I was fascinated by Neil Bryant's recent excellent article in the Ultrarunning Community "Could you run a 200+ miler". A lot of valuable stuff in there for anyone going a bit longer, but I'm not sure that the main principle that emerges, ie that a 200 miler is like a 100 miler but harder, necessarily works for all of us. The reason I think is that Neil is a fairly useful runner, wanting to put in a good performance in his chosen events; for a back of pack "completer" like me, 200 mile races can be much easier experiences than 100's if you tackle them right. I'll try to explain.
My first long race was the Tor des Geants, back in 2012. I hadn't a clue how it was going to work out, my previous longest race had been the Lakeland 100 which I had finished in about 37 and a half hours. When I started the Tor I didn't know what time to aim for or what speed to go at. About 40 hours into the race I hit quite a low point. Since before first light on the second day I had climbed three big passes, the last one at 3300m being the highest point on the Tor, followed by a long descent in bad weather over difficult ground in places, and a final frustrating few kilometers along the valley floor to reach the Cogne checkpoint. I hadn't slept since the start and felt exhausted. I reached the checkpoint, immediately fell asleep for a couple of hours and woke feeling considerably better. I took some time to have a fairly leisurely meal and sort myself out. I decided from now on I would do this thing at a pace that didn't hurt, I hoped this would keep me ahead of the cut-offs, but I would concentrate more on how I was feeling rather than how fast I was going. What happened was that I gradually worked my way through the field to finish successfully in 275th place out of around 600 starters, and finished going as strongly on the final climb as I had been on the first one out of Courmayeur at the start. More importantly, once I had found what was for me a comfortable pace, I enjoyed the whole thing. Later in my blog I described the climb out of St Jacques during the 5th stage of the race:
"I enjoyed the great majority of the whole event, but on this ascent I just hit one of those magical periods. It was a still chilly but stunningly clear and beautiful morning, I was moving and breathing easily, and it occurred to me that I was now really in tune with the environment. This was no longer a race, or endurance event, just a journey through a little known but wonderful area of the Alps which as far as I was concerned could now go on for as long as it liked. I couldn't think of anywhere I would rather be at that moment. When we reached the top of the pass we could see the "Geants" all around us - Mont Blanc, the Matterhorn, Monte Rosa, the Grand Paradiso and all the others. A special moment."
So what had I really learned from this experience?
Well, rationalising it over subsequent years and events, I've come to the conclusion that events for me fall into three classes, based on the overall time allowed and the time I expect to take:
1. Less than around 12-15 hours; these are the "short" ultras of 30 miles up to the easier 50 milers. Most people who have done a few ultras can cope with these fine. I can get a lot wrong such as early pace, nutrition etc, and still finish OK. No special strategy required.
2. Up to around 40-45 hours. Up to fairly tough 100 milers. These are the hard ones for me. I won't expect to sleep because unless the time is generous for the course I won't have time. I don't travel fast enough to make the cut-offs irrelevant. My key strategy for these is to set a timing plan and get the pace right, so I can (just) make the early cut-offs while saving enough energy to complete the course. Nutrition has to allow for fairly continuous movement so needs to be thought through carefully. If things do go wrong, there is still a chance I can pull it out of the fire but I might have to suffer for a few hours and it will be in the balance.
3. Over 48 hours. This is where we get into the 150-200 miles plus territory. I know now I can't wing it or push too hard on these. If things go wrong on days 1 or 2, the thought of having to tough it out for several more days is just unpleasant; it's not what I signed up for. My strategy for these is completely different from 100 milers. My first objective is to stay in good enough shape to keep moving steadily, and not set any time plans or objectives but just let forward progress take care of itself. This means always going at a pace that does not feel stressed, eating proper food in good quantities and taking the time to digest it, and looking after stuff like feet right from the start. If I need to take time out to fix something that is going wrong, I don't wait, I get it fixed as it arises. Sleep probably varies from person to person but I always get enough to make sure I don't feel progressively tired as the race goes on.
I've successfully used this "long race" strategy in recent years in both the Northern Traverse and Offa's Dyke events, and found them both really enjoyable experiences in which I finished in pretty well the same shape as when I started. It does take a bit of nerve to play your own game for the early sections of the race, especially if it means skimming the cut-offs fairly closely. On Offa's Dyke I was in last place after 20 miles, and very near the back on the Northern Traverse for the first day or so, but managed to pull back gradually in both of them to finish in the top half of the field (of starters) in each.
I'm clear that unless they are events where the overall average speed required is just out of my league and I shouldn't get involved, then completing longer races at a comfortable pace in good shape is much more about a sensible strategy and good decision making during the race, rather than being especially fit or determined. You don't need to overcome difficulties when you have thought your way around them beforehand.
I concluded at the end of the 2016 Northern Traverse that:
"With a bit more focus, a bit more discomfort and fewer stops for cakes, I might have gone quicker, but that really wasn't the point. I came for the trip, and the trip had been good. I had survived pretty well, no injuries, no aches and pains, no blisters."
Now all this is about continuous long races, where the clock is always ticking. Long stage races are a completely different thing, maybe for another post another day. But whatever form of game you choose to play, if you're going to be involved in something over several days, then you might as well enjoy it!