Monday, May 28, 2012

Tips and trick of an Ultra Relay

Thanks for all your positive comments on my first ultra relay experience, as well as the emailed questions on how to prepare / train/  etc when getting ready for your first one. I'm by no means an expert as I've only run 1, but I did learn some pretty valuable information that I thought I'd pass along- it's pretty long, so if you don't plan on running a relay (ultra or regular) it may be boring. Otherwise, enjoy :) 

For those who don't know the difference between a normal relay, and an ultra relay it's quite simple. The same distance, roughly 200 miles, is covered by 6 people instead of 12 (which presents for some interesting changes)

  • If you're new to my blog then let me preface with my unfortunate distaste for training plans. I'm not sure why I hate following a weekly plan, but I think it all boils down to lack of discipline and boredom. I desperately need a training partner to keep me on track. With that being said, I understand that when I get success (for me) it's not always duplicatable for someone else to follow suit. My BEST advice I could ever give is to be real with yourself. Know what you're willing to do, but most importantly, what you probably won't follow through on.... you'll save yourself a lot of headache that way :) 
  • Most people think you have to know your legs so you can plan runs accordingly. WRONG. I didn't know what I was running till the day before. All the knowledge I had was that the shortest mileage was 28, longest 38- aka farther than I've ran EVER (longest run to date is 17 miles... once!) I also realized that there were hills galore so I knew to anticipate that. Despite being 'in the dark' about what I was going to run, I just chalked it up to being difficult regardless and to not worry about times. 
Now on to what I DID do to prepare myself
  • I had EVERY intention of increasing my mileage- hence my 16 and 17 miler back in March, however it just NEVER happened due to poor planning with half marys in my schedule. What I DID do was make myself run on tired legs often. For me this was doing a long run on sunday, then running again on Monday, then Tuesday. Otherwise If I didn't get a long run in on Sunday then I would go to bootcamp at 4pm for 1 hr, then follow it up with a run. Although it was never fun, looking back I think this HANDS down mimics whats really going on in a relay more than being able to run 20 miles nonstop.  
  • Strength / Cross training- my oh my how important this is. I'm going to be honest here, I haven't stepped into a gym since I think my burst training treadmill vomit run... which was a LONG time ago. So when I say strength training I don't mean go pump some iron (however if thats what you prefer, so be it) For some it could be trail running since you are using so many different muscles than just regular running. For me, it was going to bootcamp 2x week. Our bootcamp is set up where you do different  stations (its all outside so there are no weight machines, but we do have kettlebells) for 60 sec each, then run 100 m down, 100m back, repeat over and over, and then at the end we do a "finisher" which is either JUST legs or JUST arms- aka torture.
  • Ugh ignore my awful wrist/t-rex arm action- This is myself and Kristi running. She's a bad ass and a huge inspiration for me. Kristi ran cross country back in college, so she's used to mileage, however within the last year she's lost a good amount of weight and just looks svelte. This winter we were talking over some beers, naturally, and I was telling her how I wanted to get stronger, more toned, but increase my mileage and I didn't think it was possible to do all 3. After finding my reasoning why I wanted to increase my mileage (to be able to handle longer distances), she pointed out I could run less and add in more strength and cross training and get the same results--- thats when I started going to bootcamp twice a week (except I sometimes took a week off if I had a race)  and I'm such a stronger runner because of it. I call it the new "run less run faster program" haha. 
  • I just wanted to add this last note under here because I've read a lot of people doing this: some people will try to run 3x in one day thinking its similar to a relay--- reality check, its not.  I don't think thats very realistic because all day long you are walking around doing things--- not at all like sitting in a cramped van with muscles that haven't been stretched out. Just wanted to re-iterate that if you're going for 'creating a similar environment' it will definitely be the running on fatigued legs as the most accurate depiction.
Your Team's Theme / Name
  • I think it goes without saying that you want to be around people you can tolerate for 48 hours (race + before and after), however it helps if you have the same mindset as well. There are some teams that are super serious and out to win it, some that are just out for fun and don't care about time at all, and others that have a mix of fun + competitiveness. We were the latter of the 3. If you can't have fun, why bother, however I'm not out there to pick daisies either--- after all I do want to get done and the sooner the better. I know my all lady ultra team in July doesn't necessarily care about winning, which is great, however we are all strong runners and what we do care about is challenging ourselves while still having fun. 
  •  Choosing a fun theme- seems silly that this should be a priority, but seriously, it makes the experience THAT much better. Some people have funny names but then they don't dress up or decorate their van accordingly- kind of a waste of a good idea. Both "Animal Print Pants Outta Control" & my other relay with the same folks, "Too Legit to Quit" were a HUGE success. Not only did we have fun getting dressed up- but what was REALLY motivating is having countless other teams come up and compliment you and cheer for you while running (its like you're the popular kids) Not going to lie--- it makes getting out of the van THAT much more fun to cheer as well when you have props and such....
2 Legit 2 quit we had hammers, stop signs, sweet matching gold outfits. Animal Print Pants we had Robot head, T-rex, fro, shades, and of course, animal print pants. 

