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Trail Tips

Going Solo

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Experience the exhilaration of a self-supported ultra

To experience an ultra on a new level, try going solo—no pacers, no aid stations …

Photo by Scott Markewitz

While ultramarathon races are a fun way to cover trail miles with like-minded peers, to experience an ultra on a new level, try going solo—no pacers, no aid stations, no crew members and no companions. It’s not even a race. Just you and the trail. Henry David Thoreau wrote, “I would rather sit on a pumpkin and have it all to myself than be crowded on a velvet cushion.” Running on a trail for 50 kilometers or 100 miles alone gives you new appreciation for the dirt, rocks and roots that are your medium, but, more, a glimpse into your true grit. Here are 10 steps to prime yourself for an ultra solo.

Set the Date. There’s nothing worse than getting stoked for a specific race, only to find it falls on the same weekend as another important engagement. No worries—set your own date. Highlight it on your calendar and start training.

Talk It Up. Tell friends, fellow runners and family your plans. Be humble, but hype up your run. Talking up your endeavor gets you pumped, and “going public” provides an extra shot of zeal when you’ve been running 10 hours and haven’t seen a single terrestrial.

Decide the distance. How much are you willing to bite off? First factor your previous ultra experience. Off the couch to 100 miles is not going to fly, no matter how tough a warrior you are. A rule of thumb is to go no longer than your previous longest race distance. Consider also if you’re willing to run through the night alone, which can be risky if you are not prepared.

Plan the Course. Don’t let the logistics overwhelm you. First, determine a destination, whether it’s halfway across the country, or in your own “backyard.” Next, study trail maps and define your course. I asked renowned ultrarunner Dean Karnazes how he maps his solo adventures. “Typically, I start by selecting the end destination,” he says. “Then, I choose the route. Right now I use the iMapMyRun app on my iPhone.” Other course-planning resources include trailmapping.com, trails.com and gpstrailsource.com (see also Trail Tested, “Mobil Mania,” Issue 71, March 2011).

A multiple-loop course is the easiest to plan, but can become monotonous. Point-to-point runs offer fresh scenery for the whole run, but require more planning when it comes to food, hydration and getting back. I prefer an out-and-back format, because the halfway mark is distinct, and defining your course and nutrition is simpler.

Train. While you need to log the necessary training miles, going solo requires much more self reliance and a broad range of skills. If you plan on running through the night, train in the dark. Along with a headlamp, I like to carry a mini Maglite to illuminate the trail. Remember spare batteries. It’s also crucial to train carrying all your supplies. Consider buying a running-specific backpack with at least 600 cubic inches of volume (I use the GoLite VO24; other good brands are Osprey and Mountain Hardwear).

“Your backpack-hydration system is critically important during solo and unsupported adventure runs,” says Karnazes. “And comfort is paramount.”

Nutrition. In an organized event, well-stocked aid stations are around every corner. When you go solo, though, you have to depend on what you carry or stow along the way. A loop course is simplest, because you can use your vehicle or a cooler(s) stashed in the bushes as an aid station.

Out-and-back and point-to-point runs pose more challenges. You can hide food along the way and carry it with you. Freeze-dried meals are light and nutrient dense, but require a stove, either carried or stashed.

Nail down your refueling plan—success hinges on it. Plan on having more than enough water and sports drink. On a loop course you are able to stockpile plenty of water, but when it comes to an out-and-back or point-to-point, you will need to use a backpack with a water bladder, and have spots along the way to refill (remember a filter or treatment tablets or drops).

Crew or Pacer. While tainting their purity, I’ve done solo ultras with a skeletal crew—my wife. Like an organized event, having a crew or pacer boosts your morale and adrenaline. For the sake of safety, having a cell phone (provided it gets reception) is advised. You can stay connected regardless of cell coverage with satellite messenger systems such as Spot II or Garmin GTU 10. With the push of a button you can send a pre-programmed message, along with your location to friends and family. An option is to have someone check on you halfway and arrange for a pacer the last five or 10 miles.

Bring Motivation. Without the inertia of other runners you need to bring the motivation. The last solo ultra I ran, I wrote a phrase on one arm in red permanent marker and a line from a favorite poem on the other. When I felt low I would look down. Bring a Ziploc baggy with index cards that have sayings, poems, people to finish for and reasons you will not stop. An iPod loaded with playlists, running podcasts and audio books helps break through fogs of negativity (unless you’re afraid of not being able to hear stealthy bears or lions).

Pace Chart. On an index card, jot down your planned mile splits and goals. On the trail it’s easy to feel good and go out too fast. I ran a very flat solo ultra way too fast and it came back to stab me in the calves.

If you need to take walking breaks, remind yourself by setting your watch to beep every 10 to 15 minutes, or listening to a playlist on your iPod and walking during every 3rd song. Sticking to a predetermined pace will increase your chances of finishing.

Post-Race Party. Make it what you like. If you are an introvert who wants to sip a couple brews alone, do it. If you want a huge gala, get family and friends involved, or coax a friend into throwing the shindig. Make it a reason to finish.

After conquering your own solo ultra you may just agree with Karnazes, who says, “I enjoy racing and competition, but running solo and navigating my own course is my favorite activity.”

Don’t be surprised if…

  • The weather is unseasonably bad. Be mentally prepared for poor conditions, whether it be rain, snow, wind or heat.
  • Your solitude is broken by people. We don’t own the trails, so hikers, tourists and other runners may be on your ultra circuit.
  • You feel better than ever. Thousands of footfalls and hours of uncluttered thinking add up to a clear mind and a sense of well being.
  • The highs and lows are pronounced. Being undistracted you will notice your peaks and valleys.
  • Before you’ve finished, you’ll be planning another. Going ultra solo doesn’t replace organized events; it only adds depth to the life of a trail runner.

Keep It Safe: Remember these must-haves

:: Flashlight and/or headlamp

:: Cell phone

:: Identification

:: Spare car key

:: Warm clothes and rain gear

:: First-aid kit

:: Extra socks

:: Vaseline

:: Ace Bandage

:: Map and compass

:: Sunscreen

:: Rain shell

:: Knife or multi-tool

:: Gloves

:: Sunglasses