5 Key Points to Never Forget for an Ultra Marathon

Photo cred: Solo Running

Photo cred: Solo Running

Although the Ultra Fiord ultra marathon (What’s an ultra marathon?) didn’t turn out as we planned; with every failure comes valuable lessons! (Ultra Fiord Race Report) You can read all you want and listen to whatever people tell you, but it doesn’t really hit home until you experience it yourself….this was one of those times. We’ve been racing ultras for a couple years now. We are by no means pros at the sport yet but we do our research, watch videos, train hard, etc. However, reading a fellow racer’s blog telling you to not chince out on food in order to save on weight doesn’t really stick until you are faced with an aid station with no grub.

So here’s a few lessons we learned from this race. Although some may be common sense for a well-weathered runner, they were definitely re-iterated by this race for Jon and I….

1. Food:

Always plan for the worst. Don’t get cheap on it and rely on the aid stations especially when it’s an inaugural race for you. We were faced with showing up to an aid station that was operating like it was October 31st. Place out your hand, say “I’m starving and cold” and then wa-la….two chocolate bars from a plastic bag are placed in your hand…In an ultra, 200 calories for every 4 hours of running just doesn’t cut it. We brought food of our own, however we were told there would be aid stations offering snacks, fruit and soups. So be prepared! Make sure it’s food you’ve trained with before so you know how it sits. Pack more than you think you need!

Ultra marathon running river crossing

Photo Cred: Rodolfo Soto

2. Race Clothing:

Along the same lines of the food, bring way more than you think you need. Us being a bunch of Canucks, we should’ve known better that mountain weather can change for the worse on the turn of a dime. Well the Patagonia Mountains are no different than the Rockies. With being led through a chest high river within the first 2km of the race; our extra little base layer in our packs didn’t do much good as it was just as wet as the one on our backs. Second part to this is actually take the time to change into the clothes you brought if you get too wet/cold. If we took a few minutes to stop and change our clothes right after the river crossing, we could’ve been a lot more comfortable for a good chunk of the course. So utilize the space you have and be prepared for any of Mother’s Natures moods (she is female after all so can change from a good to bad mood in a flash:P)

3. Medical Plan B:

You would like to think going into an ultra that there are medical resources ready for you from start to finish. Yes, ultras are a risky sport. You tax your body and are slowly degrading it but race directors/organizers should know this too about the runners competing in their event. Unfortunately, this ultra marathon didn’t have the personnel or supplies for us to feel confident that if I broke a leg or got struck with hypothermia, I would have help. Luckily, Jon and I stick together and therefore always have a pair of eyes looking out for one another but to put it bluntly….know how to get your own ass to safety! So whether it’s carrying a transponder, running with a partner, or having an emergency blanket even if it’s not required, have a back up plan in case you get stuck in a scenario where you need to play lifeguard but you’re also the one drowning.

Ultra marathon running, Impossible2Possible

Photo Cred: Rodolfo Soto

4. Research as Much as You Can Before:

This is a funny one coming from me since I am very on the fence about this topic. I’ve never been a fan of over-analyzing every aspect of the race before it; I believe you may set too many expectations and therefore more opportunities for disappoint when they all don’t come true. To be honest, we did our due diligent research for this race. However, the communication was very one way and we didn’t have much luck with responses until about 12 hours before race start time…So that felt quite a bit of out of our control; however, even trying to contact others who have travelled/trekked the area (tour guides, hikers, etc.) could help when trying to find out what the terrain is like.

5. Stop & Look UP!:

How many times have you looked back through race pictures after the race and said “WOW! Where the heck was that view in the race???” We all do it. Sometimes we’re so focused on our watch, footing, passing the person in front of us we forget to literally look up and soak in the scenery around you. There was a few times we did this during Ultra Fiord Ultra Marathon and thank goodness – fluorescent blue lakes, clouds melting down the mountainsides, glaciers oozing through valleys. We were lucky to see all of these but I know there is so much more that we missed because our concentration was channeled in the little bubble around us. So even if it means you must stop on a technical trail for 5 seconds, do it and soak in the big picture!

Although many of these are seemingly obvious, they somehow seem to slip many of us ultra runners minds from time to time. So hopefully this can be a friendly reminder to other runners out there not to forget the basics!

