If you are strictly a road runner and have only attempted and/or completed perhaps up to a marathon distance (42.195 km or 26 miles), or if you are a beginner in regards to trail running, you may be wondering what it takes to prepare so that you are confident to try (and hopefully complete) a trail marathon or ultramarathon. Well to give you a better idea of what you may be in for, I’d encourage you to undertake this small exercise in your mind’s eye: Think of the longest road run you have ever completed. Think of how much effort this took and how you felt during and at the completion of the event. Hold that thought for a moment; then in your mind’s eye extend this distance out to 42 km, then 50 km, then 50 miles (80 km) then 100 km or even out to 100 miles (or 160 km, which is almost four back-to-back standard marathons!). How are you feeling now?
Let’s not stop there though. Let’s move your run off the roads and onto the trails. Trails consist of dirt, loose gravel or rocky roads with uneven terrain, potholes and culverts to traverse. Trails also consist of single-track routes with terrain such as mossy rocks, gravel, dirt, mud and tree roots to navigate. There are hanging bridges made of wooden or metal planks and wire to traverse. There are also muddy vegetable and rice terraces to negotiate and small streams, irrigation channels and even larger rivers to cross. There may also be limited sections of concreted roads and concreted tire paths to negotiate.
Then let’s throw in anywhere between 3,000 and 10,000 meters of climbs and descents throughout the course. The upper end of this range is significantly more in terms of elevation gain (from sea level) than climbing and descending Mt. Everest, the world’s tallest mountain.
You must be feeling tired and overwhelmed by this small exercise by now; but we’re not yet through. In addition to distance, elevation and terrain, we must also take weather conditions into account. In the Philippines and particularly in the mountains, weather is unpredictable and ranges from hot temperatures (around 40 degrees Celsius in the sun) and clear conditions to torrential rains, sub-zero temperatures, strong winds and blinding fog/clouds. All these conditions and anything in between the two extremes can be experienced throughout the duration of any race.
And we are still not finished yet. Sections of the race will need to be done in complete darkness: no street lights; no lights from houses to light the way. Runners need to negotiate their own way through the course with headlights or hand-held torches.
All nutrition, hydration and gear must be carried with the runner as distances between aid stations (places where you can eat and refill your hydration gear) may range anywhere between 8 km and 20 km. Depending on the terrain and the fitness level of the runner, it can take anywhere between one hour and up to almost six hours to move from one aid station to the next. So between these points, runners need to be self-sufficient. There are usually no shops where sustenance can be purchased and very few houses along the trails. Warm and water-proof clothing also needs to be packed in case of adverse weather conditions. The weight of this additional gear can range anywhere from 2 kg up to 5 kg, depending on the individual runner’s requirements or level of risk taking.
If you did not think this was hard enough, now you need to complete the event within the time limit set by the race organizers. For the longer events, your time limit could be anywhere up to 48 hours. In order to have a chance of completing the event within the cutoff, there shall be little chance to rest and almost no chance to sleep. Sleep, you hear me say? Why would I want to be sleeping in the middle of a race? Well specifically for the longer distance events over 100 km in length and unless you are an elite athlete, you will most likely require one or more rest/sleep breaks to let your body relax and rejuvenate a little. If you consider that you could be on your feet for up to two days in the longer events, then you will start to understand the enormity of what your body goes through. But mostly the only stops will be to refuel, rehydrate, to adjust gear, change clothes, shoes, socks, etc., and then you continue on.
So you might be asking what skills need to be trained or developed to complete an event such as this. Suffice to say that there are many new skills to be developed over and above those that you developed whilst running on the roads. So here goes:
You might be wondering what gives me, the author, the knowledge to be able to “authoritatively” recommend the above approach to preparing for a trail marathon/ultramarathon event. Well in my opinion, failure is the best way to prepare for success. And success is then validation of the changes you implement to overcome failure. I can tell you that as an ultrarunner, I have had my fair share of failure but also some successes as well:
Failures (I like to call them “learning experiences”)
2011 The North Face 100 Camsur, Philippines (100-km trail ultramarathon)
Completed 70 km
2012 The North Face 100 Baguio/Benguet, Philippines
Completed 53 km
2013 The North Face 100 Baguio-Benguet, Philippines
Completed 71 km
2014 Hardcore 100 Miles Trail Ultra Marathon (H1), Kayapa, Nueva Vizcaya, Philippines
Completed 102 km
Training for the Trails
How to complete a trail ultramarathon with confidence
Front Runner Magazine