“Embrace the night three magic!!!” my wife eagerly wished us as we blasted off from the lifebase at Morgex around 9:00 PM on day 3, heading firmly into our first overnight shift during our 2022 attempt at the 300 kilometer Petite Trotte à Léon. Me and my partner Sam had managed to stick to a bit of a sleep schedule on the first two nights, even if it was getting in at 2:00 AM and leaving by 4:00 AM, but this night felt different. We had already napped and grabbed our sleep for the leg, and launching off into the high mountains at 9:00 PM felt like we were walking straight into toward the Eye of Sauron, burdened by a heavy weight around our necks. We knew we’d be going all night long, and the next real stop would be at Rifugio Frassati, probably around sunrise if we were lucky. Our outing didn’t feel like an ultra at that point – it felt like a straight up vision quest. The visions we ended up seeing were Sam coming down with a brutal case of COVID on day 4 and getting subsequently evacuated out of the mountains by the UTMB team…. but that’s another story all together. We had dipped our toes in the multiday waters and were already scheming when we could take the plunge again.
As ultras and trail running grow in popularity, more and more runners are thinking about moving past the 100 miler mark and attempting longer and longer races. I have athletes that ask me what the difference in training and preparation between a “normal” ultra race and a multiday would be, and while I’m far from an expert, I do have a pretty good grasp of the differences between these categories of events. It would be unwise to consider a multiday race in the same category as a 100k, or even a 100 miler, and there are some pretty good reasons for this that I will attempt to explain below.
Gear and Systems
At some point, a multiday race or push comes down to how effectively you can manage your gear and your systems. My previous sporting life as a rock climber topped out with a leisurely 5 day ascent of the Zodiac route on El Capitan, and while the technical climbing on this route is fairly moderate compared to others in the nearby vicinity, one of the biggest challenges comes from simply living on the wall for days at a time. You can roll up to your local crag with a backpack, have a blast, and if you forget the salami for lunch, who cares? If you run out of food on day 3 on the wall you’re in quite a different predicament. The same is true with running a multiday – you’re not going home to sleep in your own bed after you finish the first 100 miles, rather you’ve got to keep pushing and moving because you are literally living on the trail.
Most ultrarunners are comfortable with their equipment and know how to use it a wide variety of situations, but I really can’t stress enough how much faith and trust you have to put in your gear when you’re out there for a longer time. Often there are no opportunities to pick up extras if something fails along the way. Space and weight is at a premium, so there’s no easy solution of simply bringing extra stuff in case you end up needing another pair of socks. Your gear has to be streamlined, dialed, and reliable – which often requires testing in the field before you head out for the event. This can sometimes take months of planning, which adds to the complexity of preparing for a multiday event.
Once you get your gear streamlined and efficient, it’s time to make sure that you know how to use it all and transition between the different phases of the race. When my wife ran the 2021 Tor des Géants, a 350km around Italy’s Aosta Valley, it was her first attempt at a multiday running race. Her stop at the first lifebase took way too long as she shuffled through the various steps and procedures for the very first time – should she shower before sleeping? Eat before taking a nap? Get a massage and get her feet taped? Drink a beer on the way out the door like all of the spandexed Italian men? By the time she tackled the TOR again in 2022, she knew exactly what to do each time she entered a lifebase, and was able to reduce her time spent off the course by more than 50%. What will soon become a motif of this post, there’s no real way to learn this ahead of time – the only way to get better at this is to head out and experience it for yourself.
Endurance and Efficiency
Multiday runs require an entirely different gear and mode of traveling than long ultras. Many fit and trained athletes can complete a 100 miler and run a significant portion of the distance, depending on the topography and terrain. Besides the elite athletes at the front of the pack, most participants in a multiday are spending the vast majority of their time hiking, especially after day 2 or 3. This isn’t hip, it isn’t sexy, and it isn’t cool… but it’s the truth. It’s just so much more efficient to maintain a good walking pace when your body is tired and your mind is frantically trying to comprehend the imaginary revolutionary soldiers cheering you on deep into the night.
Sam and I didn’t run a single step of PTL, and most of the other teams can say the same thing. Yes, we had an 8 kilogram pack on full of safety equipment and climbing gear, and yes the terrain was often too steep to even consider breaking out into a jog, but the bottom line is that you have to prioritize efficiency over everything else. If your locomotion is 5% less efficient than it could be, that could be the difference between a finish or a DNF when compounded over the 4 or 5 days that you are out on the course.