Run Free,

Mel & Jon

Ultra Fiord Race Report – Patagonia, Chile

Starting line of Ultra Fiord

Ultra Fiord – Puerto Natales

This past weekend the two of us runners geared up to take on the 1st edition of the Ultra Fiord ultra marathon in the beautiful Patagonia.

Originally signing up to race the 100 mile distance, a late training injury strongly urged us to scale back and run the 100 km.  Running vacations is what we’re all about, getting to see remote areas that a typical tour won’t take you.  However, this race shook our nerves a bit more than any other.  Claiming to be one of the hardest ultra marathons out there, this race very well stood up to its name in our minds.  The question exists though, was it for the right reasons?  We’ll give you a taste of how things went down here, and later we will share a post with you about our biggest take away lessons that we are using to forge on and become better runners for future races.

Pre-Race

 Ultra fiord race chileThe race organizers, NIGSA, are famed for hosting the annual Patagonia Expedition Race in the same region of Chile.  Their website was credible, race ambassadors for the inaugeral Ultra Fiord event were well known and accomplished and the social media hype that was stirring in the weeks leading up to the race was lively.  So why can’t such a well established event organization company reply to their email….Twitter…..OR Facebook???
We had a painful time trying to pry information about the race from the organizers.  Questions about terrain (Obviously we wanted to know whether our huarache sandals were possible to wear or not!), food at aid stations, and some of the mandatory gear which was mentioned on the site.  To be clear and concise the communication from the organizers and the competitors was absolutely awful.  To us and many other racers, all they seemed to say was “watch the trailer video, that’s what the race will be like.”  Alright lets take a look!
The Video – I’ll give it to them, they posted three trailers on youtube to promote the event and they all will get your legs itching to run!  It’s funny though, not once in that video was the runner knee deep in mud!:S  How were we supposed to be ready to start our race with 30 km of deep uneven mud?? Never did I see him jumping over glacier crevasses!  Racers from all distances were blown away that there were such things in a race with no safety crews in sight?? Never was he even using trekking poles!  So why was the terrain so unstable that runners were breaking their trekking poles left right and centre??

Race Time

One thing we both loved about this event was they incorporated a very interesting film festival showing called “Trails In Motion” put on by Trail Chile.  Their featured film about Nikki Kimbal’s most recent FKT was quite a moving documentary, and the rest of the films ignited the fire inside all of the runners getting ready to race later that night or the next morning.
Trails in Motion - Running film festival
After this we picked up our race packages and dropped off our drop bags.  This should have been a hint!!! It was like they planned this race last week, no one knew what was going on and we were less than confident that our drop bags would make it where they needed to be.  Regardless we headed to bed early to get up early and board the bus to the starting line.
The 100km runners and 70km runners all started at the same point at the same time on Friday morning.  An odd logistical thing to note here is the poorly planned start times.  12:00 AM for the 100 miler runners getting started the night prior, and 8:30 AM for the rest of us.  I’ll keep it brief with the numbers, but the 100 milers were given 15 hours to finish just over the first half of the course and 29 hours to finish the second half.  And the 100km runners had 7 hours to finish the first 30km, and 26 hours to finish the next 70.  I’m sure all can do the math…we don’t know what kind of calculator this RD was using…or rather, lack there of!!
Speaking of race director, if someone knows who he is, we’d love to meet him… Because at the film festival, package pickup, and even the 100 milers pre-race dinner, he was nowhere to be found, at least not publicly.  Later I figured out that he was the man who met us at the starting line and yelled out “One minute!…”30 seconds!”… “Go!”.  Maybe that’s his style but we like races a bit more when the RD’s give speeches to thank everyone for coming out, talks about the race a bit, wishes the runners the best of luck, or at the very least tell us what the course markings are.

