Tuesday, 29 August 2017

Ultra Marathon Season - Tips & Gear

We're three weeks away from the Myall Classic, the first of the really long ultra distance marathon races that populate spring in & around Sydney.
Following on from that are a couple of regional river races, and then the iconic Hawkesbury Classic, the event that has become the Melbourne Cup of long distance races, especially after last year's phenomenal rejuvenation of the race celebrating 40 years.
They're races we tend to be involved in as both sponsors & supporters & also as competitors, and here are a few of our tips & tricks for getting through them in good style.

1. Form.
Long races are all about form & fuel. If the former is lacking you'll sacrifice speed to a lack of efficiency at best, and hurt yourself with a strain injury at worst. Getting your ducks in one line, wrists, elbows & shoulders in sync, is time much better spent than thumping down the river for endless hours in the mistaken belief that your paddling fitness will get you home. If in doubt book in a coaching session. It's never too late, and long-distance racing is 60% technique, 30% fitness & 90% masochistic delight! 

2. Fuel.
Once you exceed a certain threshold, holding your heart rate up for an extended period, your digestive system all but shuts down. Even for the mild octane levels you reach in a long distance paddling race, your evolutionary motherboard thinks you're running away from a Sabre Toothed Tiger after about four hours of stress. I get around this by concocting a gross mix of energy goo and water, mixed together in a small hydration bladder, with the valve permanently within hands-free sucking range. Every hour, on the hour, I have a mighty slurp, get my energy burst for the coming hour, and wash it down with a diluted electrolyte drink on another tube within slurp range on my left. The pure energy in the goo goes straight through your stomach wall & provides the fuel that science tells me food just can't. I budget about three litres of electrolyte for 50km, so one bladder for the Myall, two for the Hawkesbury, and 12 goos squeezed into the sickly mix bladder for the hourly slurp. I often finish feeling hungry, but not lacking the energy that a genuine deficiency would bring with it. If you haven't used a fuel system like this before, you need to test it out thoroughly before letting it loose in a race, or risk a very messy discovery session. Even swapping goo flavours can bring you undone, so tread lightly. Note, proper food is also very good for your morale, even if it's not particularly beneficial to performance, so don't think you have to follow our miserly performance-at-all-costs regimen. Bananas are excellent for their potassium & magnesium content, which can ward off cramp.

3. Training.
My own training for these races begins about mid July, where I'll do a couple of 20km paddles each week on the flattest water I can find, in the craft in which I'll be racing (for the past couple of years the excellent Sladecraft SLR). I'm not necessarily trying to go fast on these training gallops, just ticking at about 10kmh & trying to spend as much time as I can in the boat, getting weary, uncomfortable, and training up the muscle memory you need to paddle non stop for somewhere between 5-12 hours.
I use my ocean paddling for the fast twitch stuff, short sharp downwinders on waves where you have to accelerate ninety times in an hour of bursts & little mini rests. The long marathon races aren't really about being able to accelerate, but it is handy to have a burst & recovery in you, if the opportunity to hook onto a faster wash presents itself.
In the weeks leading up to the Myall & Hawkesbury I try to extend that training distance to 30km, again just to make sure I remember how taxing those hours can be be, all the while balancing such long & demanding paddles off against the recovery time you need to get over them. 
I personally believe that if you can sit in your boat comfortably & paddle hard for five hours, you'll have a good Hawkesbury, because in that particular race, the pain & suffering hits a peak as you close in on Wiseman's Ferry (about 60km), and doesn't generally worsen for the 40km after that to get home. It's why the 47km Myall Classic is such a good shakedown race if you're going to do the Hawkesbury, a fantastic opportunity to take your body somewhere that your mind hasn't been before.

Friends & club mates do much bigger distances than me, and those heavier schedules do seem to get them home a little faster, but I have never been too enthused about the grind of long flat water training paddles & prefer to keep it shorter & sharper.
I think the aim of your training should be to get you to a level of preparation where you can spring out of your kayak at the finish, all smiles, punch out a couple of push ups and then stare proudly at your awesome time. Wander around the Hawkesbury finish line at 3am and that's pretty much all you'll see! Seriously, it's great when you've trained well enough to perform in good style.

4. Gear.
Without going near the topics of which boat & which paddle, here are a few tips gear that have got us home many times over the years.


