Friday, February 12, 2016

Ultra Trail 101

I have lost count of the number of visitors arriving at this blog seeking information on running the ultra trail marathon in general, as well as The Most Beautiful Thing specifically. I suspect that many of them were newbies, although perhaps they have run several road marathons.

As a matter of fact, there is an abundance of resource out there on ultra trail running, including books and magazines, online articles, and these are mostly written by professional and elite trail runners. There is actually no shortage of information. However, the majority of trail runners are not what one might describe as elite runners. Most of them are ordinary folks with desk jobs, and they're running trails merely for the sake of having fun while savouring the beauty of the countryside. But at the same time, they are also hoping to finish within the cutoff times, and earn the finisher medals in the end. Well, I range myself among the latter group of mortals. I'm certainly not born a great ultra runner; far from it, when I hit the trails, I'd struggle immensely!

This post is intended to be a brief guide for the newbies, or for ordinary folks like me, whom may wish to indulge in ultra trail running. As for the seasoned or elite ultra trail runners, please bear with this post as it may seem like it's plagued with too many wrong advice! But after all, we are the weaker breed of the human species that can't handle the kind of physical exertion that the elites can. So here goes nothing!


The first thing to know about ultra trail running is that you will need to train for it. I know that sounds like an obvious advice, but you'd be surprised at how many people actually registering for the ultra trail, but are unwilling to train for it. I shall not dwell too much about specific programmes, because unfortunately for most of us with full-time jobs, time is a luxury that we just don't have enough of. After allowing for work, family and social obligations, there is very little time left for training. The only way to do it is to make the time. Meaning sacrifices will have to be made, i.e. forgoing some other things or obligations.

When preparing for an ultra trail race, I'd continue running the midweek sessions as if training for the ordinary road marathons. Which means approximately 3 sessions of about 10km run each. I would love to do more, but that is all the time I have. Then the weekends are more punishing—a back-to-back running on Saturdays and Sundays. Start with say 2 to 3 hours of running, preferably on trails of course, on Saturday, followed by another similar session on Sunday. However, the weekend workouts shall increase in distance (or duration) over the weeks and months to a point where the Saturday workout becomes longer than the Sunday workout. In my case, as I drew closer to the race day, I have trained up to 13 hours on a Saturday, i.e. spending the whole day from the wee hours of the morning up to sunset.

The only bonus advice that I can offer if you are preparing for The Most Beautiful Thing is to include lots of hill training over the weekends. So hills, hills and more hills. And when you have done that, do some more hill training. Get the idea?


Apart from keeping your body weight to an optimal level for the race, you will also have to be careful with the weight of your bag. There will normally be mandatory items set by the organiser. These are items that must be carried with you throughout the race, failing which may result in time penalty or even disqualification. Other than that, try very hard to keep things to the very bare minimum, because it's so easy to get carried away, and the bag can easily grow in size.

Race Pace

I marvel at the elite runners; they surge ahead at the start gun, and they can keep it up till they cross the finish line. I'm afraid no such thing for the rest of us—live with it! I have always said that the vast majority of failure cases in long distance running is because of surging out too fast at the start gun. In fact, I happen to know some people who can run a 1:45 half marathon, but can't go below 4:30 full marathon even after a few attempts.

The key is to race smart; perhaps even walk uphill and run only on flat surface and going downhill, something like that. That way, you can save precious energy. Try to resist the temptation to waste energy, even if you feel like you have a lot to spare. But god dammit, just watching some of these energy-wasting antics can really make my day—I can almost feel the joy of the moment!


Unlike the common road marathons, nutrition is of paramount importance in the ultra trail race. It can make or break the race for everybody including the elite runners. An average human body can store up to about 2000 calories of glycogen, and that amount is simply insufficient for the entire ultra trail distance. Which means the runner will have to consume something to replenish depleting calories during the race.

What I normally do is to begin eating approximately half an hour into the race, and keep eating every half an hour until I cross the finish line. This means you will have to carry enough food with you, at least enough to make the next aid station. The only proviso is to control the portions. All you need is an approximate 300-400 calories per race hour. That is to say about 150-200 calories every half an hour. I usually rotate between energy gels and other solid food. But 300-400 calories is not much; most people can easily consume that amount per hour. Eating too much food at a time can lead to stomach discomfort. But beyond that, there is a more significant reason. Eating a big meal tends to draw more blood into the digestive system and for a longer period too, thus leaving lesser amount of blood for the muscles.

The other thing to bear in mind is of course hydration. If you are not sufficiently hydrated, that will invite a host of problems; a kind of chain reaction that will ultimately affect your performance. So the short advice is to drink enough liquid throughout the race.

Anyway, try to resist the temptation to over-indulge in food since some stations offer an assortment of irresistible goodies, especially if you're stealing somebody's Kodak moment by over-doing the nutrition thingy in the background, hmm?

Cut Off Times

Before I sign up for any race I'd usually want to know about the cut off times. Then I ask myself if I have it in me to meet those cut off times. If not, then can I train my body to be able to meet those cut off. If the answer is still "NO", then I would not register. For I'm allergic to failure, and I'm a realistic person. If it's beyond my ability, I will stay away. I can accept that I can't possibly conquer all the challenges out there in the world. I am satisfied.

But some people are not like that. They find an interesting race, sign up for it, and then enjoy surprising themselves on the race day. Perhaps it's like reading a murder mystery or watching The X-Files on tv, where the lesser we know at the beginning, the more fun it's gonna be at the finish line.

Nevertheless, if you are like me, i.e. having that dreadful disease kiasunisis, then you will want to train hard enough to meet whatever cut off times set by the organiser. A time limit is there for a reason; it is a race, not a tour of the countryside. Don't grumble. If you want to go for a stroll in the woods, then by all means, don't join a race, join a tour instead.

The Finish Line

In most races, crossing the finish line is the climax of the challenge. In fact, that's the one single goal that everyone is after. Of course in the process of getting there, we also get to enjoy the ups and downs along the way; all those beautiful scenery; new friends met; the kind of experience that money can't buy.

The irony of it all though, the finish line for most people is not really a finish line at all. The newbies reading this post should be warned that running the ultra trail can be addictive. Once you have crossed a finish line, you will want to cross  many more finish lines. It is in that sense that the finish line is in fact the start line in a strange way!

Good luck on your next ultra. Happy trails!


amir abdullah said...

Another enjoyable read.
You write well!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing your experience and your training plan... true indeed hard to find training plan that suits for newbie like me coz most i found on web was typical for elite runner.. which hard to follow or plan that requires long hr of training that doesn't suit me... thanks again... :)

Cornelius said...

Thank you for visiting my blog, Amir and anonymous friend. I wish I have more time (and mood) to write. So many things I want to blog about... just no time and mood to do it!... haha!