Most ultrarunners are used to jogging the downhill portions of a race, even if they are powerhiking the climbs and the flats, but it just wasn’t feasible on the PTL course. Sam and I eventually developed a downhill gear that was faster than hiking but slower than running – it was a technique in which we could stay totally relaxed and let our body sucumb to gravity while still maintaining some muscular structure and support. It was a strange and bastardized version of the ultra shuffle, and yet it allowed us to get down off-trail scree in a quick and efficient manner. I trained with “running” up until the week of PTL, and for my training this summer I am planning on focusing on this form of efficient hiking, while wearing a heavy pack, much more in my final training blocks.
As a coach, I think the training for athletes focused on a multiday event should look different as well. I approach any distance of race up to a 100 miler in about the same way, starting by focusing on the least specific skills (VO2 max and aerobic capacity) and finishing with the skills that will actually get the athlete to the finish line (“Steady state” endurance efforts on terrain that mimics the race environment) through a series of three different blocks. For an athlete attempting a multiday race, I have found success by adding a fourth block, catering specifically to the needs and challenges of a weeklong push. Since so much of a multiday race is spent trying to efficiently hike, this block doesn’t even have to include more running than a bare minumum needed to maintain aerobic fitness and freshness in the muscles and ligaments. Backpacking and fastpacking fit the bill amazingly well for this fourth block, and my wife and I found success in our training last summer by heading out for a three week trip with our kids through the rugged and steep Parc National des Écrins in France in late July. Long hours on your feet, with a load on your back, going up and down 20+ percent grades is exactly the kind of specificity you are looking for as you fine tune and build strength for a multiday push.
Sleep deprivation is another perfect example of an experience that is practically impossible to rehearse but is guaranteed to be encountered during a multiday event or push. Everyone deals with both sleep and sleep deprivation in different ways, and the main goal of your journey with this skill is to figure out how you personally react to and can manage going for many days on very little shuteye.
Operating while sleep deprived compounds many of the other challenges you will face during a multiday, such as navigation, keeping your systems going, and doing lifebase distance arithmetic out on the trail. But at the heart of it, combating sleep deprivation comes down to two things; how do you make the most of your sleep when you can get it, and how do you keep yourself together when you cannot.
Sleeping when you can
This is definitely more of an art than a science, and is truly one of the keys to success in a long multiday push. Every person’s physiology is different, and it’s up to you to determine what is an effective sleep method and how you’re going to pull it off during the event. Some people thrive on longer, 3-4 hour chunks of sleep – a luxury if you can get it, but guaranteed to give you some actual rest and rejeuvenation. Others swear by a power nap of 1-2 hours – possibly enough to get a bit of deep sleep and nicely reset the mind. A 20-30 minute trail nap is often an option, which can be enough to make you feel fresh again, and I have found lots of success in a 3-5 minute “micro-nap” as a meaningful break from the mental and visual engagement of a run.
When my wife attempted TOR for the first time, she had a plan of sleeping for 3-4 hours at every lifebase, spread out approximately 50 kilometers from each other. Once she realized that the quality of sleep she was getting was quite poor within the group dormotories, she switched to trying to sleep at refuges along the route when they had room and the doors were open (a situation complicated by the complexities of COVID). It worked, but there was lots of time wasted both in trying to find a place, as well as probably laying down for longer than was necessary trying to get more hours of recovery. On her second attempt of the race, she shifted to focusing more on 1-2 hour naps as needed – prioritizing good sleeping accommodations at quieter refuges over the hustle, bustle, and neon lights of a lifebase. It worked better and she saved hours and hours of time as she circumnavigated the large loop of the Aosta Valley.
When Sam and I attempted PTL, we had to modify our sleep strategies hour by hour as the run unfolded. We were firmly mid-pack in the group of teams, and so there was often not enough cot capacity at the smaller aid stations we came across where we were planning on sleeping. We rolled into Les Contamines the first night hoping for a good 3-4 hour chunk of sleep – instead we were told that we could sleep for an hour, and in reality were woken up after about 30 minutes by Madame Dodo as she ushered new runners into our beds. At the next stop in Col du Petit Saint-Bernard a similar pattern happened, and we were woken up after 90 minutes so that our cots could be turned over. We had wizened up by this point (and desperately needed more sleep), so we dragged our weary bodies upstairs to the cantine, curled up in a corner on the floor, and passed out for another hour or so. We slept so much better after we moved ourselves out of the sleeping dormitory that we didn’t try to sleep in another one, instead opting for trail naps (difficult during the middle of the night because we got too cold) or sleeping in a sunny spot in the grass during the day.
Finally, don’t underestimate ten minutes of meditation or a 3-5 minute “micro-nap” to reset your body and mind. Even if you can’t actually fall asleep, a 10 minute meditation practice can be enough to take your mind off the race and give your brain a rest and a break. I have had a lot of success with micro-naps, which got me around the UTMB loop in 2021 without ever having to stop and actually lay down. I set the timer on my watch for 5 minutes and tell myself that I’m going to at least close my eyes, put my head down, and not think about the race for that time. Often I actually dose off, but sometimes it’s just enough to cut out the visual stimulation of the race and give your neural system a break.
