If you’re a climber in Sydney, chances are you’ve been to Climb Fit St Leonards and you’ve been greeted by the bright, contagious smile of Sarah Josephsen, the director. Sarah is a massive champion of all goals, big and small, so when we heard about her RacingThePlanet quest, we knew we wanted to celebrate it from the very beginning right through to the finish line.
What Is RacingThePlanet?
RacingThePlanet Ultramarathon is an annual multi-stage race and in 2019, the eleventh edition was held in Queenstown, New Zealand. Over six days, competitors covered 250km of mixed terrain, totalling over 10,000m of elevation… and doing it all self-supported.
If you’re thinking, ‘Well, that sounds crazy, why would anyone do it?’, just know that the slight craziness of it all is exactly what spurred Sarah on to sign up for it – ‘It should seem a bit crazy – that’s the point. It’s exciting knowing that with training and prep you will (somehow) get there in the end.’
The Lead Up – How To Train And Prepare
When it comes to training for an ultramarathon, it’s not all about running specifically but about increasing your work capacity. Sarah’s typical week included a long hike or run in Sydney’s Blue Mountains, two spin classes, a weekly touch footy game and a morning trail run. As an avid golfer, she would also clock up about 11km each week on the course. For recovery, she recommends infrared saunas.
A key piece of advice is to train for the conditions you expect to be running in. Knowing that New Zealand is often wet and cold, Sarah made sure she did some of her training in the wet: ‘If it was pouring with rain, I put my gear on and went out and ran in it. Running at night time with a headlamp in the pouring rain was also a lot of fun.’
Something that Sarah emphasises though is that the preparation for a multi-stage race extends beyond the physical training. There’s a lot of experimentation to be done, especially for your first ultramarathon, from equipment to clothing to food. RacingThePlanet rules state mandatory items that every competitor must carry and when equipment, clothing and food are factored in, the weight can quickly add up which makes testing so important.
Aside from just minimising bulk and weight, testing means that you become very familiar and speedy with your equipment such as setting up your sleeping mat, which will mean you reach rest and recovery quicker on those long race days. Sarah even went so far as to go on a Saturday long hike and run, camp out that night replicating her race dinner and sleeping conditions and then wake up the next morning, in the same clothes, and back up with another run!
‘Clothing testing was crucial. We were going to be wearing the same clothes for six days so I had to be sure it was durable and didn’t get too stinky.’ Merino wool was the answer and Sarah even invested in a merino wool sports bra! Chafing and blistering are also other considerations to make when testing out shorts and socks. And if you’re going to be racing in New Zealand as well, make sure your rain jacket is actually waterproof (Sarah and I are friends from Climb Fit and we found out the hard way – getting caught on the Spit to Manly run in some seriously heavy rain – that our rain jackets weren’t).
In terms of shoes, the general rule of thumb is to purchase a pair one size bigger, and whilst this may seem excessive pre-race, you’ll be grateful for this because ‘Your feet swell and you get blisters….oh man, the blisters!’
Though the minimum required number of 2,000 calories is the same across the board, it’s amazing how varied competitors’ nutrition plans can be; ‘But one thing we all had in common is that we practiced it and had a method and system in place. You have to follow it. Especially when you get really tired and your brain doesn’t work as well.’
It’s crucial to find out what food fuels you, as an individual, best (and keep in mind that seeing a sports nutritionist can really help here). Just because someone else touts powder supplement as the bee’s knees for an ultramarathon doesn’t mean it will sit well with you – which is exactly what Sarah found out. ‘Instead, I found that while I was running, a gel and electrolyte capsule every hour was fine followed by a recovery shake at the end.’
On longer days (such as the 80km day five), she could handle more calorie-dense foods like nuts and Clif Bars.
For dinners, it’s hard to look past dehydrated meals for warmth and taste but even here, Sarah did some testing to see which flavours she preferred and how much water to achieve the best consistency.
