After Madagascar – Better Preparing for the Next Ultra Marathon

In the months following the 2013 Gobi March, when I struggled under the weight of a nearly 12 kilogram rucksack, I actively considered each item that I had brought with me. Many things I regretted, some items worked, and a few I wouldn’t have changed for the world. Earlier this year, taking into account what my post-Gobi feelings, Rich and I tried our best to change what we could, within reason, for the race in Madagascar.

To my joy many of the aspects of my race that we edited for Madagascar turned out fabulously.

However, there were still things that just did not work for me, and I’ve had to face the realization that no game plan will ever really be perfect. As one of my fellow competitors put it, no matter how much you upgrade your kit and your approach, there is always some new piece of knowledge that you come away from a race with and think that you should have done that instead. All we can do is to go out there, learn, and try, try, try again.

So we continue to try, and over the course of our time in Africa I once again took time to consider what Rich and I should do differently for our next race (pending I can convince Rich to do another one).

Shoes

Going into the race, I was quite happy with our choice of shoe, Rich on the other hand would have loved to trade in his Hokas  for his Vivobarefoots. Prior to the race, during our training runs, Rich would talk about how the Hokas didn’t support the arch of his foot properly. I waved off his complaints, knowing that Hokas were probably going to be the best shoes that we were going to find for our wide feet and a multistage ultra. I held out hope that the Hokas would eventually mold to his feet with enough training.

The problem with wearing barefoot shoes that is generally accepted by ultra marathoners is that over the course of a race your feet will be quite over worked. This means that unless you have feet that are very well trained on tough terrain in barefoot shoes, the muscles in your feet will quickly become sore, and cramped. If you were in training and planning on sleeping that soreness off, or taking it easy that next day that soreness would not be much of a problem. However if you have another 210 kilometers left to run on angry feet, things could go south very quickly.

Keeping that in mind we were prepared to power through in our very cushy Hokas, until we met the Canadians. The Canadians are a really lovely couple that we met during the race briefing, and they were attempting something that Rich and I wouldn’t even have dreamed about. They were aiming to complete this race while wearing barefoot running sandals made by Xero Shoes. These sandals are 6mm thick and are literally a piece of rubber with tread and some string to hold them together. Though Rich and I have a pair of these ourselves, we didn’t even consider them to be an option for anything other than wandering around camp at night. From our perspective, these shoes would have let a whole lot of rock and sand to mingle with our feet, and you feel everything in these shoes, which depending on the surface could be incredibly painful.

Prior to the start of the race, I think most people were debating odds on how long this couple would last. The overwhelming consensus was that their feet would do them in by Stage 3. Yet, at the end of it not only did the Canadians finish and finish strong (she placed first for the 20-29 category), but they had the best-looking feet in the competition (though it’s certainly up for debate).

There must be some science to this barefoot running that the rest of us are missing out on. Now, Rich and I certainly aren’t prepared, nor do I think we will be prepared to go out and complete a race in barefoot sandals anytime soon, as it does take a solid amount of time to toughen up your feet to run a marathon in 6mm soles, but we’re looking at our 8mm thick Vivobarefoots in a whole new light.

This is not to say I didn’t love my Hokas, they were great shoes though they took a very long time to dry after going through river crossings, but I’m curious to see what we can get out of our barefoot shoes now.

Hydration System

My hydration system was a nightmare. For some reason what worked during the Gobi for me last year, was just a mess this year.

To be honest, I knew during that Gobi that my clunky SIGG Sports Bottles weren’t the greatest on the market, but they did the job they were needed for and that was enough for me at the time.

Sadly, they just did not cut it this time around. Firstly, My bottles were about 75 grams heavier than Rich’s Raidlight Squeeze bottles (I know that doesn’t sound like a lot, but when they’re weighed down by a liter and a half of water, on top of an already uncomfortable pack for several days, that weight makes all the difference in the world). Secondly, they leaked, even with the tops screwed on. Every time I leaned over, water would come pouring out the top, and in 40 degree heat that could have been a costly lost. Finally, I could not use walking poles and drink at the same time. If I chose to use a walking stick to support my bum left knee, I’d struggle in my mind each time I got a bit thirsty debating the benefits of drinking now vs. a little further down the road. The problem was that if I wanted to drink, I’d have to tuck the pole underneath my air, yank the bottle out of its holster, drink, and then attempt to put the bottle back in its holster (it is not as easy as it sounds)– all the while trying to hold onto my stick for dear life. Certainly I could have stopped to put my stick down and drink, but when I was out there, the last thing I wanted to do was lose the little momentum I had.

Additionally, my holsters were a mess. I have a pair of Inov8 holsters that came with my still excellent 25L racepack, but the holsters clearly have no place on my pack. When I’m walking the holsters are not a real problem (if you discount the chafing caused by the rubbing between my arm/shirt and the holsters’ reliance on velcro), but when I run, I hate them. There is little contact between the rucksack straps and the bottle holster. They’re connected by two bits of plastic, and a piece of velcro that wraps around the rucksack strap – not enough to keep it properly strapped on. With this minimal stability, and two bottles full of water, lets just say that running was a bit uncomfortable as the bottles would swosh around and repeatedly hit me in the chest or the arms.

Some people will tell me to just use a bladder instead, but who wants to refill those on the run? The bladders have to stay inside your rucksack which means that each time you go and refill the bladder you have to unpack all of your things to get it out and then repack your sack once you’ve had your fill of water.

I think next time I’m going to buy myself a pair of Rich’s Raidlights (the only problem he had with these is that they occasionally leaked and sprayed him in the face as he ran – which sounds pretty good on a hot day) and potentially some Rough Country holsters, which look a lot more secure than my Inov8s, though there are no guarantees and I may have to experiment quite a bit…

Food

Amazingly I don’t have that many complaints on the meal front post-Madagascar. As I’ve written previously, after the Gobi March I was really unhappy with my choice in food, having had to be force-fed in order to get me to take in calories, but this year was different – having the right freeze-dried meals helped immensely. Instead of going for the Expedition Foods like last year, Rich and I mixed it up, this time taking Back Country Cuisine and The Outdoor Gourmet as our dinners. These were brands were both exceptionally good, and throughout the race we had people coming up to us and enviously talking about how our meals smelled like real food, much unlike than their cardboard meals.

As happy as we were with our choice in dinners, I think our choice of snacks was not thought out well. During the Gobi I suffered through my kilos of jellybeans, so this year we chose to instead bring lots of really yummy dried fruits, nuts, bakkwa, and some pretzels instead. The fruit and nut mix weighed substantially less than the jellybeans and they were an excellent source of the fats and calories that our bodies needed. As great as it all tasted prior to the race though, during the event we just could not stomach the stuff. Pineapple, raisins, sultanas, almonds, would lie wasted in our packs, while I gorged myself on the little dried mango, pretzels, and bakkwa we had. What we needed was not fruit and nuts but lots and lots of salt. I would have killed for a package of pringles, or at least salted almonds instead of the raw ones we brought with us.

Next race, I’ll stick with the bakkwa, mangos, and pretzels, but the rest of what we brought can stay home. Salt and lots of it will be on the new menu.

As always, there are lots of other little things that we can improve on for our next race, but many of those issues we won’t know about until we start our next round of preparations. I really can’t wait to get back out and hit the trails!

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