Sworn-by advice from four ultra-athletes.
(Photo Credit: Lake Sonoma 100K / 55K)
There’s so much to love about the 50K: The reviving power of aid-station watermelon, the relative luxury of a shower and bed after 31.25 miles, and the full-body satisfaction that comes from a big day on your feet. But whether it’s your first 50K or your hundredth, the week leading up to race day can be aflutter with feelings.
Runners Talisa Hayes (Brooklyn, New York), Rio Lakeshore (Los Angeles, California), Nadia Ruiz (Los Angeles, California), and Callie Vinson (Scottsdale, Arizona) are no strangers to the race week roller coaster. One minute you’re riding high on anticipation; the next minute you’re stressing about your shoe choice. We asked Hayes, Lakeshore, Ruiz, and Vinson to share their tips on getting ready for race day and crossing the finish line feeling strong. Their advice includes:
Jump ahead, or read on to see their tips.
By “gas” we mean hydration and sleep. By “tank” we mean you. Your body is an engine and engines need fuel (not just the calorie kind). Talisa Hayes’ engine is still running strong after 18 years of long-distance running. As a personal trainer, group fitness instructor, and member of the leadership crew for Harlem Run, Hayes works with runners of all abilities. Regardless of your experience level, she says, a hydrated and rested body is crucial to race day success. It’s part of the reason her first 50K in 2013—the New Jersey Ultra Festival 50K—went smoothly.
“I made sure I slept and was well-rested prior to the race because my body was more rejuvenated and energized instead of sluggish,” she says.
You know your body best, but aim for about eight hours of sleep every night in the days leading up to your race. Hydration is just like studying for a test: Try not to cram it in the day before. Drink water steadily throughout the week leading up to your race instead of chugging a gallon the night prior.
Race day isn’t the day for experimentation. Shoes, nutrition, anti-chafing cream, pace, you name it; it’s a good bet that whatever has worked for you during training will continue to work for you during your event. Maintaining consistency is one part of having a good race, says Callie Vinson, but a successful strategy also includes doing your homework on the race itself. The first time Vinson ran a 50K in Chicago, she wore cotton and a fanny pack. Her strategy was simple: wing it.
“It was painful, sloppy, and amazing,” she says.
Though she finished, she noted her mistakes. Every time Vinson toes the line now, she’s done her research: weather, aid station offerings, elevation profile, time cutoffs. She wants to know, for example, if there’s a 2,000-foot climb she’ll need to save some juice for, in which case she’ll throw some Dr. Pepper-flavored jelly beans in her last drop bag.
Vinson says knowing race day logistics can better equip you to stay true to your plan and meet your body’s needs.
“If you’re going to rely on aid station fuel, research the race to see what will be offered,” she adds. “If you’re used to running on [one endurance drink], it might be an unwelcome surprise to see [another you’re less familiar with] available.”
For writer, father, and avowed Trail Dancer Rio Lakeshore, mindfulness and trail running are one and the same. Lakeshore’s Strava profile says it best: “free your mind and your feet will follow.” He’s currently training for a 50K fastest-known time attempt that begins high on a ridge paralleling the San Andreas Fault and ends at the Golden Gate Bridge. He says he benefits from presence of mind, especially in longer distances like the 50K.
“After all,” he says, “the Mind carries you when the body feels like it can no longer move forward.”
When the running gets hard, Lakeshore stays present and checks in with his body. But like hill repeats and proper fueling, mindfulness requires practice. If you’re new to incorporating mindfulness into your running and racing, Lakeshore suggests focusing on an element, some aspect of the natural environment in which you find yourself running, as an anchor for your mind and spirit.
“Maybe it’s the glistening body of water seen from the cliffside,” he says, or a peak on the horizon. Whatever you focus on, begin to memorize its colors, its texture, maybe its smell or sound. Notice if the light shifts or the colors change as you keep running. Continue breathing. Root yourself in the present by committing that natural anchor to your memory. “Using visual milestones far along in the distance can aid in remembering to push onward with one foot in front of the other, knowing that this moment shall pass. Don’t allow either the positive or the negative experiences to escape your memory. Both are great tools to get you through future 50Ks and beyond.”
After weeks and months of training for your race, it can be hard to adjust your expectations when things don’t go according to plan. Maybe the weather is hotter or wetter than you expected. Maybe your morning poop is mysteriously absent. Maybe you bonk within the first 10 miles of the race. No matter how much you’ve prepared, sometimes things won’t go your way. That doesn’t make your race—or you—a failure. Nearly 150 marathons and 16 ultras have taught endurance coach and educator Nadia Ruiz this fundamental truth. That’s why she tells her athletes to have not just plan A, but also plans B and C.
“I tell them to do this so they don’t feel disappointed or deflated that they didn’t hit their one and only goal,” Ruiz says. “It’s easy to deflate ourselves mentally when we see people passing, but this is your journey, your race.”
Success looks differently day to day and person to person. Ruiz says having an alternative goal (or two) allows us to stay positive during and after the race. Results are nice, but they’re not everything.
Talisa Hayes can relate. During the North Face Endurance Challenge Bear Mountain 50K, Hayes had such terrible blisters on her feet that she wasn’t sure she’d finish, never mind meet her time goals. In the end, her fellow racers encouraged her to keep putting one foot in front of the other. Have some objectives that are rooted in intention, not just times, and most importantly, says Hayes: “Have fun! Enjoy the experience and your beautiful surroundings. Those memories can never be duplicated.”
Of course, you can’t prepare for everything. That’s what makes a race, well, a race. Running and racing a 50K is inherently hard and requires all runners to dig deep at some point. To keep them going, Ruiz and Vinson have mantras—phrases that they come back to when the going inevitably gets tough.
Ruiz’s is simple: You know pain. It’s a mantra that reminds her that she has emerged from the pain cave before, and she will again. She usually deploys her mantra in the second half of the race since, she says, “that’s really where the race begins.”
Vinson has a few mantras, from an encouraging pep talk to tough love (who doesn’t need a kick in the pants every now and then?). Like all good mantras, hers are rooted in lived experience. In 2013, Vinson was so out of shape, she couldn’t walk a mile down the street to get brunch with a friend. She knew she needed a change, so she started running. In the nearly decade since, Vinson has lost 200 pounds. From her first 5K to her recent attempt at the Cocodona 250, her journey with ultrarunning has been equal parts rewarding and challenging. When she looks back at how far she’s come, Vinson reminds herself: You can do hard things. And, when she needs tough love: What else would you rather be doing? Finishing is your only f*cking option.
Have a few refrains in mind and revisit them during your race. Pro tip: shorter mantras are easier to repeat in time with your breath and stride.