A Typical Day’s Menu
500 cals – 2 x Gu Stroopwafel biscuits, with 1 big spoon of peanut butter in between. 1 x Hammer Perpetuem drink (protein and carbs) plus coffee. Some people had ramen noodles and I was insanely jealous of them by day 3.
While out running/walking:
800-1000 cals – 1 x Energy gel every 60 mins plus an electrolyte capsule. Snack on a Clif bar along the way. I also had some Clif blocks to chew on as extra. Aim for about 100 cals per hour. Lots of water. We had water re-fills every 10km and we had to carry 1.5L on us at all times (more weight!).
250 cals – Tailwind chocolate recovery shake
880 cals – A dehydrated meal – 2 person size. I loved The Gourmet Food Company meals – they are the fancy brand from BackCountry. They were totally worth the extra cash. They even had little extra sachets to add – my lamb and mushroom risotto came with parmesan cheese.
250 cals – A spoonful of peanut butter. Seriously. I took a whole jar and it was a great snack (but a heavy one). I earned the nickname ‘Peanut’ early on.
Keep in mind that you burn way more than this on a day out there – so you’re in calorie-deficit the whole time.
This year, competitors ran 40km every day across days one through four, 80km of day five, took a well-deserved rest day on day six and closed it all out with a final day of 10km. The course took them through every type of terrain imaginable; dry and arid, spikey and slippery, up to peaks with strong winds in whiteout conditions, farms with animals and fields of wild thyme and long grasses hiding rabbit holes (aka ankle sprain territory), stream crossings and even a vineyard and an old quarry.
‘Every day was different and you never knew what was up next. The only constant? HILLS! And views!’
The Mental Game
‘I had planned to run the majority of the race and walk up the hills…in reality, I walked about 90% of the whole thing, jogged a bit and hobbled the rest.’ Rarely do races turn out as planned and so it often comes down to how you mentally handle this.
Sarah says that at the end of day two, after the initial day one buzz, some negativity had settled into camp as past competitors remarked at how the course was too steep, meaning that they couldn’t really run. It might seem like small, off-hand comments, but when you’re worn out and in close quarters, it can be difficult to maintain a positive mindset amidst the negativity. For Sarah, she accepted that the race would be different to how she’d planned early on and focused on each single day as conditions presented themselves; this helped minimise the overwhelm.
But even still, at the end of day four, Sarah hit a low point. ‘By this stage, I had so many blisters and my feet were swollen to almost double their size. Every footstep felt like agony and I couldn’t contemplate doing 80km the next day. I considered pulling out.’
What helped was the camaraderie (and the fact that you couldn’t exactly just call a taxi to get you out). Everyone was in the same boat. ‘Showing kindness to others was something that really helped me – saying encouraging words to someone you pass or lending a pole to a teammate struggling on a hill or sharing some jelly beans. This gave me little mental boosts of energy.’
The Finish Line
Despite the low point, Sarah turned up at the starting line on the 80km day five. It then rained for 12 hours straight, just to add even more challenge. ‘I barely had energy to get my snacks out of my bag so I just munched on a bag of jelly beans for hours. I didn’t want to talk to anyone. I was in a dark place for many hours.’
Competitors pack an emergency dry bag that they are only allowed access to when deemed necessary by the race regulators…and after 12 hours of drenching, it was indeed necessary! ‘My mood lifted when I got back to camp (who knows what time it was by then) to my emergency dry bag full of warm fresh clothes.”
A little reward was the rest day on day six before facing the final handfuls of the race. The night before, she’d had zero sleep; ‘My feet were absolutely destroyed and they were throbbing from the pain – I even had to drill holes in my toe nails to relieve pressure.’
Even still, she ran the final day, “People at the end couldn’t believe that Peanut was finished so early!’ and crossed the finish line to her husband and a surprise visit from her dad and brother!
Final Words Of Wisdom?
Go with the flow and don’t let changes to your plan get you down. Just roll with it, accept the power of nature, the healing properties of sitting in a river and sunshine to warm the skin, be in awe of the terrain and those hills and enjoy the feeling of being a teeny tiny dot out there in the wild for a week.
Some people love BIG adventures