  • Although it's not absolutely necessary, it is funny when everyone matches in some sense. For 'hammer time' (as we were called by fellow teams) when we cheered everyone had the gold pants regardless of top. For Animal Print... we all bought the same shirt and the guys chose to get same exact bottoms (I would have done the same if I had known thats what they were doing)

  • This is where the bomb was dropped for us. The  most important (in my opinion) factor that differentiates an ultra from a regular relay isn't the mileage... its the fact that your van is ALWAYS on which affects SO MUCH, but we'll start with food. 
  • Normally when running a regular relay when you're van is off you stop for a 'real meal' somewhere to refuel, use a real bathroom, and just wind down. Not an option with an ultra. What you bring is what you eat (unless you make a QUICK stop at gas station or are willing to fast food- neither were appealing for us) 
  • Protein. For our food we had the normal go tos- peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, nuts, 'naughty animal crackers, gatorade, coconut water, milk, crackers (all things that are easy and don't mess with the stomach)  BUT what we really lacked were HIGHER protein items to get us through the last leg. If you haven't read how I fell apart in my last leg HERE- let me just tell you it wasn't due to sore muscles, it was lack of energy from no sleep + not enough protein.  For future races I will be bringing my shaker to make a recovery protein shake + beef jerky or some other quick protein source that doesn't require keeping cold. :sidenote- Cliff bars, Luna bars, and some other popular higher protein bars have sugar alcohols in them. Sugar alcohols aren't "bad" but they do get absorbed differently in your system. FOR ME this translates into 'intestinal digestion issues', as is the case for a lot of people, so although it seems like an easy protein fix, its not one that I can utilize:
  • Bring cash- this is something I did do right! Aware of my lack of protein, after my first run I bought at one of the exchanges a simple chicken and salsa burrito + 1 hard boiled egg. Generally food is super cheap at exchanges because it goes toward some type of fundraiser that whoever made the food is supporting. Burrito was $3, egg was either 50 cents or $1. Super cheap and gets the job done. 
  • Hydrate- water isn't enough, sorry it just isn't. You HAVE to have something to replace your electrolytes. We had tons of G2 (gatorade line) and Zico coconut water. I have to be in the mood for gatorade so that was a no go, but LOVED the Zico Chocolate coconut water. I know it probably sounds gross, but think of smores --mmm. On a side note, regular unflavored coconut water tastes like cheap vodka, bah! 
  • There are 2 ways to run an ultra relay. You can either have everyone rotate and just run 1 leg each results in having to run 6x (this may yield faster overall time, but less time to sleep) or you can do it the SMART way and have each person run 2 legs in a row, resulting in only having to run 3x (longer time to sleep) Surprisingly, a lot of the ultra teams we came across chose the first option. Funny because We beat them all. The team that took first is a team we never even saw, so the whole run rotating more often theory has been proven ineffective. 
  • I'm putting this in bold because it's THAT IMPORTANT - The 3 guys in our van all ran Ragnar FL Keys last year as an ultra, so they decided to utilize the same sleep system that worked for them on that course- here's the breakdown of our running orders: Jodi, Kyle, Craig, Scott, Lisa, Katy. So when Jodi runs, Kyle was "on deck" and Craig was "in the hole"- the "on deck" person was the navigator sitting in the passenger seat, while the "in the hole" person was the driver. This allowed the other 3 people the opportunity to sleep or stretch out which worked smoothly. A few times the runner who just finished had volunteered to drive to give others more oppty to sleep, but overall we stuck to this routine. 
