Lessons from 2013 Gobi March: Preparing for a Multi-Stage Ultra Marathon

Anyone who was there with me at the Gobi March ultra marathon in 2013, or read my blog posts during the race, knows that I did not have an easy time of it. There are so many things that I did wrong and so many things that I must do differently if I am to have a strong go at the 250 kilometer Madagascar ultra marathon in August/September. Learning from last year does not necessarily mean success this year, but it means that I’m one step closer to sorting out what does and does not work. So, with less than two months to go before I set foot on that starting line, here is a look at how I’m changing things up.

Physical Training

My training was a disaster last year. When I initially signed up for the Gobi March, I really pushed myself to learn how to run. Yes, learn how to run. Previously, due to my back injuries, I just couldn’t or wouldn’t run. Every time I had tried, my back would ache and I’d be twisting and turning in discomfort with each stride. With the help of a coach, I eventually managed to run for an hour at a time before crashing and burning. Around January though, I got tired of disappointment. I couldn’t get past that hour mark.

I’d go out every few weeks to do a long hike, but I wasn’t pushing myself. I was too reliant on the physical strength I had built up over 13 years of swimming and 2 years of rugby to worry.

With 3 months left to Gobi, I started lugging 8 kilograms of rice around in my pack and hiked up to 50 kilometers in a weekend. This was not even close to being enough. My pack during the race ended up weighing 12 kilograms, and my legs were not ready to spend 9 hours a day in motion.

This year, I started carrying weight earlier and am running with it! Right now I’m up to about 7 kilograms while running for as long as possible before my legs give out. It is not much, but during my next month of funemployment I’d like to get up to running with at least 9-11 kilograms. I’m not worried about distance this year, but rather making sure I can walk, if not run, with weight for about 8 hours at a time. If I can get my mind to focus even after walking 8 hours, then I’ll know I’m in a good spot.

Mental Preparation

If completing races like Gobi and Madagascar are just a matter of being physically strong enough, I don’t think that I would have finished the Gobi. Training wise I was nowhere near strong enough to have completed it. What I was was mentally tough. I was not going to give up for anything and I knew that if I just kept putting one foot in front of the other, I’d eventually find my way to camp. However, there were times when my thoughts turned negative and I wanted to just roll over and die, wait for others to find me and bring me to camp. In one instance, after 25 kilometers on the 2nd stage, the only reason I kept going was because of a Korean man, who discovered me and, though I didn’t understand a word he said, kept screaming at me to push on (I assume).

After a few days of torture, I discovered one trick in particular to help me through: Underestimate the distance travelled. The first few days I believed that I was moving faster and further than I really was, so when the next checkpoint wouldn’t appear as quickly as I thought it should, I’d become overly anxious. That’s when I would fear that I’d managed to go the wrong way, even when following the correct trail, or start doubting whether or not I could really get to the end. On the third day when I made the mental decision to underestimate the distance traveled, my spirits picked up. Reaching a checkpoint became a celebration, because somehow I got there so much quicker than I expected, and wow, I was really doing well. I may have been going slower than I had the first two days, but I was excited about my progress and my ability to keep moving forward.

Now that I’ve survived it, I know what to expect, and positive thinking has become my friend. Even when I’m struggling, every step that I can plant in front of the other is a blessing and a little victory. Even in training, when I don’t have a great day out, I keep thinking about how much stronger I am this year than I was last. Just being able to run with a pack and without pain is a huge deal for me.

I was so tired! Beginning of Stage 5 of the 2013 Gobi March

I was so tired! Beginning of Stage 5 of the 2013 Gobi March

Recovery

Getting into camp and just passing out in a heaping mess was probably the worst thing I could have done to myself during Gobi. Each morning I’d wake up and my body would be in knots. I wouldn’t be able to put my feet squarely on the ground and would spend a good 15-30 minutes each morning trying to coax my legs back to life. My left knee was awful, tendons stretched to their breaking point, if not torn by Stage 3. I will admit that I partly made it through the race by taking painkillers – 3 grams a day worth of paracetamol. Normally, you shouldn’t be taking more than 800mg a day. These “happy pills”, as I dubbed them, helped me block out whatever pain and stiffness I was feeling and keep pushing on.

