Our first snow sighting coincides almost exactly to the sun’s first rays over a distant ridge.

It’s magical at this time of the day — my favorite. The mountains glow a soft pastel color, and the headlamps required just moments earlier are no longer necessary.

We’re maybe an hour into the run and everything’s just beginning to wake up — our legs, our lungs, the birds around us — but mother nature clearly had a busy night.

It’s cold with wind gusts topping 50 miles per hour on the ridge, and a fresh layer of snow covers the trail.

A few weeks ago, when I told my friend David I had a 40ish mile run planned for this weekend, he immediately asked to tag along. It would require a 6 hour train ride and a 2 hour car trip (each way) for less than 36 hours in North Carolina, but that didn’t phase him.

David wanted adventure, and knew a big training run like this could deliver.

But as we discussed the April date, neither of us expected this kind of adventure. The kind that would have us so cold that it would take 8 hours of moving before we found a protected and warm enough spot to rest and replenish.

That snow and cold, and the tougher than expected climbs (somewhere around 13,000 feet of gain over the course of 40 miles) meant we were moving much slower than anticipated.

But damn if it wasn’t worth it.

The Big Training Run vs. the Training Race

Training for any big endurance race will require weekly long runs. Some may even require back-to-back long runs in a single weekend.

But once you start getting in to ultramarathon distance races — 50Ks, 50 miles, 100 miles — those longer training runs become harder to manage.

  • They take more time, requiring more fuel
  • They cover longer distances, requiring more planning
  • They’re bigger challenges, requiring more mental strength and energy

And for those reasons, many (most?) runners choose to log the biggest training runs at a race.

For the most part, that’s a smart move. I often recommend utilizing training races to runners because:

  • It’s a great way to practice in a race environment
  • It’s a lot easier and more protected, with aid stations, crews, and course markings
  • It’s fun

But there are also a few major reasons to skip the race and go at it on your own:

  • You’re not limited by race schedules
  • It’s free … or almost free
  • You can pick the route, and limit the travel
  • It’s fun

It was because of those first two reasons in particular that David and I were out on the trail that morning.

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8 Steps to Managing a Long Training Run

While designing my training schedule for the Thunder Rock 100, I knew I needed to squeeze in a 10+ hour run between the Asheville Marathon and the Mendocino Coast 50K. With only one weekend available due to other plans, and no races that long near home, the unsupported long run was my only option.

But a major training run like this is not as easy as simply heading out the door.

When you take on this type of challenge, whether on purpose of out of necessity, there’s are a number of steps I’d recommend taking:

1) Plan ahead.

The logistics involved in big unsupported runs are many:

  • How are you going to get to and from the trail (Thanks for the ride, Katie!)?
  • What route are you going to take?
  • How will you manage water, nutrition, and layers?

And so on. Big training runs can quickly turn disastrous with lack of planning, so do yourself a favor and get started early.

2) Get others involved.

There’s a big difference between taking on a 12 hour day solo, and taking it on with a partner. It’ll be less lonely and safer, and you’re more likely to finish.

Just make sure it’s someone you like running with …

Thankfully I didn’t have that problem.

3) Go light (but prepared).

With no access to drop bags or aid stations, it can be difficult to know what you’ll need. Preparations help, but even then decisions have to be made last minute based on weather and conditions.

I like to strike the balance between light and minimalist, and prepared …

… A few extra gels? Yes.

… A small stick of lube and toilet paper? Yes.

… A pack full of “real” food? Probably not.

4) Make it fun and exciting.

This is key to a successful ultra long training run. If you’re just running several loops on the route you run every day, chances of getting in the full mileage will go way down.

Make it exciting. Explore new trails, climb your favorite mountain, or run a route you’ve had on the bucket list for a long time.

5) Don’t tempt yourself with outs.

When you’re covering a big distance, chances of a major bonk or low point are almost a given. Don’t tempt yourself with outs or shortcuts home, especially later in the run.

6) Mimic race day.

This goes for any long run, but especially the biggest of your training. Mimic race day with similar gear, nutrition, and start timing.

7) Take advantage of the resources around you.

When you’re running a long run without the support and structure of a race, take advantage of the resources you do have around you, like creek crossings for water and park or campground stores for food. A little research ahead of time can save you from carrying major weight on the day of your run.

8) Drop supplies ahead of time.

Depending on the route you plan, you may be able to stash bags with layers, food, or water along the route. Unfortunately David and I didn’t have this option, but we would have totally taken advantage of this option if we could have.

Embrace the Long Run Adventure

After over 12 hours on the trail — the last 30 minutes of which we were lost, sorry again dude — David and I ran up my driveway exhausted.

And satisfied.

Long self-supported training runs are pure adventures. They challenge you mentally, physically, and emotionally … just like that goal race will at the end of your training.

So the next time you’re struggling to find a training race to fit your schedule, or if you’re just looking for an epic adventure, consider logging the miles without the race support.

There may not be any finisher’s swag, but the memories, stories, and celebratory beers are just as good.

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Author Doug Hay is the founder of Rock Creek Runner, host of the Trail Talk podcast, and fanatical about everything trail running -- beards, plaid shirts, bruised toenails, and all. He and his wife live and run in beautiful Black Mountain, NC.

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