road race. These notes assume that you want to do your best, but if all you want is to have a good time, then you can ignore some of them.
- Dehydration — This is my biggest unsolved problem. It seems to be a common problem, though it doesn’t happen at the same time to everyone. Somewhere around 4 hours I will notice that my heart rate starts to climb. Somewhere around 5 hours the thought of more food because nausea-inducing. Somewhere around 9 hours the nausea becomes incapacitating. This problem is made worse by heat and altitude (and effort level).
- Heartrate — Mike tells me that I should keep my heart-rate below 80% during the race.* The longer the race, the more important this is. For a 50K (which is over in ~5 hours) I’ll hold to that for the first half of the race and then allow it to climb, for a 50 miler (8+ hours) I don’t have that luxury. 9T is somewhere between the two, but closer to most 50milers.
- Water — 1 liter/hour (1 quart/hour)*
- Salt — 100mg sodium/hour* There are two common salt tablets in running stores. For “S-Caps” this corresponds to 1 tablet/hour, while for Endurolytes it’s about 2.5 tablets/hour. Salt is supposed to help you retain water, so the taking of these tablets should reduce dehydration. In my case it doesn’t seem to make a piece of difference — but I usually do it anyway once it starts to get hot.
- Food — 200g carbs/hour.* Or a GU every half hour. (That’s in a long race, when doing a 5 hour training run I’m more likely to take a GU every 45 minutes). Gels are easy to deal with, and are light and can be carried in pockets (so I don’t need to stop at aid-stations for them) but after 3~4 hours I find the sight of a GU makes me nauseous and I switch to chewy blocks. After ~5 hours blocks make me nauseous too so I’ll try to eat whatever is at aid stations. I like orange slices, bananas, potatoes. Sometimes quesadillas. Whatever I can stomach. At that point my mouth tends to be too dry for peanut butter. A bit longer I find I can’t eat anything. Other people tend to start out eating from aid stations and then switch to GUs later in the race. See what your body does.
- Nausea — I start feeling nauseous after about 5~6 hours. More time if it is cool and at low elevation, sooner if it is hot or at altitude. Different people respond differently. A few are lucky and don’t seem to get nauseous. Others will have it happen sooner (I have sometimes become nauseous at the end of a marathon, but there the higher effort level makes me dehydrate faster). I frequently vomit about 20 minutes after I have finished a 50 miler (which doesn’t make sense to me). Mike has told me that if I start to feel nauseous then I should try walking with my HR below 60% for 20 minutes. Sadly, once I’m feeling nauseous, I can’t seem to get my HR that low. Maybe I could on a cool day, in the shade going downhill, but I’ve never had a chance to test that. Something I mean to try someday is to take a ~15 minute break sitting in the shade at an aid-station, perhaps pouring water on my head to cool down. I think it might also help bring along a book (e-book?) to read to take my mind off the race and get my HR down.
- Aid Stations — You can waste a lot of time in aid-stations. There is a presumption in a trail race: “If I’m going to take 8 hours to run then why worry about 2 extra minutes in an aid station?” — well because there might be 10 aid-stations in your 50 mile race and wasting 2 minutes in each comes to 20 minutes total, or more. Now part of your racing plan might be that you need a rest to prevent nausea, and an aid-station often provides a nice shady cool(ish) place to rest — that’s not a waste, but all too often I see people just hanging out. If possible I try to come into an aid-station alone. There is often only one water jug, so if you enter with a group of people, someone has to wait to refill their water. I usually carry a 2liter pack, and at the start of the race I can often skip an aid-station because I don’t need to refill yet. This can save a lot of time.
- Passing — There’s an etiquette here. If you hear someone coming up behind you, it’s polite to offer to let them pass you when running on single track. If the race is an out and back race (9T) and you are still going out, then it is polite to give way to the person coming back. Now there are exceptions. I have failed to offer to let someone pass me when I knew the downhill which sped them was ending in just 200 yards and after that I’d be faster. But mostly I’ll offer to let someone behind pass. (Often they won’t pass, they may think the pace is close enough to theirs that it isn’t worth worrying about, at least not until the trail opens up again, and they may like the company. But if you offer, you look good :-).
- Hills — Don’t be afraid to walk up hills. But equally if you find a non-technical downhill then try to push the pace. But then again on some races you may wear out your quads… Races tend to be won by the person who can run downhill fastest at the end. Some people can go sub-6 at the end of a 50 miler… (I tend to go about 8min/mile myself on a downhill dirt road at the end, and even with that I pass people). For 9T this means pushing hard from Inspiration (if the technical nature of Tunnel doesn’t bother you then starting from the top of the Connector is even better).
- Training — Mike has often said that in trail running what matters is time on your feet rather than distance.* He often gives me things like 40 minutes at 85% HR uphill (or go up Cold Spring or San Ysidro for ~20 minutes to warm up and then push hard the rest of the way to Camino Cielo). At some point it is a good idea to try to drink/consume/eat water/salt/food at the same rate you intend to do it in the race. Salt and GU you can carry with you, but water you need to stash (don’t try to carry 4liters!). If you do ½ 9T as a training run then placing an additional 2 liters at the Gibraltar hairpin is about right (and is relatively easy).
- Tapering — I find that trail running isn’t as hard on my body as road running, so I tend to do my longest run 2~1 weeks out rather than the 3 weeks that marathon training suggests.
- Gaiters — Often on the trails small stones, (and at this time of year) fox-tails, burrs, etc. will creep into your shoes or socks. These can be painful, forcing you to stop and shake out your shoe (or pull nasty needles out of your socks). Gaiters are a solution to this. Dirty Girl makes gaiters designed for trail racers.
- Camera — I usually take a light-weight camera with me. I can take a picture of a nice view without slowing down, and it may be a view I’ll never see again. (Now a flower is another matter. I need to be still to photograph something close, so I rarely do that).