Terrain of Ultra Fiord Race

We started out for the first kilometre or two running through a grassy horse paddock before being put to the test early.  With dawn cracking open the daylight, runners began crossing a chest high river in freezing cold glacier water.  If this would have been a hot race, then right on, but this may have been an indicator for the cases of hypothermia to come later.  The next couple kilometres felt like an awesome Patagonia trail race.  Ups and downs, technical terrain, we both were enjoying ourselves and beginning to warm up our bodies.  Then it all came to a crashing halt!
Deep river crossing ultra fiord
We sunk our feet in some deep mud (and we mean DEEP) and that didn’t stop for the next 30km.  People were barely able to run, everyones’ feet were soaked, and the most difficult part was that the mud was unpredictable.  Sometimes the swampy areas were filled with rocks, sometimes it was a peat mossy sort of “sauerkraut looking mix” that would just soak your feet, and sometimes you sunk deep down up to your waist.  We were lucky to not lose any of our shoes!
We kept trucking along, at quite a slow pace, until we came upon the first “aid station” around the 16km mark.  This must be a cultural thing, because their aid station had two guys hanging out in a bush, with a small jug of water filled with lake water, a bag of what looked like halloween candy from which we were each given to “goodies” and a soaking wet sheet of paper they marked down that we had came through.  First let me say that with our time living in Chile we knew that the food they were providing us was the ABSOLUTE CHEAPEST things you can find at the supermarkets:P.  At this point we had let our body temps drop a little too much and were quite cold.  Melissa was shivering pretty bad and one of the aid station guys asked if she was ok, or wanted to stop.  We asked, how we would get out of there….. crickets…. they weren’t sure.  ***It was beginning to make sense why they made it MANDATORY for runners to have their own travel insurance***  
Mud running in Patagonia
We chose to layer up and keep moving, however with the rough terrain rolling Mel’s injured foot around, we had been pulled back to a trekking pace.  At this point we knew the 30km mark might be where we throw in the towel, as it just didn’t make sense to push her foot too far when there appeared to be no emergency plans in place should a runner need to be transported to a hospital.
***We cannot say too much about the aid stations along the rest of the course, however some runners said that there was next to no food offered after the 30km checkpoint.  Even at the finish line!!!!***
Upon reaching the 30km checkpoint, where our first drop bag was, there was almost nothing in site when we arrived.  Two kids asked for our numbers and pointed inside the building.  We walked inside to find a few other runners who had called it a day.  There was a bit of soup, bread (always lots of bread in Chile!) and fruit offered.  This was nice to have a little bit, however little did we know we would be stuck waiting inside this shack for the next 5 1/2 hours!  Runners continued to come in, many from the 100 miler, and all were cold, wet and hungry.  We all huddled around the little wood burning stove to warm up, shared the foods we all had in our drop bags and just hoped that we would soon be brought back to Puerto Natales (everyone’s home base).   At one point a runner came in who collapsed onto a table. Barely talking, shivering, blueish feet….yup hypothermia! Worst of all? There was NOTHING done to get him help.  No medical staff, no emergency pick up and drive back, the rest of the runners had to help warm him up and get him food.
We eventually made it back to our hotel, 8 1/2 hours after we had stopped running.  During that time and the days to follow, we spoke with other racers with almost worse stories than ours.  We were told that while the first 30-40km were well marked, at some points on the top of the mountain, the marking just dissappeared and runners were getting lost.  Lost at night, on a mountain, in Patagonia, in a race with no rescue plans or procedures…. As much as our first DNF hurt, I’m glad I didn’t get myself caught in that kind of situation.
There were tons of factors that continued to make this course difficult/dangerous, from running along glaciers, to jumping crevasses, difficult scrambling, many more kilometres of deep mud, more river crossings and probably some other interesting/shocking stories you can find in others race reports.
One final note I will add, is that Ultra Fiord seriously lacked in any kind of spirit.  While it may sound lame, we like it when we get close to an aid station or even the finish and the volunteers cheer you in, you hear music, there is energy!  The best and most common way people were describing this race is that it was more of an adventure race instead of an ultra marathon.  The risks that made it “the hardest ultra” were uncontrolled and reckless.  If this were advertised as such and runners brought bags of gear with medical and safety equipment, it could make for a great race.  But for ultra runners looking to run, with lightweight and minimalist gear, it quite possibly in my opinion could be the place ultra running sees its first fatality.
Update (April 18, 2016): We have not heard many details, but this past weekend the Ultra fiord 2016 race took place, and there was a tragic event resulting in one racer passing away.  We cannot urge people more to stay away from this race and any others put on by the organizers.  Ultramarathons are serious by nature, and the Patagonia makes things more serious.  The race director simply does not things serious enough to manage a race of this capacity.
Port of Puerto Natales, Chile ultra fiord race
I would not return to the Ultra Fiord race or any other organized by NIGSA, nor would I recommend anyone to attend.  I loved my visit to Patagonia and will surely be back to visit, to run my own trails, take my own risks, and push my own limits.
Huge congratulations to all runners who started this race, and MASSIVE congrats to those who finished!!! We hope this article doesn’t come off as being bitter for not finishing because we can honestly say we may have had worse things to say had we experienced the later part of the race.  My intentions are to encourage people to assess the race and its risks, and if the organizers are to read this post, we encourage you to take action on these comments and host a safer and more enjoyable race for competitors in years to come.