  • Rent a 12 - 15 passenger van. Guys this is so critical. I understand there are only 6 of you and any way to save money is great, but you NEED to stretch out- whether you sleep or not (I didn't) just laying down and allowing your muscles to rest will do wonders for your body and your mental state. We had the back 2 seats as designated sleeping seats and the first seat closest to front could be used as sleeping if necessary, but its generally where the runner who just finished running sat to wind down, stretch, refuel, etc. 
  • For whatever reason, both myself and Scott were the only 2 that didn't really sleep at all. I did bring my ear plugs to drown out noise, but I think for us it was the culmination of the fact that we're both tall and hanging off the seat + Craig was driving and the terrain was VERY bumpy. At some point when you're driving- be mindful of others trying to rest and try to manage somewhat of a smooth drive if possible :)
  • I've read some crazy stories of how the van drops off a runner and then just drives to the exchange to wait for them- my response is WTF are you thinking?!?! Why, Why, WHY would you NOT cheer for you teammate? That is half the fun while you're not running, BUT also something you look forward to while you are running. My Ragnar TN team this year wasn't used to cheering bc apparently the year before they didn't, however both myself and Jill put an end to that and by the end of the race my van had commented how much more enjoyable that was- case in point! 
  • For an ultra you need extra support--- extra stops, extra *communication*, extra refueling. One thing we had every runner do was to put out all the gels / chomps, gummies, etc they wanted during the run in the front console so we didn't have to dig when they asked for it. We were also good about asking "what do you want on our next stop" so we could have that ready. 
  • Due to each runner being a little more tired after their run as compared to a normal relay, we allowed them a longer time of rest before we started up the van to follow the next runner. This generally resulted in us not getting to the current runner till slightly after mile 2. What we did is would drive up real slow next to runner and shout "what do you want?" so that way right out of the gates their first stop they were being pampered. I LOVED this because during my 3rd run I asked for some crazy things "a peeled orange", "bandana to wipe sweat" "water + gatorade+ gu" (ya I was NEEDY)
  • Lastly we always asked the runner that was "on deck" and getting ready to run when they wanted us to head to the exchange so they could tie up loose ends- stretch, bathroom break, get mentality ready. Then we would let the actual runner know it was going to be their last stop and what did they want for it. We definitely got an A in communication with our team, which makes all the difference in the world if while you're running you know 'ok I have 3 miles left and I won't see my team since they are heading to exchange' vs. constantly thinking 'where is my team, will I see them again?'
  • Although this last point isn't necessary, it just courtesy of being friendly: even though we were GREAT with support for our own team, not every team out there shares this philosophy. If you see a runner out there struggling, ask them if they need anything. We helped a couple runners out, and I was fortunate enough to have a van help me out AFTER I told my team to just go on to the exchange. Its the small acts of kindness that go a big way. 

