Lessons Learned From 250km Ultramarathon

Lessons Learned From 250km Ultramarathon

The Gobi March by 4 Deserts/Racing The Planet is a self-supported 250km multi-stage race in China, covering a wide variety of terrain.  From 3000m high mountain trail to scorching desert (up to 50 degrees in heat!) it is a testing event and has been acknowledged by Time Magazine as one of the 10 toughest endurance events in the world.

It was my maiden multi-stage event, and my expectations were low in terms of how I would perform.  This truly was an event that I simply wanted to finish and to embrace the experience; the placing was a secondary objective.

I would say that 6 months of preparation went into the lead up to the race, and the quality of the various elements of that preparation process is what distinguishes the competitors.  For me, they can be broken down into the following elements:

  • Equipment
  • Nutrition
  • Physical Training

EQUIPMENT

The first decisions to make when preparing for this type of experience are shoe type, rucksack type, hydration system type and whether to use poles or not.  All 4 of these elements are important to decide early so that your training can be practiced accordingly.  I went with Salomon trail shoes, Ultimate Direction rucksack, water bottles (rather than a bladder) and I opted not to use poles.

There were 35 mandatory items on the equipment list, so sourcing the equipment was an important task.  One has to balance economy and weight/size with each item, to try to get the best for your budget/rucksack space!  Basically, the smaller and lighter the better (since you are carrying everything on your back during the race – approximately 10kg of weight)!  It is vital to do your research and to speak to others that have completed a similar event.  Some items can be borrowed to lower the expense.

A very important part of your kit is your toilet pack!  Hygiene is very important during these events, as there are no toilets or sinks, so you must be extremely careful not to carry germs.  I won’t go into the gruesome details but needless to say having a toilet strategy is crucial!

As you prepare your equipment, you need to know what you will need during the race as well as what you will need at the camps each night.  This means a wide range of clothing (at night it is freezing in the desert), a good sleeping back, as well as medical items like blister kits and sanitation liquid.

NUTRITION

Basically, you are going to be quite hungry during the week, as you have to carry all your food and you simply don’t have enough space!  The freeze-dry (space food!) packs are high calorie, but they are bulky, so there is no room for extras.  Snacks are a necessary luxury, but the elite runners will effectively sacrifice food in order to travel light.  I learned that it is good to make friends with other runners that have heavy rucksacks as after Day 1 they start to offload excess food!!!

Electrolytes and liquid fuel are crucial, and I used Hammer Fizz tablets and Hammer Perpetuem in my water.  This meant that at every water station I popped in 2 electrolyte tablets and a third of a pack of Perpetuem, providing me with steady energy throughout the race.  However, I discovered that as the temperature rose, the taste got worse and it was a bit of a battle to force it down, but there is no way around that and everybody had the same challenge.  Next time I’ll take a greater variety of flavours!

Once I completed each stage (approximately 42km per day) I immediately consumed Hammer Recoverite, some nuts (my one luxury item) and some noodles.  Then later I would eat my freeze-dried dinner ration with some hot Milo.

PHYSICAL TRAINING

It is better to go into a race like this with slightly less training than too much training, as you do not want to be carrying any injury niggles under any circumstances, and you do not want to be exhausted before you start the race!  Of course, a lot of training has to be done, and the following points are crucial when formulating a training plan for an ultramarathon desert race:

  • Rucksack weight acclimitisation
  • Heat acclimitisation
  • Back to back runs
  • Practicing with your race nutrition
  • Some build up races

I felt my training went very well and The Running Plan have since formulated a series of training plans for 4 Deserts based upon my learnings and experience.

OTHER LEARNINGS

A multi-stage event is an all-encompassing experience; it teaches you to embrace your surroundings and to immerse yourself in the experience.  One of the most rewarding aspects for me was locking my mobile phone, keys, wallet and passport into my suitcase and then leaving that suitcase in the luggage room before heading with everybody to the race camp 1!  How refreshing to have nothing in your pockets and to have nothing to worry about except the 250km ahead!!!

I made a lot of new friends and learned a lot from other people from all walks of life.  I learned to respect everybody’s ability and reason for being there, and not to make assumptions or judgements.

I learned to enjoy doing nothing during the time in camp.

When I crossed the finish line, I learned that I had pushed my body to the max, and that I had a truck load of emotions ready to flood out when my body was at that low ebb (I literally could not control my emotions for almost 2 hours after the finish).

I learned to respect the distance!

THINKING OF TRYING A MULTI-STAGE EVENT?

Jeff will be taking a group of Malaysian-based runners to the Namib Desert in April 2019 to complete the 4 Deserts Namibia race.  He will mentor and training anybody who wants that help, free of charge, in the lead up to the event.

For more information, contact Jeff directly via www.therunningplan.com.  If you are capable of completing a 42km distance in 8 hours, then you can complete a 250km multi-stage event, as long as you are mentally strong and you are willing to train smartly for a 6-month period.

 

Jeffrey Ross is Director and Co-founder (with Mark Williams) of The Running Plan – www.therunningplan.com, the Malaysian-based running training plan experts.  Visit their website for more information on trail and road training plans, or email contact@therunningplan.com

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