Five Ultrarunning Skills I’ll Bring on the AT
I’ve hiked more miles in my life than I’ve run, but a couple of years ago I picked up ultrarunning and have been borderline obsessed since. For me, it’s the perfect blend of a high-intensity workout and all the best parts of hiking (scenery, trails, nice people, etc.) without the big packs and slow pace. Something about being able to cover the distance of two marathons in the woods on a single day appeals to me, which is why I keep engaging in what is one of my most punishing (and, therefore, rewarding) pursuits. Zach’s recent profile of ultrarunner Courtney Dauwalter, who won a 240-mile race in the Moab desert in 2017, shows just how impressive ultrarunners can be.
Needless to say, there is a lot of crossover between ultrarunning and long-distance hiking. As I’ve been preparing both mentally and physically for my upcoming 100-day thru-hike, I’ve noticed more and more similarities between the two sports, and it seems that hikers are dressing and eating more like ultrarunners every year (ahem, Altras). So I thought I would outline a few other skills I’ve picked up from the ultrarunning community that I plan to bring along on the Appalachian Trail this year.
During an ultramarathon, it can sometimes get pretty lonely out there. During the Buff Troodos Mountain Ultra last October, which took me nearly 16 hours to complete, I started and finished the race in the dark. Being one of the slower runners, I had a lot of time alone with which to doubt my abilities and sanity for participating in such an event. However, I learned some time ago that most ultrarunners use mantras (phrases, mottos, slogans, or statements) to get them through the darkest (no pun intended) moments in a race. By vocalizing something meaningful, you can get re-inspired and extra motivated to complete the task at hand – or, at the very least, distract yourself for a while. I use mantras heavily during all of my long races to remind myself why I’m there and why I shouldn’t quit. I found that the best way to vocalize mantras is to match the syllables with my running or walking cadence and repeat. This helps me to get in both a movement and breathing rhythm, which I may not always have the mental clarity to remember to do. Some of my favorite mantras include:
- Don’t ring the bell (related to Navy SEAL training in which recruits can ring a bell to end their training).
- Accept the suffering.
- RFM (relentless forward motion).
- The only way out is through.
- No pressure, no diamonds.
- Embrace the suck.
- Hard choices, easy life. Easy choices, hard life.
Some of these mantras are borrowed from other runners, but some I came up with on my own. It’s important that they mean something to you in order to be effective, otherwise you not only won’t remember them but they won’t have the same effect. Not only that, sometimes different mantras work for different situations (for example, some for distraction and some for motivation). I keep a note on my phone with a list of all my mantras should I be in need and unable to remember.
I know that tough times are coming on the Appalachian Trail. I know that the Virginia Blues are no joke, but I’m sure I’ll have many more dark moments on the trail that music and audiobooks won’t be able to break me out of. During those times, I’ll break out my trusty mantras and refocus my efforts to pull through.
One of the best ways to cut time off an ultramarathon finish is to spend less time at the aid stations. Sounds pretty basic, but it can be harder than you think to pull yourself up to run more after having done a marathon (or two) already. Also, the aid stations at ultramarathons tend to be more like buffets than the water-only offerings at your typical road race. Most I’ve visited have fruit, candy, soda, chips, and homemade goodies to refuel on before heading back on the trail.
The best way I have found to reduce time at aid stations is to simply avoid things that would make me linger. For example, I try to take off my pack as infrequently as possible (unless I need a water refill) and take only what nutrition I can carry in my hands or pack pockets. That way I avoid getting too comfortable and having to fight the urge to keep going when it’s hard enough already.
Once I have my fuel, I get back on the trail as soon as possible by getting away from the aid station. I take my snacks with me and eat on the go, usually just walking, which both allows me a break from running but also keeps me moving and making progress.
I plan to apply this same on-the-go approach to nutrition during my thru-hike. I will mount the Zpacks Multi-Pack to my chest and store all my snacks for the day in that pouch, where they are easy to access. By having everything in front I won’t have to stop and take off my pack nearly as much and can eat on the go all day long, saving boatloads of time.
Gaiters are becoming much more popular among thru-hikers, and for good reason. When I started trailrunning, I thought these ridiculous pieces of cloth people were wearing on their feet were useless and looked silly – until I tried them.
To be clear, when most people think of gaiters on the trail, they think of the clunky winter gaiters that explorers wear to trek through an avalanche.