  • Some people by the end of a relay want to kill everyone in their van. Not once do I recall anyone being annoyed with anyone else, having their patience run out, or just become irritable DESPITE lack of sleep. I attribute that to the great dynamic we had as a whole, but also for making sure we kept ourselves entertained. 
  • Katy was awesome enough to burn us several high energy, 'fun to sing to' cds that helped carry our spirits as well as blast when we'd stop to cheer. Naturally "Sexy and I know it" was one of the songs, but I also can't get "Call me, Maybe", "Stronger", and "Nooma Nooma" out of my head. 
  • Seems silly that something like that would even matter, but this is the first relay I've ran where we had good music the whole time and I believe its an energy changer, I will for sure be doing this for future relays. 
  • Have fun with it. For the first round of runs we made whoever was the driver wear the FRO for that rotation- everyone got into it. We also made sure someone wore the robot head when we got out of the van to cheer. Lastly, we were almost always dancing. The more fun you make it, the more fun you'll have. Scott took some AWESOME photos of us dancing and cheering, but still waiting on those unfortunately. 
  • A game that we like to play when we're getting bored is instead of saying "good job" to runners as we pass them in the van, we like to think of some way to compliment them. "I love you socks" or something like that was pretty popular. A few people had their names on their shirts so we would shout for them like we knew them "You're doing great Gail, way to pass them"- we cheered for Gail a LOT and she never once said thank you, so we stopped hehe. 
The Aftermath
  • We kind of dropped the ball here too. Know your time frames of how long things will take.We finished around 3ish? and got our free mexican food (not a free mexican like some people thought I said in my recap haha) + beers and sat around and talked for probably 1.5 hours. We didn't take into account that we still had to clean the van, drive 1 hr to boston to our hotel, return van, everyone shower, before we could go out. 
  • This translated into not eating dinner till 10pm. Most of us were ready to pass out at the dinner table, but we trudged on and went to a bar afterward. Katy and I finally called it quits and made it back to hotel room shortly after 1am, the rest followed suit a little after 2 (only due to bar closing). If we could have had a re-do I would say we just suck it up and eat something on way to Boston in our SWEET gear and then shower and go out at 10. Also I would have followed the lead of Scott and Craig and taken a 5 hour energy because apparently they do in fact work. 
To Recap- condensed version
  • don't worry so much about mileage (if you already have a great base) as much as  building up strength / cross training
  • have a few runs on fatigued legs to mimic what it will actually be like running on tired legs 
  • make sure everyone is on same page with expected outcomes of race- 'in it to win it',  'just for fun', or combo of both.
  • fun team name / theme- goes great for team morale and recognition / cheers from other teams while running
  • eat enough protein or that last leg will be brutal
  • bring cash to buy food at exchanges if you weren't able to pack all the right foods
  • opt for 3 longer runs vs 6 regular runs in how you run the ultra
  • designate from the beginning a set driving / sleeping rotation so everything goes smoothly 
  • the bigger the van, the more to stretch out
  • reminding yourself you are the lifeline to your runner- extra support and COMMUNICATION go a long way
  • as much as you all may love eachother, its important to find ways for entertainment to keep morale high- music, games, props
  • plan afterward according to how much time it will take to get everything done. falling asleep at dinner is not okay. 
Thanks for sticking to the end!
Was there anything I missed? Any clarification on what was mentioned above?
I'm sure there was so much I didn't cover, after awhile everything sort of runs together and its hard to remember everything that happened 

Although I literally had the time of my life, it wasn't all rainbows and butterflies- it.was.tough. Despite that I do plan on running the Ragnar Northwest Passage Ultra in July, AND I'm trying to put together a an ultra team with coworkers for Ragnar TN in November. Needless to say, they are addicting :) 


  1. Such an interesting post! That's an AWESOME accomplishment!! Have you tried "think thin" bars? They have about 20 g of protein and 0 sugar. Dont know how " ultra runner friendly" they are but I like them bc
    They don't contain sugar.

  2. i gotta get back on my strength training! your boot camp sounds so hard core but also extremely effective. i should try to find something like that around here. i also really like how you all handled the sleeping/resting!!!

  3. Sounds like y'all worked well with each other...and now you know better how to organize, etc...for the next ultra...YOU ROCK!

  4. hmm…all very helpful. i was totally planning on running “doubles” to help prepare but maybe it won’t be as helpful. thanks for this!

  5. Awesom, awesome, AWESOME post! :) LOVE!!!

  6. Wow, super thorough post! I'll be coming back to this if/ when I run a relay!

  7. I've had this unread in my google reader waiting til I had time to read the whole thing! :D great great tips! So glad you have experience to bring to NWP!! My main takeaways.. I better keep my damn strength training going, and fun good music!!

  8. thanks for a great, informative post! i'll definitely be coming back to it when i do my first relay!

  9. Great info. Looking forward to our first RTB Ultra in Massachusetts in 2013

  10. THANK YOU! I have been looking all over for more info on participating in Ragnar Ultra as June's Chicago race will be my first.

  11. THANK YOU! I have been looking all over for more info on participating in Ragnar Ultra as June's Chicago race will be my first.