Most people like surprises in one form or another. Well the good kind anyway. That moment when someone turns up at a party that you were not expecting. When a random act of kindness brings a huge smile to your face. Or a running PB comes out of nowhere and you are reduced to tears with happiness. These are good, no wait; amazing surprises. Then there are the ones which can have a negative effect on you mentally or even physically. Trail running can throw these kind at you if you fail to prepare. Preparation can take many forms. There is of course the mental side, where you need to get yourself in the zone, commit, if you will, to the event and go all in. Part of that though if preparing for the course and terrain. Especially if it might be new or outside your comfort zone. I actually find doing the race prep helps with calming my fears by giving me a fuller understanding of the task ahead.
There are a few ways you can do this and a good place to start is simply by sitting in front of your computer and using google.
- Look at the route map in 2D form with an elevation profile. Many race organisers provide this. If not you can download or ask for a GPX file and import into an app to view.
- Look at the route in 3D. Ordinance and Survey online offers a 3D fly through of an imported route. This will give you an idea of scale and a basic look at the terrain. I have found this a really great way to immerse yourself in the course profile.
- YouTube is an amazing resource for previous race and recce videos. I have watched hours of other people running the routes to see what the ground looks like, what gear they are wearing etc. Obviously conditions can change on the day but us trail runners are pretty honest about the courses and races. You’ll get a good idea of how they are feeling from these videos too.
- Ask another runner! Either comment on a video, pop someone a message in a FB group or put something up on IG or Twitter. You are bound to be connected to someone who knows someone who has done the race you are training for.
I would say this is the basic prep you should do for a race. I know many of you probably don’t like to know too much and like the surprise of the actual race, and that is fine if you have experience of running on that particular terrain, or are not actually “racing”. If you are going to be in an environment that you haven’t experienced before then I would strongly recommend a recce.
The recce could be somewhere of a similar feel or on the actual race route. This will depend on the race location, accessibility, funds and time available.
In this blog I am going to take you through 3 different types of race recce’s and why I chose them.
1) North Downs Way 50 (NDW50)
My “A” race of 2019. I chose this one because I would be able to run the course beforehand. It’s essentially two marathons and my coach made this part of my training. I studied the gpx and CCheck Point (CP) info religiously. Then I decided upon how I was going to split this up.
First half I would do as a nice chilled run with friends. Farnham to Box Hill is easy to do. Train to Farnham, then run to Box Hill & Westhumble station.
I asked a couple of other people who had run this section about water and toilets as initially it wasn’t clear to me. They were very helpful and said there was a spot about halfway into the 40km run. Also the end spot had a pub where we could get food and refreshments before heading back, which is also important for a good recce.
It was fun exploring this section at a nice easy pace, in lovely weather, noting where the CPs would be, where the ups and downs were, and that on some sections the paths were sandy and others woodland trail.
The 2nd section I decided to do on my own, for two reasons.
- I had run part of it with friends before.
- I knew this was the harder part so wanted to run it a bit harder to get a feeling of what it would be like on race day as I would essentially be alone in my own race zone.
It was a really interesting experience; a definite confidence builder. Again, I noted where the CPs would be in my head. This would aid my hydration and nutrition strategy come race day and allow me to break it up into manageable sections. I even ran to the actual finish line! I discovered two issues during this recee. The first was water access was going to be tricky so I knew I would need an extra bottle and the second was the finish was in the middle of nowhere. I found a pub but hadn’t planned fully and it wasn’t doing food. Luckily my very kind and awesome wife came and saved me from eating all the crisps! Plan your refuelling and transport!
50 miles broken into two, two weeks apart. Fairly straight forward.
By understanding the course, I totally knew what was ahead for me when it came to race day. This allowed me to plan a strategy for executing it. Which you can read about here…
2) Training for my first mountain race.
I had never been to the Alps before, not even to hike. Yet I was lucky enough to get a place in the Eiger 51km race. It’s a common question that people often ask, “how do you train for a mountain race when you don’t have them?”. Well there are some options for us in the UK; Snowdonia, the Lakes or the Scottish Highlands. You can work on some routes that will give you a lot of vert but nothing is quite the same as the real deal. Again this does come down to finances BUT sometimes with the cost of travel in the UK it’s just as cheap to go to the real thing and that’s what I did. I wanted to feel what it’s like to power hike up higher than Ben Nevis. I wanted to understand the rocky, shale and woodland paths of the Alps. Stand under the majestic 4000m peaks and take it all in.