Train Hard and Run Free

Mel and Jon

**Be sure to take a read of our guide on 5 Key Points to Never Forget for an Ultra Marathon – inspired by this race;)

7 Days of Race Food – Racing the Planet Madagascar

With our first stage race rapidly approaching, we’ve finally narrowed down and organized our dining menu that we’ll be bringing with us on our 7 day stage race through Madagascar.  The only requirements that we had to work with from the race organizers were the following:

  1. Minimum 2000 calories per day
  2. Enough electrolyte powder mix or tabs to 30 hours of running
  3. Being able to carry a minimum of 2.5L of water at any given time

With that, and no previous stage running experience, we weren’t quite sure where to start.  First thing is first we planned out our main meals.  For this we received some awesome advise and support from two great Canadian companies.

mel and jon prairie naturals supplements

Prairie Naturals: 

Prairie Naturals make a wide range of all natural supplements, tons of which we will use before, during and after the race.  From they wide range of organic vegan proteins to mix in with breakfast oatmeal, to their clean L-Glutamine to keep our muscles from breaking down too much, and of course their organic spirulina and chlorella supplements to help get us some greens while we’re out in the middle of nowhere.

harvest foodworks mel running nutrition

 

Harvest Foodworks:

Based out of Ontario, Harvest Foodworks offers a wide selection of vegetarian and vegan dehydrated food options.  Yes the recommended way to prepare their meals requires some short cooking, however we experimented with many of their entrees and found quite a few that cook quite well by simply mixing in hot/boiling water and letting it soak it all up.  They are jam packed full of protein, carbs and fats with some desirable ingredients such as curcumin, ginger or ghee to help keep fight off inflammation.  And who could forget, like with almost all dehydrated foods, a high salt content is a huge perk for nutrition planning while running through the heat of Madagascar.

 

 

Next up, we needed to find some high calorie, stomach friendly energy bars!  There are actually a whole bunch of vegan energy bars out there to choose from, the catch however is that most vegan eaters, ironically aren’t huge fans of super high calorie bars.  After an extensive trial and error process during all types and lengths of workouts, we narrowed it down to two varieties that we will be packing with us:

larabar vegan energy bar

Larabars:

These little guys are made from so few ingredients (some as little as 4!!), its comforting to know that we’re not eating a chemistry lab each time we chomp one down.  With a primary ingredient of dates, these are high in natural sugars and offer some sweetness to the race menu.  Each bar is small in size but brings with it just over 200 calories each.

Halvah bar sesame seed health

Hallvah bars:

These guys have been around for a long time, however we just discovered Halvah Bars recently.  Again an all natural bar with simple ingredients, though these ones are mostly made up of sesame seeds.  This gives them a super high fat content, however its a healthy fat that can be utilized by the body quite well for energy, and in fact will sustain you for longer than a sugar based bar.  Topping the charts as the highest calorie bar we could find anywhere we looked, each one contains between 400-480 calories per bar.  These also have a little bit more of a savory flavour for when we’ve had enough sweet for the day.

Drink mixes

Next step was one we weren’t too familiar with, thats the drink mixes.  We do our best to keep our diet as natural as possible so downing artificial supplements isn’t a daily things for us.  We sought some tried and tested advise from our friend Ray Zahab (Co-star in the documentary Running the Sahara) who has competed in some of the most extreme stage races and running expeditions, so he’s figured it all out!!

