I like to think that I’m a simple man – I’m not referring to the figurative “who am I?” or “where is my running journey taking me?” but to the literal interpretation of actually knowing where you are going. Sure there is now an abundance of route plans, maps, compasses, GPS gizmos and smart phones to navigate your way, but none are really a substitute for that first hand experience and having traveled a particular path before….
The path in this story is that of The CCC trial, part of the UTMB weekend and an event that crosses the mountainous borders of Italy, Switzerland and France. For me a path into the unknown. One of self discovery and exploration. One which would, literally, elevate me to heights I’ve not been to before, and there lay my concern. A fear I would struggle to admit openly – the unknown frightens me! But more on that another time.
Whilst I am confident in my abilities to ‘just get things done’, and am becoming accustomed to the need to just ‘keep going’ and the challenges (both physical and mental) encountered during an ultra, I recognised that, for me, running The CCC will be different. I was uncertain as to how and when those challenges might manifest in the unfamiliar terrain of the Alps, how I’d react to the environment and how I’d cope with the demanding cutoff times. I’d go as far as to say I was fearful that, on seeing and experiencing it, I wouldn’t want to face it again! The urge to say “enough” might come before I even start out! Hence the need to ‘Know where I am going‘!
I was coaxed into planing a weekend on the CCC route to gain some experience of running the technical trails that I’d face in September. I am so glad I did. Besides more refinement of my kit and approach, I discovered the benefits of that first hand experience which I will so heavily rely on during the event.
I’ve written separately about the weekend, the journey and run itself here – CCC Recce, and now I want to reflect on those learnings I took away when I left the mountains and how I came to recognise the importance of a ‘recce’ run in the preparation for a race. With this in mind, looking back I can only say the experience was a valuable one. I learnt so much about myself, particularly my ability to prepare and adapt. Four themes in particular have stuck with me: ‘Familiarity of the route and understanding the terrain’, ‘Refining your kit and equipment’, ‘Planning an approach’ and ‘Building Confidence’. Summarising the benefits of these I’d say that….
Familiarity of the route and understanding the terrain:
- A recce run develops a sense of familiarity with a route, and that leads to a feeling of comfort. I associate comfort as a good thing! You’ll feel confident in the route, knowing what lies ahead. These feelings will set your mind at ease and the route will be one less thing to worry about on the day.
- Knowing the route should mean you’ll be less likely to get lost(!), minimising the time-pressures you’ll face through not adding unnecessary miles to your run.
- You’ll identify exactly where checkpoints will be located and how you will arrive at and depart them, helping you to efficiently navigate through and spot your support crew!
- The terrain is incredibly important. Having first hand experience of the elevation and type of ground you will be running will prepare you for the race. I fell on my recce run, through my own naivety when crossing a glacier. Better that I fall in training than during the actual race because I wasn’t assessing the risks clearly!
- Whilst you get insight as to when you will be able to run and when it won’t be advisable too, race day will be different. I’ve now seen and experienced terrain I’ll be traversing at night with nothing but my head torch to guide the way. What I think I can run will be different to what is actually safe to run on the day.
Refining your kit and equipment:
- Most of the kit I tested on my recce was by Montane. Exceptional kit I love using. Preparing it is time consuming as you check and double check you’ve everything needed. Sorting my kit into my Montane Via series packs is now second nature to me. Dry sacks for race kit, nutrition, tech, med kits, recovery kit etc. all have their place and are packed in a way to make them accessible as needed. My prep’ has definitely been made easier through having top quality, lightweight and pack-able Montane gear!
- Knowing how your kit reacts – you might have worn it all numerous times before, but where it might be perfect over hours of continual use, it might not be until you’ve worn it 10-20hrs (or beyond!) that you notice different irritants! Test, test and test again! I intimately know my Montane Zip Fang, Montane Minimus Stretch Ultra and Montane Allex Micro kit now!
- Adapting and adjusting your kit on the move is vital. Knowing when to start thinking about taking that extra layer out, swapping garments or re-shuffling your pack as you run. Putting this to practice is the best way to see how your kit reacts – your pack will sit differently with different items in it! Simulating race conditions will give you the experience to adapt it efficiently. The Montane Via series packs are great for making such adjustments – the adjustable bungee system is incredibly flexible to be able to compress the bag (quickly!) to meet your different needs.
- I run with flexi straws on my bottles, on my recce run I found they moved about a lot as I ran. I’ve now refined the art of packing these in a way that doesn’t result in a constant jaw bashing!
Planning an approach:
- Until you know for certain where, and under what conditions, you’ll be running, any plans for how you’ll run, your pace, eating and refueling etc, will be an estimation.
- Recce runs will give you the insight needed to know where you can make effective plans – I now know the hills (mountains!) and the terrain. I know where I can (and should) stop, where I should push on, were I should refuel as I move and where I can take a moment to recuperate and absorb my surroundings. My plans are more than just estimates now.
- It is too easy to look at an elevation chart and say “I can run this section”. As I mentioned, knowing what the terrain, the visibility (or lack of) and isolation of the route will impact your plans. Being able to adapt to the conditions as you go will be essential to maintaining momentum.
- Eating at checkpoints is inevitable. Eating enough along the way to get to the checkpoints is critical! Power Hiking up 600m+ of elevation takes energy, reaching a summit and immediately running takes more energy. I’ve experienced the inclines, I now know where I need to fuel (and how much!) to make sure I’m ready for these challenges.
- A recce isn’t a race, the race pressures are removed and you can spend time connecting with your surroundings. Make the effort to look up and absorb the environment, take some pictures and hard memories along the way. On race day this won’t be a priority and you’ll be preoccupied with competing or fighting the emotional stresses and fatigue to be able to enjoy it the same way.
Build your confidence:
- Familiarity breeds certainty. Certainty breeds confidence. You’ve been here before, you know where you are, you don’t need to worry. You’re starting the mental battle with an advantage!
- When you are confident, you engage and rely on other sensations and feelings to assess your progress. Recognising past feelings at certain points of the route, how the upcoming section made you feel, you can draw comparisons from your experience and this time you know what was previously unknown. There’s no longer anything to be fearful of!
- However, as easily as confidence can be built, it can be shattered quicker. The unknown can lead to ignorance and naivety. I’ve thrived off this many times with the “just do it” attitude. But, those moments of realisation (like recognising the enormity of your challenge), can be frightening. Be sure not to dwell on these thoughts and prevent them building into something more. Don’t get too comfortable!
- During my recce I covered 80% of the route I’ll be running. I now have the confidence that the other 20% is achievable. I can rationalise it. It’s another 20km, I can do that. Its one more “incline”, I can do that. The finish is far closer than the start, I can do this!
Would I encourage others to undertake such a ‘recce’ before a big run? Absolutely. For me the benefits are clear and ultimately the experience is vital and very worthwhile. Whilst we all react differently though, a recce run isn’t a complete solution. It may raise more questions that you’ll need to work through. Adjustments you’ll need to figure out for yourself some other way. And some things are more difficult to prepare for – like running for extended periods of time without sleep. As a “9-5” worker this is more difficult to plan. As a “5-9” adventurer you can push yourself so far but there will remain challenges to be faced on the day.
There are many sayings about being prepared. One of my favourites being “Fail to prepare, prepare to fail“. Do what you can to give yourself the best chance of success, know where you are going!
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