I planned a nice recce weekend with my friend Lauren. This wasn’t the Swiss Alps but the trail out of Courmayeur in Italy. You can read the full blog on the weekend here. The purpose of talking about it again, is that when it came to race day and I had to kick my ass up the two main big climbs of the Eiger race, I knew I had it in me. I might not be as quick as I should have been, due to injury recovery but mentally I was all in. I had dialed in my fear of heights and got used to eating the right amount of calories for the effort needed. This meant I had such an enjoyable race day. The mountains are a whole new level and you have to respect the environment and the dangers that it can bring. Do your research, talk to other runners and check your forecasts at a truly local level. When I finally get my place in the CCC in 2021, I will definitely go back and have another weekend exploring in the mountains. My legs and head will need it.
3) The North York Moors
After racing in the Lake District last year, one of my take aways was that I was under prepared for the environment. It was only my 2nd time in there and the first running. With my first “winter” race coming up end of March (Hardmoors 55) I decided it would probably be wise to go and see what it was like. Then after watching some videos online from previous races I decided it was a must that I go as 2 years ago they had full on blizzards up on the moors. I have a friend who lives up that way so decided to combine the trip with some socialising and use her kind offer of staying over to make the most of the weekend.
About a week before going up my friend Yvette, (who is also doing the race), said she would like to come too, so we discussed options.
The key goals for the running would be:
- To see what the ground was like, so that we could decide what shoes to wear.
- Climb a decent amount of elevation gain.
- Get an understanding of the environment.
- Test some other gear.
This is a tricky place to recce as public transport is pretty slim and also the race is point to point which adds further complications. After a bit of discussion we decided that for Saturdays long run we would do a meaty, early section of the course but this would involve leaving the car at the finish and getting a taxi to the start. For Friday we would do a short shake out about 14km and Sunday another shake out of about 14km.
On Friday, I checked the met office mountain weather forecast and it said severe gales on the Yorkshire Dales which was where I had planned for us to go. I had a little lightbulb moment and suggested we do an out and back from the village where we would finish Saturdays run. That way we could check how long it would take to get there in the car. Then run the big hill out of it. This turned out to be a perfect recce for the main recce. I changed my shoe choice based on this, plus we got a taste of what the run out of this main CP would be like come race day.
Saturdays main recce, was about 34kms and covered about half the total elevation gain of the whole race. It was pretty windy, with gusts over 50mph. It blew us off our feet a few times and when it rained it was pretty biting. If you are up on the moors, there is no cover and it can be hard work! I had researched the route and knew of a place we could refill our bottles and get some food if needed. This is important for recce’s in wild places as you shouldn’t underestimate the personal safety requirements of these kinds of runs. Both of us ran with full mandatory kit, for both our safety and to practice carrying the weight.
I won’t go into full details of the recce route as I will save it for the race report but when we finished at around 5 hours we were both super happy. We knew what shoes we would wear, I discovered my waterproof jacket hood was no good in high wind, (balloon head), that the climbs were steep but not too longand there are many of them but the views you get are worth it.
The following day we decided on a short hike instead of another run as we were both tired. This was another sensible choice as you don’t want to push yourself too much when it’s just not needed in these situations. We chatted about the race and worked out over the two runs that we had done about half the course. We could then share this knowledge with the rest of the group doing the race.
Key take always from planning these recce’s:
- If you can go on the actual route and feel you need to, do it! If not then find some similar terrain.
- Plan what you want to get out of it. Maybe it’s the elevation gain, the distance or just learning about the route for navigation.
- Safety first. Tell someone where you are going and when you expect to be back. Look at mountain forecasts if relevant and be specific to the actual area you are going. Then take your mandatory kit, It’s for your safety and just as important on a recce as a race.
- Know the route. Either take a map and compass or use a gps navigation on a watch or hand held. Take enough food and water but also know where you can refuel. Cafes are great for this and are often more than happy to help if you are polite. Take cash, as not everywhere accepts contactless/cards.
- Have fun! This sounds silly but recce’s are a chance to enjoy a day out, maybe on your own or with friends. Take photos, stop for a cup of tea if you feel like it. When you are racing you might end up missing things as you’ll be focused on the goals ahead.
I could talk about these adventures forever but thought I would keep this one short. If you have any questions please do ask as I am more than happy to give you my thoughts.
Now go enjoy being outside on the trails!