Running Your First Stage Race

Photo credit: mruns.com http://www.mruns.com

Throughout the 16-mile race, running up and down a mountain in the heat of the day, I found that I was not mentally as strong as I had trained to be.

Not because of the heat and humidity that characterizes my new life in the Deep South, although that was making everything about running harder than it had been in the west and Midwest. I wasn’t struggling because this was my first race back in almost a year, a year that was mentally and emotionally so tough that running was largely out of the question except for a few miles in the morning to prepare my mind for the day ahead.

Yes, I was out of shape and unused to running in sauna-like conditions, but I was mostly struggling because I knew that even after I finished the race today, I had another race tomorrow. And, in contrast to the “gentle” inclines and descents from Saturday’s race, tomorrow’s race would be 20 delightfully difficult trail miles.

I hadn’t signed up for two difficult races coincidentally held on consecutive days, I’d signed up for one stage race. Intentionally. The race was the Birmingham Stage Race, a three- or two-day event that was the result of a race organizer’s dream to run up and around the major trail systems in the Birmingham, Ala., area. While I was only able to do the two-day stage race option because of a Friday meeting (fortuitously, as it turned out, because stage racing is for real hard), the three-day option had started with another tough and technical trail Friday morning.

It’s called stage racing, and it’s amazing.

What are stage races?

Stage races are sometimes considered to be a precursor to racing longer distances, or as part of an ultramarathon training plan, but stage racing is also an excellent goal in itself. A stage race is a multi-day racing event, and can vary from three days to a week of consecutive daily racing. Distances vary. One might consider the Goofy challenge to be a more mainstream stage race. The Gobi Challenge, raced across the Gobi Desert, is a more extreme example of stage racing: extreme in locale, conditions, and daily mileage. The Birmingham Stage Race consisted of three stages run at three different trails systems in Birmingham. Distances varied from 16-20 miles per day, and the trails varied from semi-technical to very technical.

Photo credit: mruns.com http://www.mruns.com

Why run stage races?

My reason for stage racing is personal: As I prepare for my second attempt at a trans-America crossing (date: TBD), I want to prepare my body for consecutive days of tough running. Plus, I’ve achieved the goal of running 100 miles (although I’ll be revisiting that distance again next summer), and I want to move on to the next challenge. Stage racing seemed, ahem, a logical progression. But not all stage races consist of ultra distances run on technical trails.

If you are looking for something different or to find a unique challenge, stage races are a fun way to test your limits. Plus, you’ll get to know your fellow racers over multiple days of racing, building bonds that might not be possible in a single day race. I met an amazing woman running the three-day stage race for her 56th birthday (the mileage total over three days was 56 miles). We chatted for a few hours during Stage 2 and then reconnected for Stage 3. She won her age group, and I was happier for her than I was for my own results (third woman overall).

Seeing the friends I’d made on the previous day again was like running with old friends, everybody running in similar pain and fatigue caves. In short, stage racing is a fun challenge and you meet super awesome people who become your friends.

How to prepare?

To train for a stage race, it’s good to schedule back-to-back runs on similar terrain to the race. Basically, like all training, try to mimic the conditions in training that you’ll see on race day. Because you are running on back-to-back days, taking your rest and recovery becomes even more important during training (and on race weekend!) because this can be a lot of added stress on your body. We incorporated back-to-back long runs in my limited training leading up to the stage race. The limited training phase does not reflect on my coach, but on my last-minute decision to register.

Careful attention to staying fueled is even more important during a multi-day event, as it is also adding to your glycogen stores for the next day’s race. You might be able to under-fuel and survive a single-day race, but you won’t be able to sustain under-nutrition over multiple days.

As you pack for your race, remember that you are packing for two (or more) races, and plan gear and fuel appropriately. I recommend bringing at least two pairs of shoes (or more) as you don’t know what will happen to your shoes throughout the race.

