Ultrarunner, Coach & Masochist
Ultrarunner, Coach & Masochist
Lessons on Sleep, Motivation & Fuelling from Tor des Geants
What did Tegz Angel learn running Tor des Geants and can any lessons there be applied to events like 48hr track races and other long mountain ultras
In our last article we adopted the case study format to discuss Dek and his goals of fueling for the Eureka Stair Climb and Massive Murray Paddle. This model of publicly answering customer enquiries in the form of case studies gives us an opportunity to help more than one individual, and so we’re going to make it a regular thing! If you’re training for an event and don’t know how to approach it, please send your questions, and we’ll do our best to give you a long-form answer.
In this Case Study NW, a stalwart and highly-accomplished member of the Australian International Ultrarunning Community, asked Tegz about how he went about sustaining himself during the Tor des Geants and whether there any lessons he learned running that which might be applied to events like 48hr track events and other long mountain ultras. Tegz, the floor is yours. – editor
I’ll be upfront: I’ve got some, but far from extensive, experience in this area. While I ran Tor des Geants in 2017 (aka Tor, a 338km mountain race in the Italian Alps that gains over 24,000m in, elevation) in a little under 107hrs and have also run a handful of events lasting longer than 24hrs, I’m by no means a veteran. NW’s question was specific to my experience running Tor (rather than a request for professional, peer-reviewed general advice) and THAT I’m qualified to give 😉
Could [you] give me some good advice/tips for the 48 hour at Canberra in March 2018! …
- Did you get tired? How long did you sleep for?
- What did you do to stop any sleep demons?
- Your feet. How did they cope? What did you do? Socks? Shoes etc.?
- Nutrition? What worked what didn’t?
- Motivation?? How did you keep yourself motivated out there for so long?
Woah, there are so many big-topic questions here I could easily write a whole series of posts on each but I’ll try and keep it relatively concise and specific to my experience running Tor lest I get carried away!
Q1: Did you get tired? How long did you sleep for?
A1: I definitely got tired, no dodging that bullet. The underlying question here is “how do you manage tiredness so you can run as far as possible?” This is a balancing act between how much you sleep (and are therefore not moving) and how efficiently you can move between naps.
For example, if you’re asleep on your feet, slowly stumbling along the trail (or the track) at 12-minute pace (5km/hr) when the terrain is such that you could be running at 6minute pace or better if you were awake and alert, you aren’t moving efficiently. If instead, you can sleep for 20-30 minutes and thereby double your speed, it would only take 5km to make your nap cost neutral. Naps like these give you far more benefit than that just an increase in pace, often lifting morale and improving runner safety too.
While I went into Tor knowing this fact on a practical level, it took about 60-70hrs to learn the lesson correctly. On a handful of occasions, I felt exhausted but thought I could skip a checkpoint and “muscle” the fatigue into submission. Most of these decisions resulted in me dangerously sleepwalking my way through the alps. While falling off a cliff isn’t something you need to worry about at a 48hr event, it’s a complete waste of effort; as soon as you feel this overwhelming sense of fatigue start to come on nip it in the bud and take a quick nap.
I slept around 3.5hrs during Tor, and I broke this in 20-30minute blocks which on one occasion I pushed out to 45minutes. In 2018 I plan to rerun Tor and my plan will to sleep about 4hours but will try to be more proactive and humble in my approach to managing fatigue.
Q2: What did you do to stop any sleep demons?
A2: Sleep Demons/Monsters and hallucinations are something I’ve experienced to some degree in every 100 miler I’ve run, but which I didn’t experience during Tor. On the surface, you’d expect that, the longer the event, the worse the monsters. That’s what I expected going into Tor. However, I think a combination of slower pace and overwhelming, profound, soul-wrenching fatigue stopped the Sleep Monsters in their tracks. Or maybe I DID experience them and just can’t remember???
Concerning advice though, my go-to strategy for dealing with fatigue and sleep monsters is to abstain from caffeine for up to a month before any big race. Doing this helps me to sleep better and produce less cortisol in the lead up to the event, and I believe it gives the caffeine that I consume during the race more of a kick.
While research suggests that abstinence (followed by consumption) from Caffeine does not improve its ergogenic (performance enhancing) properties, I’ve not been able to find anything which contradicts my theory about this strategy’s efficacy when it comes to heightening alertness. Admittedly, the fatigue of Tor was so extreme that caffeine (Revvies, no doz, espressos) barely touched the sides and may have even had a contradictory effect.