Surviving when you can’t
Micro-naps and two hour chunks of sleep are great, but they’re not going to get you to the finish line feeling fresh and alert. You’ll have to struggle and push along the way, and likely fight disorientation, hallucinations, and the feeling of general malaise. A key strategy to making this work is to know how much you can individually push it, which again you can’t really learn until you experience it for the first time. It’s important to have a multitude of tools in your toolbox to combat the exhaustion when it begins to hit. I was always with my partner Sam during PTL, so we had the advantage of being able to talk to each other and keep each other awake at points (to be balanced with the challenge of synchronizing two people’s sleep schedules, of course). In a non-team race, many runners like to informally team up with others and move together through the night for this very same reason. With an informal team there is the advantage of being able to leave if your sleep schedule is not syncing up with the others. Some runners use the nights as time to call their family members and chat to stay awake, and others listen to podcasts or books on tape (although I am thoroughly convinced that this would put me more asleep!)
Sleep deprivation hallucinations are real, and again, there’s no way to really prepare for these until they happen. So far in my running career I have had the ability to know that my hallucinations are indeed hallucinations, which allows me to somewhat keep my mind in check and keep moving through the campground full of families in tents in the middle of nowhere relatively smoothly. Very bad hallucinations can certainly be a sign that it’s time to stop and take a nap, and neither Sam nor I suffered anything severe during PTL (trailside Cheshire cats excluded), partially because I think we did a good job managing our frequent, short naps along the way.
Preparing for the challenge
While there is no way to practice many of these skills until you’re actually out there experiencing the night three (or four or five) magic, there are steps that you can take to mitigate your chances of success. You need to have your sleep systems down before you settle in for the first night – make sure your sleep gear is organized and accessible, so that you can find it in your pack at your groggiest and lowest points. For me, an eyemask and earplugs are vital, as often the lights are on and the room is noisy at the larger lifebases. Make sure you know how to use the alarm function on your watch (and that it wakes you up!), as many times phones are not allowed in the sleep rooms at larger multiday races. Finally make sure you have enough layers and clothes to stay warm – your body temperature will decline precipitously once you stop moving (think about what happens to marathon runners when they stop after a race, and then realize you might be on Day 6). If you know you’ll be sleeping for longer at a lifebase, and will have access to a moving drop bag, it might be worth your space to put some comfy sweats or a big down puffy inside. When my wife rolled into a lifebase at TOR the first thing we did was cover her in a big puffy down jacket and heavily insulated down pants before putting her to bed. As far as the actual training for this, people do try to simulate these conditions with moderate success.
This last point is what I actually think is the easiest and one of the more valuable skills to practice for a multiday race – reducing the amount of inertia in your body and mind to just getting out the door and back on the trail again. It can be hard to wake up in a daze on Day 3, after 20 minutes of sleep, and have to head right back into the grind on the trail again, and yet it’s essential if you want to actually complete the run. In your training you can work on quick starts – one day when you know that you have to head out for a training run, without any pre-planning give yourself 5 minutes on the timer to get prepared and head out the door. Set your alarm in the morning to wake up and tell yourself that you need to be out the door within 4 minutes after getting out of bed. I have friends that have done things like the David Goggins 4×4 Challenge, where you run 4 miles every 4 hours over the course of 48 hours. This will certainly give you a glimpse of how your body reacts to short, interrupted bouts of sleep, and more importantly will give you practice in waking up and quickly getting out the door.
Finally, if you have the time and space, you can head out on a single or multi-night push and actually try to recreate the conditions of the race. One year my wife and I were fast-packing part of the Tor des Géants course in August and were enjoying a luxurious meal at a high altitude refuge after a relaxed 30 kilometer day. A storm had blown in, and the weather had severely turned – it was howling outside, with rain blowing sideways, and the temperature was dropping quickly. Right as we moved onto our dessert course, a local Aosta valley runner came into the refuge wearing a full storm kit and looking very worse for wear. Thank goodness, we thought, he made it to shelter for the night! He sat at the table and gulped down a quick bowl of cheesy polenta, chasing it with a beer, and finally a shot of espresso… before putting his rain gear back on and heading out the door into the roaring storm and weather outside, ostensibly to push through the night and finish up his loop. That right there is about as good of training as you can get for a multiday race.
Strength in Body and Mind
Your weaknesses will be on full display come day 3 or 4 in both your body and mind. It’s important to prepare as much as you can for this, again understanding that the best training is real experience, and you won’t get that until you’re fully committed out on the trail.
