In her first Fast10 blog fo the year Nicola Duncan provides an insight into the mindset of a competitive ultra runner and the race prep that goes into it. 

I have always been someone who likes to prepare as much as possible for everything- I have an “intolerance for uncertainty” (control freak) and have always tried to combat that by doing as much as I can for things….I was never a crammer for my exams in school!

When I played tennis I practised and practised every single shot thousands of times…I had a bucket of 100 balls that used to practice my serve while my Mum or brother scootered around the court picking them up for me to serve them again. My first tennis coach told me that to master a new shot/stroke you needed to practice it 10,000 times and this is something that has always stuck with me.

I have taken this approach to my running too – and with ultra running preparation seems to be all encompassing. There is just so much that can go wrong in a long Ultra…but the better you prepare the less likely things will go wrong….and if they go wrong you will be better equipped to deal with it.

The next big challenge

I have entered my biggest challenge to date this year…the Madeira Island Ultra Trail. 115km across the island with about 8000 metres of ascent. I am terrified to be honest – the longest I have ran for is when I did the Highland Fling in 2018 when I ran for 8hrs 26 minutes (I was seven minutes quicker in 2019) – realistically looking at previous times and knowing my strengths/weaknesses on that sort of terrain I will be running for 20 hours or so!

The beautiful, but unforgiving landscape of Madeira. Photo: Nicola Duncan

So how am I preparing?! I have broken down the preparation into different sections and am focusing on each of these to try and make sure I am doing everything I can to get ready:

Training with the goal in mind

For whatever event you are training for you need to keep the training specific. I love long runs and already run quite big mileage every week.

So realistically I know I can’t really increase my mileage more than what doing already. So I have been focusing on lots of hilly routes (living in Edinburgh I have the Pentland Hills as my playground and the Seven Hills of Edinburgh is all-time favourite route), hill rep sessions, longer progression runs and am currently in Madeira doing a camp which is a recce of the race route.

One thing that is difficult to replicate for events in Europe is the long sustained ascents and descents…my runs are much more “undulating” in Edinburgh. This week of training is the ideal opportunity to get my legs used to climbing for AGES and then descending for AGES. Interestingly it is the long descents that trash my legs much more and I have suffered with cramp at races like the OCC as a result.

A night out on the trails

My race starts at midnight…so will be a) running with a head-torch and b) running when I should be sleeping.

I run a lot throughout Winter with a headtorch so am comfortable with this, although I had a nasty fall in Sicily in September running in the dark without a headtorch on an uneven gravelly path along a pier. One of those runs where, in hindsight, you couldn’t have been more of a numpty! I have the scars on my face to show for this but it took months to regain my confidence running in the dark (and a new super duper 900 lumen Petzl headtorch).

A few pals of mine have planned some nocturnal Pentland Skyline runs where we will start late on a Friday evening – replicating starting a bit tired and ready for bed. Hopefully this will help with confidence too – of course it is a balance as you don’t want to mess up training generally and sleep so important in any training cycle.

Keeping the body healthy

Consistent training is so important and this means avoiding injury. I used to be permanently injured when I did road marathons and have learned a lot through making all the mistakes possible.

I do Pilates regularly, train with an amazing outdoor fitness group called Race Fitness which incorporates lots of strength and core work (and “hardship” training), get a massage every month and have an amazing osteopath who sorts me out instantly when I have any issues. I have regular recovery days (My coach Robbie makes me) too which I find hard.

Eating for the miles (and mountains) ahead

I have been working with my coach Robbie Britton with this – I remember the first time he asked me what I would have for a race and his absolute horror when he realised I meant for the whole thing and not per hour…

I now use Maurten which has been amazing for me – an easy way to get carbs and liquid in, especially when weather is warm and drinking more.

There’s a good variety of race food I enjoy, like mini rolls (you can just shove them in and no chewing required!), clif blocks (experimenting with caffeine versions also) and jelly babies. But for Madeira I need to expand my list of foods as everyone tells me you get sick of some foods..imagine if I couldn’t face any more mini rolls.

I am going to try Swiss roll (less messy than mini rolls when warmer and not much chewing), rice with jam and Nutella sandwiches on the camp in Madeira…but any suggestions welcome? I love ice cream but think this isn’t really going to be possible logistically carrying my own food.

Last Summer I did the UTMB route over four days when there was a heat wave and survived off ice cream and coke! Every time I got to a town the plan was to load up on vanilla ice cream – it was immense. Cooled me down, full of energy and just a comforting food in general.

So if anyone has any secrets on how to transport ice cream during a long mountain ultra then please do get in touch.

Colour coordination and a strange leg twist are key for your trail photos. Photo: Provided by athlete

Got to look the part

The fun bit of training and racing! I hope to have an idea of what runners will be best after my recce camp in Madeira – thinking La Sportiva Helios or Inov8 Trail Talon [Although since writing this Nicola has discovered the trails are quite rocky for these lighter shoes – Ed.]

My Ultimate Direction pack is the business and fits in everything (down to my lipgloss) and is super comfy. I have found THE perfect shorts for race day – multi coloured short short ones with ice cream cones on them as it might be the only ice cream, I get on race day.

And will wear my tried and trusted Lululemon t shirt – no matter how much I sweat it dries and I still smell lovely. Gloves and buff are key parts of my kit also – my friends joke how “tapps off” weather means “gloves off” for me. I have my lucky underwear that I wear for all my races too.

The race is 10 weeks away and the racing outfit is sorted. How’s that for organised?

Getting the head in the right place

This is a key aspect of any race – how do you cope when the going gets tough and you have those periods of “darkness”?

I think it is important to have a very defined “WHY” for doing the race…so when you want to stop you have a reason not to. I like to challenge myself and see what I can do but I have an extra component in my “WHY” this time.

I am fundraising to get a super duper bike for my lovely friend Kat who is paralysed after an accident on her mountain bike last Summer. Kat is one of the best downhill runners I have ever seen (we always joked we needed to find a relay hill race where I went up and she went down) and we have done lots of OCR events together too.

She loved mountain biking and being outside. Her accident has meant a complete change of life for her but this bike will be a game changer. She will be able to get back on the trails and hills where she belongs and will mean that her quality of life will be so much better. I am determined to get this bike for her so that we can continue to have fun together…so when I want to stop on race day…this will keep me going.

Here’s hoping that all this preparation and consideration will pay off and I will finish in one piece on April 25th. If I have missed anything…please let me know.

If you would like to sponsor Nicola to help raise funds for Kat’s bike then please follow the link here.

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