Now I know, though, that I could have absolutely avoided most of this pain. Thanks to Rich, over the course of the past year, I’ve rediscovered stretching. Working with physical therapists and yogis, I now have a series of exercises that I go through each day to prevent stiffness, improve flexibility and keep my body in alignment. During Madagascar this year, I’ll attempt to do these exercises each evening, upon arrival in camp, but after blister checks. I am hoping that by completing these exercises each evening, that I’ll keep my body in better condition for the next stage, and that I’ll pull through this race with minimal injuries or need for happy pills.

A painful blister popping session after Stage 4 of the 2013 Gobi March

A painful blister popping session after Stage 4 of the 2013 Gobi March

Gear

This seems simple, and it should be, but there are so many people who get it wrong. Don’t bring things with you because you can. Bring only what you have to. If it seems like a good idea, but that it probably isn’t necessary, just don’t do it.

I thought I was being quite clever about what I brought to Gobi. I had all the necessary equipment and a couple of luxuries, if you can call jelly beans a luxury, and my pack ended up weighing over 10 kilograms, before water (another 2 kg). Not necessary! It might not sound all that awful, but I’m not a large woman. Putting on the pack was like adding on another 1/6th of my body weight. Meanwhile, there were people with packs that weighed about 6 kilograms.

It is absolutely possible to keep your pack neat and trim. Make certain that all your gear is weight efficient and needed. For example, my luxury jellybeans alone ended up weighing nearly 2 kilograms. I could have easily replaced those with something lighter and with higher caloric density, which would have made my life much easier. Which brings me to my next point. 

Food

What I brought in terms of food was a disaster, and my food plan has to be dramatically changed this time around. When I started my prep for the Gobi, I didn’t take my food prep particularly seriously. I received tons of advice from former competitors on what they brought, what they would bring if they were doing the entire race over, and spreadsheet after spreadsheet of analytical work on the foods they were bringing. The spreadsheets would cover everything from the nutritional value (calories, protein, carbohydrates, fats, weight of each serving, and its weight to energy ratio) to how good it tasted on various scales.

Unfortunately for me, whenever I looked at these spreadsheets, I really wasn’t sure what I was looking at or why I should care. The one thing that stuck out to me, though, from what everyone wrote, was that I should bring comfort food, or at least food that I’d want to eat after a week in the desert with little luxury.

So to me, it sounded like what I should bring was candy! Of course I’d bring freeze-dried meals, but in my mind, candy was to be a great source of energy and motivation on the trail. Therefore, I ended up in the Gobi with a freeze-dried meal for dinner each night, ramen or couscous for breakfast, and about 2.5 kilos worth of jelly beans, beef jerky, and Pringles. Except for the freeze-dried food and the beef jerky, none of what I brought was really weight or energy efficient. It tasted great, but it didn’t provide me with enough energy to be worth carrying it around.

Additionally, the freeze-dried food was about as good as it sounds, which is not very. I’m not sure that I can ever look at an orange bag of Expedition Foods again. It was fine the first 2 nights, but after that it was just awful. The ramen and the couscous was also a miss – I hadn’t anticipated how much my body would miss stronger flavors. I nearly stopped eating around the 4th day, and ended up living off handouts from other competitors.

This year, I’m taking the weight to energy ratios more seriously, and working with Rich, who has been quite good at determining what types of foods and ingredients are/are not particularly useful, and looking for different varieties of meals. A few freeze-dried meals are fine, but maybe vacuum packaged fish (need to do a taste test of that soon…) or even pastas, since we’re given hot water.

Hopefully this race in Madagascar will be much more successful than the Gobi! I know that the race won’t go perfectly, but at least I’m slowly figuring out what does and does not work, and maybe a few races down the line, I’ll have it all sorted out.

Crossing the 2013 Gobi March finish line!

Crossing the finish line!

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