  • Gurney Goo - not for eating, but rubbing! The single most important piece of gear you can have in your ultra distance armoury. Rub it on your hands & other body parts up to 24 hours before to prevent blisters and chafing, and even rub it onto a hot spot during the event to ease the burn. The ingredients are locked away in Steve Gurney's safe, but whatever is in the stuff, it works!
  • Layers - a tight fitting, ultra light weight, merino t-shirt as a base, chafe free, warm-when-wet, and then layer from there. In the 'lightning-storm Classic' a few years ago, it's all I wore for the entire 100km as it was like paddling along the Mekong in summer for most of the night. Otherwise it's the starting point for me, with a base layer like a Vaikobi V-Cold Base top or Enth Degree Bombora over that. If it's a wet night or the wind comes up, I always carry an NRS lightweight Endurance paddling jacket as a safeguard against wind chill, but have only used it once in the last 6 years, as I tend to overheat pretty quickly. Remember however that most people who withdraw from the Hawkesbury do so as a result of getting cold, so it's a good idea to actually go out on a night training paddle and make sure you have a layering system to nullify it should the same thing happen on race night. One thing to avoid is a standard summer rashie. They have an evaporative cooling effect and can chill you down very fast once the sun sets.
  • Have a beanie handy, it can be the single, simple addition to your race quiver that stops the cold getting at you without having to stop & add another layer.
  • Gloves if you're a glove wearer, and have trained with them. If not, the hand taping that goes on in the physio tents looks very impressive, but unless it's following a taping pattern you've been following in your training, I personally can't see the point. I don't use gloves, instead relying on training hours & Gurney Goo to keep me blister free, but that hasn't always worked!
5. Race Strategy
It's understandable, especially if it's your first go at a long race, to just 'aim to finish', and nothing more ambitious. A problem with that plan is that it can peel back the discipline that you need to keep your mind pushing through the hard hour or two that you will always have in races of this distance. Without the discipline to push through - 'it's fine I'll ease up after all I'm just hoping to finish' - your realistic 13 or 14 hour time can end up taking 17 hours. Believe me I'm speaking from experience, a 17 hour hour Hawkesbury is about ten times harder than a 10 hour Hawkesbury! If you are managing 8kmh in your training, you're heading for a Hawkesbury time in the 12 hour range, as long as you keep your stops to a minimum, and keep your nose to the wheel. It's not necessarily a 'fun' night out, but its a wonderful glow of achievement when you get it done, because while it's a tough challenge, it's also very doable for an average Jo. 

Clock your training speeds, aim for a time & give it everything. I guarantee you'll enjoy the experience if you're pushing yourself with the added focus of a time to beat, and if there's one thing I've learnt from multiple long distance races it's that you can go surprisingly hard, for surprisingly longer than you think you can.

If you can get onto a wash & hold yourself there without blowing a gasket, do it. Some grumpy old buggers might splash you or curl their lips, but unless you're banging into them, that's more about them than you. Sometimes you only realise what a lift you're getting on a wash when you drop off, and the speedo plummets, but the effort remains. It's not cheating, it reduces your effort and gives you a bit of a breather, and if you're going OK yourself, you can bet there will be someone on your wash, so it all evens itself out on the night. If you get the chance in training, practice on a friends wash, it is a bit of an art form.
As to the tides, I have grand plans each year of pushing hard when the tide is going my way, because you can go quite fast at full ebb and that time is hard to make up elsewhere. 
If you can manage it, by which I mean if you can see what's in front of you, head for the river's edge when it's flooding, and stay in the middle when it's not, even if that means not cutting the corners. The flow in the middle is pretty fierce when it's honking. We aim to go 9kmh into the tide, and 11kmh with it, but its not unusual to hit 13kmh+ in ebb and a miserable 7.5kmh in full flood. Twice I've railroaded fellow competitors into pulling weed off my rudder because I was going ridiculously slow, and twice there was no weed!
Navigation in the latter sections of the river, in the dark, can be a challenge too, so a map course on a GPS screen that is set to glow every kilometre or so is a very good idea. If you get it right, the Hawkesbury can be as short at 98.8km, but I've been disoriented several times over the last 30km & done as much as 101km. And I've done it eight times, so you'd think I'd know where I'm going!
Finish 2016, two minutes later I was doing my push ups.
If you're not up to speed to enter the Myall on September 16, but this has piqued your interest then you're still well inside a window to get into training for the Hawkesbury. They're big, big races, between 300 & 500 paddlers in each, the atmosphere is always terrific and the challenge is a very real, but very achievable one.

Despite the sickly goo, the numb bum, the blisters, the cold, the disorienting blackness of a moonless night on a wide old river, and the occasional welcome hallucinations, it's worth having a crack! 

2 comments:

  1. Note "diluted" electrolyte. Too strong and it will have the opposite effect as I learned when I woke up after last year's race. Nausea, vomiting, shivers and shakes and a massive headache... AKA... severe dehydration. Learned my lesson...will not make the same mistake this time around.

    ReplyDelete
  2. My own personal opinion. If your just paddling then wash ride where you can. If your going for a record THEN DO IT ON YOU OWN.
    Good advice all up. But most important before anything else is get you seating right. I have known some excellent paddlers who have had to pull out due to bad seating. Get comfortable by whatever means. I have cut my seat to pieces and use foam padding with lambs wool. I can finish the race get out and help carry the kayak. I have completed many HCC, Myall and Murray with no seating problems ( enduring the jokes of lounge chair and where's the barbie ).You do what works for you.

    ReplyDelete