Those are not what I am talking about. What I mean by gaiters are the lightweight Lycra ones that are made for hiking and trailrunning. A popular brand is Dirty Girl, which makes some of the best, cheapest, and easiest-to-use gaiters. They attach to your shoes with a small metal shoelace hook on the front and a strip of Velcro at the back. If you have a pair of Altras (and who doesn’t, nowadays?), they fit perfectly with their gaiter trap system and weigh only .9oz/pair.
Although they aren’t waterproof, nor are they designed to keep water from entering your shoes, they work flawlessly at keeping dirt and rocks out, which can be a huge time (and frustration) saver.
I wear my gaiters for every single trail run and race, and I plan to wear them for the entirety of my thru-hike. Going back to the efficiency of time savings provided by eating on the go, wearing gaiters can help prevent time lost to emptying shoes or dealing with an injury related to trail debris or ticks that may be hiding in or around your socks. Even one small stone in your shoe can cause injury or blisters if left unattended, so why even bother? Throw on the gaiters and forget about it.
Closely related to the wearing of gaiters is foot care in general. If there’s any group other than long-distance hikers that has foot care figured out, it’s ultrarunners. One of the best resources I have come across is John Vonhof’s book Fixing Your Feet, which explains in great detail the importance of taking care of your feet. Here’s a quick excerpt from the author’s website:
“Every athlete, from the first-timer to the experienced, must make the choice to be either reactive or proactive. Being reactive means taping hot spots and fixing blisters when they develop. It can mean making fixes under less than idea conditions, with less than adequate materials and in a manner does not work for your particular foot problem. Being proactive, on the other hand, means discovering before an event, what works for your feet and knowing how to treat any potential problems before they develop. This means knowing what resources are available to use, trying out blister fixes before an event, and pre-race taping of your feet where hot spots and blisters typically develop.”
The best advice I’ve heard on the subject is that ultramarathons are all above the shoulders and below the ankles, meaning it’s very much about mental stamina and foot care. Zach covers the mental aspect well in Appalachian Trials, and I think Fixing Your Feet is a great companion for the other half of the equation. As Vonhof says, it comes down to knowing where you’re vulnerable (weak ankles, hot spots), working on them before your trip, and taking care of them if they arise.
Of the estimated 5 million steps taken during a thru-hike, it is imperative that I take care of my feet along the way. Ever since I started wearing Altra Lone Peak shoes, I haven’t had a single blister throughout all of my races and training. As such, I will be sticking with Altras for the entirety of the AT. I’m also a big fan of Drymax socks which, as the name suggests, dry exceptionally fast and can help eliminate excess moisture that can lead to blisters. Despite having my tried-and-true combination of footwear and socks, I will still bring the appropriate tools (KT Tape, needle) should I need them.
Tortoise vs. Hare
Everyone knows the story of the tortoise and the hare, the age-old slow and steady wins the race axiom. Something similar in the ultrarunning community is, “No one ever said, ‘I wish I started faster.’ ” When I won my first 50k ultramarathon, I started in the back of the pack and kept a consistent effort throughout the day. I didn’t start passing people until the last eight miles or so, all of whom had gone out of the gate faster than they anticipated and had the wheels fall off later on. Ultrarunner Cory Reese, author of Nowhere Near First: Ultramarathon Adventures From The Back Of The Pack (who is a very strong competitor), says that “your effort throughout a race should be like spreading peanut butter on a slice of bread: smooth and consistent.”
I’m planning to hike the AT in 100 days , which means I’ll be putting up some high-mileage days. Instead of going balls-to-the wall and bonking or injuring myself, I will commit to longer, slower days to get the miles in. This is what I’ve found to work for ultramarathons, and what Andrew Skurka (a renowned ultrarunner in addition to being a backpacking legend) recommends this as well.
In sum, there is a lot of crossover between ultrarunning and thru-hiking. It appears that the two are converging as ultramarathons get longer and backpacks get lighter, and as such it behooves us all to take what skills we can from the other sport in order to help make for a better experience outside. Although I was primarily a hiker until a couple of years ago, many of the skills and tips I have learned through ultrarunning will help immensely during my coming AT hike. I can’t wait to put them to use.
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VERY good article. You mention some things no one else has said. I didn’t know it but I do something like a Mantra, repeating a thought I had over and over to the beat of my walking. Making it inspirational will be helpful. I also find the inertia of leaving a pack-off stop or lunch is great and the eating while walking, don’t sit down, may be helpful. Good luck on that 100 days although it sounds like you will be well prepared. DAT