We’ll be packing two kinds of drink powders with us, a carb loaded one called Vitargo, and a electrolyte rich on known as EFS.  The Vitargo simply helps you pack down the easily digestable calories to keep you going, with less of a sugar spike/crash effect that sports drinks bring with them.  EFS carries the claim to fame that it has the highest amount of electrolytes per volume, leaps and bounds higher than simple gatorade or powerade will provide.  While yes these are both chemically made, the alternatives would leave us with simply WAY to much food packed in our tiny packs to carry.

tired runner ultra distance race

Lasty, a couple of treats to look forward too and a couple emergency items for along the way, when the going gets tough.  Ray told us that on the ladder stages of the race, you might fall a bit too far behind in calories, so pack a gel or two for a rescue shot of calories.  Also bring one or two treats with you that you can crave and have after a tough stage, our plan for these is a couple Honey Stinger Waffles (our favs!) and a small pack of salted almonds! dehydrated ultra marathon running

 

 

 

 

 

All this tallied up rolls in right around 18,000 calories, well above the minimum 14,000 required.  We feel confident in all of our food choices and have tested them our while running at different paces, in different temperatures and in different amounts.  All fuel us well, digest well and will hopefully push up towards completing this race!

 

Follow along here or on our facebook page “Ultra Mel & Jon“, as we write quick updates after each stage of our race!

As always, live dirty, eat clean and run free! 🙂

Mel and Jon

Running on Empty – Marshall Ulrich

Running on empty cover RUNNING ON EMPTY

– Ultra-marathoners Story of Love, Loss and Record Setting

By: Marshall Ulrich

 

This book has a multitude of different aspects and emotions woven through it.  The most obvious is the author’s introduction and induction into the world of ultramarathon running.  Having taken up running as more of a safe haven from his struggles at home, Ulrich talks about the effects that it had on his wife and children.  For me it was a great reminder that taking on anything as demanding as ultra running requires a lot of support from your family and can quickly take over your life if you let it.  Ulrich creates quite a bit of vulnerability within himself as he reflects on his mediocre job as a father as well as his three (completely different in dynamic) marriages.  It becomes quite easy to relate the story to your own life and stuggles that you may have gone through, family members which you might have tension with, or dreams that rattle around in your head waiting to be chased.

The more inspiring side of the book was what really had me glued to it more than anything else.  Ulrich didn’t simply stay around his home town to run the same races each year.  He quickly searched far and wide for races which could both challenge him and bring him to places all over the US.  Not even staying within the realm of one particular style of racing, Ulrich bounced between road marathons, trail races, 5k’s to 100 milers, and even into multi-day adventure races.  With each race fertilizing that little seed in his mind telling him that anything is possible, Ulrich started to up the anti.  Creating goals which to some would seem suicidal, like climbing Mount Everest (Summit photo below), and others which people simply haven’t thought to try yet, say Leadville Trail 100 and Pikes Peak Marathon on the same weekend.

uLRICH EVEREST

Getting to the chunk of the book that truly matters, at least in the eyes of Guinness!  Ulrich talk extensively about his record setting run from coast to coast across the United States.  Without taking anything away from this great novel, this epic story has a little bit of everything.  It’ll show you that weather won’t always cooperate with plans, sponsors can turn “corporate” at the snap of a finger, it’s never too late for family, distance running can ramp up your sex drive :S, farmers shoot first and ask questions later, friends can turn on you, friends can save you, and most important of all the human spirit has no boundaries!

A great book that I would recommend to just about anyone and highly recommend any ultra runner to pick up.  Ulrich was generous enough to include a vast amount of information about his trans-continental run, including training programs, nutritional info, injuries and prevention/treatments, and all of the equipment and clothing that was used.

Run free and read lots!!

– Jon –

How to Tie Huarache Sandals like a Tarahumara!!

How To Tie Huaraches

When we travelled to Costa Rica to run the La Ruta ultra marathon, we were fortunate enough to spend the week before the race with about 15 Tarahumara runners who had travelled from Mexico to compete in the race.  In this time we shared our modern day style huarache sandals from Xero Shoes, and they shared their handmade traditional huarache sandals with us.  At first we were skeptical about their tying method, as it looked quite insecure, we were convinced after the Tarahumara racers swept the podium, wearing their simple huaraches for the entire 100km ultra marathon.  This is how the Tarahumara showed us how to tie huarache sandals, and we hope you give it a try and send us a pic!!!

How to Tie Huarache Sandals like the Tarahumara

tying huarache sandals mel and tarahumara runner

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