Q3: Your feet. How did they cope? What did you do? Socks? Shoes etc.?
A3: Insanely well, even for me. I have pretty leathery feet and over the years have learned what works for me and what doesn’t, but even I was surprised that I only got one pinhead-sized blister during over 100 hours on my feet. While my feet were quite swollen for some days after the race, I had very few problems during the event.
For the first 40-50 hours, I used a pair of size 44 Inov-8 Trail Talon 250s. For the remainder of the race, I used a pair of size 44.5 Inov-8 Trail Talon 250s. I’ve found that increasing my shoe size slightly compensates for the swelling of my feet.
For the most part, I used Drymax trail socks and applied Tri-Slide spray-on lubricant/anti-chafe liberally around my toes and midfoot. About 30km into the race, I developed rubbing on one foot (but not the other) and so put on two pairs of thin Drymax. However, my feet must have swollen at different rates because the increased thickness solved the rubbing but aggravated my other foot. I spent the rest of the race with two socks on one foot and one sock on the other, even when I changed socks. Whatever works!
Q4: Nutrition? What worked what didn’t?
A4: I used a large range of nutrition products during Tor and was very happy with everything. My mainstays were VFuel Drink, VFuel gels and SOS but I also used Generation UCAN Superstarch throughout the first 30-36 hours, four serves of Perfect Keto exogenous ketones (timed to follow large meals at the main “life base” aid stations), 6 Vespa Ultra Concentrate sachets and SaltStick FASTCHEWS as needed. I supplemented this with a powdered bone broth that I mixed up about four times, Chief Bars, Lara and Blue Dinosaur bars, Tamari Almonds and whatever I found at the aid stations: bread, biscuits, fruit, coffee, chocolate, cheese, prosciutto and beer. Yes, Beer! You’d be surprised how well beer goes down when you’ve been out there for a while!
That said, I do plan to simplify things in 2018. This change is partly to make it easier to crew me, partly due to how much I took advantage of the aid stations (reducing my consumption of things I’d brought with me) and partly because I believe a little bit of “she’ll be right mate” goes a long way toward developing resilience. If you go into a race with fastidious planning, and complete dependence on that plan, it leaves you open to catastrophe when the plan goes awry or some variable changes. Whereas if you toe the line with a little bit of flexibility and room for improvisation, you’re far better-equipped to deal with change when it inevitably comes along.
Generally, my approach is to plan extensively (splits, nutrition etc.) but consciously acknowledge that the moment the race starts the plan becomes a rough set of suggestions at best. If my guts are playing up, I take longer (or less time) to get to an aid station, the weather is not what I was expecting, or anything else changes, I adjust the plan to suit the context rather than following blindly.
Q5: Motivation?? How did you keep yourself motivated out there for so long??
A5: By focusing on other people. Whether it was my crew or fellow competitors, when you stop focusing on your discomfort and hardship it tends to fade. The best way to do this is to establish a genuine connection or sense of comradery with others. I often set myself the goal of making my crew laugh when I come to an aid station. This lowers the chances of me acting like a jerk when I’m overtired and helps distract me from myself. Likewise, introducing yourself to, and sharing the trail with, someone new and interesting is a great way to pass the time and keep you moving.
Having an external focus like this was particularly important for me as I had set myself the (in hindsight) ridiculous goal of running under 90hours. Given that I went over this mark by 17 hours, there was a lot of time spent questioning my motivation. I also spent a good portion of the race with severe chafing and this, more than anything else, threatened my ability to finish. Without something (or someone) to focus on, I’d have spent this time with my internal dialogue skipping on the record player, repeating the same negative self-talk over and over.
The other thing that kept me going was my strong commitment to my “Why”. Ultrarunning, like any ultra-endurance sport, asks some pretty extreme things about its athletes. Without a clearly defined “Why [the fuck am I doing this]”, there’s very little to keep us going when the body and mind start to rebel. I went into Tor knowing why I was doing it, why I was running it, why I had spent the past nine months training solidly for it, why I had asked my crew to endure five days driving through the Italian Alps after me. When I stumbled, asleep, through some dark saddle or manufactured an impromptu THIR Chafe nappy to stop my inner thighs bleeding, it was good to know there was a reason (or reasons) for all this hardship and this certainly helped to keep me going.
What do you think of Tegz’ advice? Got any other tips for NW? What about a question of your own? Please keep the conversation going and leave a comment below.
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