To prepare for the demands and physical strength required, don’t skip the strength workouts in your blocks leading up to the event! It’s easy for us as runners to dilligently nail our running training plans, but many of my athletes skip or slack on weekly strength exercises along the way. You can get away with this when running shorter distances, and even squeak by in events up to 100 miles in length, but the compounding fatigue of days and nights on the trail in a multiday will expose any weak spots you have. Not only that, but the amount of time that you will be out there will ensure that any change or alteration to your gait or form due to structural or biomechanical weakness will be exponentially highlighted as the days go on. Do you develop a slight asymmetrical change in your gait at hour 30 of a hundred miler? How do you think that change in your gait will look at hour 150 and more than 200 miles in?
There can be other ways besides traditional strength workouts to develop the core strength that is needed for an event like this. Hiking long hours with a weighted vest or pack is great at slowly building up whole body muscles and strength. I know many people that train for long distance multidays by logging hours and hours on an inclined treadmill while wearing a weighted pack. To me, this sounds like a legit form of torture, but I suppose it could help build mental toughness as well.
The physical strength is only half (arguably less) of the game – don’t neglect the mental strength either. Successfully navigating a multiday requires you to be able to go freely in and out of focus and consciousness at different times along the course, sometimes while doing actual orienteering and navigation in events like PTL. I have found that establishing a meditation practice before heading off on the adventure can be invaluable – there will be many times when you cannot sleep during the event, but you can close your eyes and meditate for 10-20 minutes, pulling your mind out of the race. It’s a skill that mountaineers have to perfect and refine, often needing to be able to take “micronaps” while at a belay or during a brief stop on a ledge. Keep in mind that a micronap doesn’t necessary mean real sleep – it can be as simple as giving your mind a break from the race for a few minutes. A strong meditation practice heading into the race will also help you deal with decision making while in a fatigued state, as well as problem solving and mitigating any issues that arise out on course in a calm and collected manner.
The Willingness to Learn (and Fail)
This last point is actually the place where I start with my athletes that are contemplating tackling a multiday event. How comfortable are you with the possibility of failure out there? How important is it that you actually make it around the loop and back to the finish line? How commited are you to the joy of the process; will you be okay learning a ton about racing, the mountains, and yourself even if you don’t receive a finisher’s medal at the end?
The truth is, even at an amateur level in ultrarunning, most trained and experienced runners have a decent chance at finishing a 100 mile race. Sure, there will always be those DNFs, as there’s no way we can control all the variables and events during a race – but if you head to the start line with some solid training blocks behind you and a reasonable amount of confidence, there’s a good chance you’ll make it to the end. There is a wide range of comfort with failure and willingness to risk success among even seasoned runners and mountain athletes. Many runners are very set on achieving the result that they headed out for – getting to the finish line, and sometimes being emotionally devastated when they don’t. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with being one of those types of runners – but I wouldn’t recommend that you enter a multiday race with that mindset.
When you line up for the 350 kilometer Tor des Geants race in Aosta Valley, you need to know that there’s a decent chance that you don’t make it back to Courmayeur, even if you are one of the most prepared people out there. Big races like this often take even the most seasoned veterans multiple attempts to complete. There are so many factors out of your control – many more than a 24-36 hour 100 Miler attempt – and the duration is so long that the chances of this bad luck hitting you markedly increase. My wife was running a very strong race during her second attempt at the Tor des Géants, hours ahead of her previous year’s pace, with plenty of time at the final hard cutoff to casually cruise into the finish line in Courmayeur. And then a freak September snowstorm hit the final high altitude pass of Malatrà, and the organization stopped the hundreds of remaining runners at Rifugio Frassati with 20 kilometers to go. She technically got the race finish, as they literally wouldn’t let her proceed any farther, but was robbed of the final act of truly completing the lap and running through the streets of Courmayeur. The storm was an unpredictable event from the starting line six days prior, and was firmly out of the control of the runners on course. There’s literally nothing you can do besides be okay with the result.
So what’s the secret sauce for gaining the mental edge to try a multiday? In my mind, you really have to arrive at the holy intersection of being as prepared and equipped as you can be for the adventure, and then being able to turn the experience over to the mountains and see what comes out of it. If you can get to that place, and you are okay accepting both successes and failures along the way, you’re ready to try a long distance event like this. There is never the guarantee of success when heading into the mountains like this – and that is exactly why we love the adventure.
Mat is currently at the foot of Mont Blanc gazing up and training for another attempt with his partner Sam at the 2023 Petite Trotte à Léon in August. He is currently working with athletes attempting the Tor des Géants 350k and the Moab 240 miler later in the year. If you’d like to learn more about his approach to coaching or discuss the possibility of working together, head on over to Flowstate Running and have a look around.