Other basic race-packing best practices apply here too, like checking the weather and not trying new things on race day, but they all take on an increased level of importance because you don’t want to mix something up that will leave your racing in uncomfortable shoes or under-hydrated on subsequent race days. I packed two separate bags, one for each race day, that had my kit, spare socks, and fuel and hydration for each day. I also strategically booked my hotel next a Chipotle, as that is my favorite post-race food. More importantly, I booked a hotel located between the two race locations, so I didn’t have more than a 20-minute drive to either race start.

How to approach racing?

Race tactics are always tricky and race-specific, and stage races are no different. Choose a realistic race goal based on your training and the field, and remember that achieving it will be a result of your performance on multiple days. This means that it might not make sense to go all out on an early stage, because that might hurt you in subsequent stages.

My first stage at Birmingham was also the shortest and easiest stage, so my goal going into the race was to take it easy and stay within range of the leaders without doing anything aggressive or stupid, like trying to run 7-minute miles. I took a conservative approach to day one, walking up most of the steeper ascents, and keeping my flat and downhill portions in heart rate zone 2. I mostly stuck to this plan and spent a lot of the day talking to my new stage racing friends. Knowing that the next day was supposed to be wicked hard kept me honest, and honestly scared, so I wasn’t tempted to go crazy. When I got back to the hotel room I de-grimed, foam rolled, and iced, then dedicated myself to the hotel couch for the remainder of the day.

Day two was a bit different. I went into this race undertrained. As a result, I had made an agreement with my coach that I would take each stage independently, meaning that I wouldn’t race the next stage if there was a possibility it might derail my training cycle. We both knew the likelihood of me dropping was virtually null, but I still had a moment of panic Saturday evening as I thought about putting my body through the paces again the next day. I was already sore! He reminded me that I didn’t have to run, indeed I shouldn’t if we thought this would negatively impact my upcoming training cycle. We agreed that I would make the final decision based on how I felt the next morning.

Upon waking, I felt pretty good, likely because I had paid attention to recovery and refueling the night before, so I headed to the race start. Stage 2 was two 10-mile loops around Oak Mountain with a particularly difficult ascent around mile 3. Somehow, I felt much better physically and mentally than on Saturday, likely because I’d taken all pressure off of myself to perform. I was here to have a fun day in the mountains of Alabama.

Somehow this lack of pressure was exactly what I needed, and I danced up Oak Mountain, having the time of my life as I passed runners who had looked much stronger than I had yesterday. I was in the zone, and I even found myself singing on the technical descents. It felt fun. While all good things must come to an end, while the race got harder as the mileage passed and the temperature increased, I maintained a very positive attitude throughout the rest of the race. I finished with a smile on my face, and while I was sore and tired and hungry, this was the best I’d ever felt at the conclusion of a race.

Photo credit: Mruns http://www.mruns.com

In retrospect, it was more than just the pressure reduction that made day two better than day one. Because I’d taken it easy on Saturday, I was nice and warmed up for Sunday’s race. I also had a critical moment during the race, when I power hiked up a climb, that I realized that I was running just for me. I’d spent so much time the past few years running based on the expectations of others — or, alternately, fearing their judgment — and now I realized that if I DNF’d simply because I didn’t want to run anymore, that was absolutely okay. It would be no one’s business but mine.

And, gasp, I walked. A lot. Hiking was much faster up the mountain than running would have been, but even if it had been slower, it was how I chose to race my race. Anyone who was going to judge me for walking was free to judge (their opinions aren’t any of my business), but they sure as hell weren’t going to keep me from enjoying my race. I didn’t need to prove anything to anyone but me. And I’m a believer.

And so, I had fun.

For next time …

Yes, there will be a next time. I’m hoping that next time, I can put the mental pressure of another day (or two or three) of racing to the back of my mind while still keeping my recovery and fueling as priorities, and just take the stages one at a time. This time, I didn’t eat quite enough either day, so finding fuel that does not feel too heavy in my stomach is going to be key for future success. I’m also going to get a hotel with a tub again, because that ice bath was the best thing I’ve ever enjoyed in a hotel bathtub.

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Have you completed a stage race? What are your recommendations for success? If not, would you?

Ultrarunner, yoga teacher, academic, and feminist. I write about ultrarunning, feminism, and the intersection of running and life.

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