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Ultra Running: The Single Stage Race versus The Multi Stage Race

By Alice Hunter Morrison

Moroccan-based journalist, winner of Best Africa Blog, writer for RunUltra, author of “Dodging Elephants: 8000 Miles Across Africa by Bike” and Special Correspondent for IRUN4ULTRA, a subsidiary of Hope So Bright.

The definition of an ultra running is any run that is over the marathon distance of 42.195 kilometers or 26.219 miles. For many people, once they have conquered their marathon and ticked that off their bucket list, they look to move up to the next challenge and discover the joy of ultras. There are two main types of ultra: the long single stage race and the multi-day stage race. 

Ultra Running

Single Stage Race

50km or 31 miles is a very popular starting distance as it is achievable for most fit marathon runners. However, make no mistake. That extra five miles at the end of your marathon can feel like a very long way indeed.

The next jump up, if you are going for straight runs (i.e., not multi-day runs), is 50 miles or 80.5 km and this really does signify a big change to the way that you have to approach a race and how to train for it. One marathon is hard enough, but two back-to-back means you have to be crazy, no?

Well, apparently not. Ultra running races, including both long day and multi-day races, have tripled in the last decade, with more than 12,000 races now held annually in the U.S. alone and that number continues to increase.

Stepping Up

So, what does it take to step up from a marathon to a 50 miler and then a 100 miler or more? Whereas an average beginner marathon training program varies weekly from 15 to 45 miles per week, you need to be running a weekly volume of 50 to 60 miles I order to attain your first 50. If you have run a marathon before, a good plan is to add 10 to 15 percent to each week’s total mileage. Increase the mileage for three weeks, and then give yourself a break to recover during a fourth week by dropping your mileage down to the same range as week one. The long run must remain sacrosanct. This is the foundation for your race and will give you the confidence to succeed.

Why do people take on these ultra long distances?

I like to compete.  And, I like to work hard.  I’ve made this point before:  an ultra is the fairest sport out there.  It doesn’t discriminate by race, gender or really even genetics.  The harder you train, the better you do.  I like that . . . a lot,” says ultra runner, Dave Krupski. 

Matthew Inman had this to say about his first 50 miler: “The run itself was surprisingly enjoyable. After you’ve been running for 8+ hours every little thing becomes an incredible luxury. At mile 21, I drank a cup of flat Mountain Dew and I swear it tasted like unicorn tears. At mile 43, I ate a PB&J sandwich and it was like eating the entrails of a fallen angel.”    

Vanessa Runs says that it is all about the egalitarian nature of the ultra challenge:Ultras are hard for everyone. Ultras are just plain hard. Everyone struggles up that hill. Everyone has trouble breathing. Everyone feels the hot sun. Everyone is sweating. Everyone wants to sit down. You—sitting at your computer and reading this—would not be any worse off than I am on a steep, rocky hill. Trails can’t tell whether you’re an elite or a newbie. They’ll kick your ass just the same. So, you belong here just as much as I do and I belong here just as much as the dude who wins first place.” 

Ultra Running

The beauty of the long, one stage race is that you set your mind to it, you set off, you run/walk/crawl/complete it and then you are done. There is no break in focus or determination. You start and you go through to the finish, however hard and far away that finish is.

One of the other great joys of the long one stage race is that they are usually run off road on trails in amazing parts of the country. One of the most famous, Badwater ®135, is an exception as it is a road race, but it carries its own special beauty.

Top One Stagers

Here are three of our top one stagers:

Badwater®135

Badwater®135 covers 135 miles (217 kilometers) of California’s Death Valley. Starting in the Badwater Basin, approximately 85m below sea level, the finish line is at Whitney Portal (Mt. Whitney) at 2,530m.

Started in 1978, the approximately 100 runners travel through Mushroom Rock, Furnace Creek, Salt Creek, Devil’s Cornfield, Devil’s Golf course, Stovepipe Wells, Panamint Springs, Keeler, Alabama Hills, and Lone Pine. Many of these names give a very good indication of the extreme July temperatures (well in excess of 40ºC) and the stark landscape that surrounds the brave participants. 

Western States 100

First, run in 1974, this race stretches just over 100 miles (or 161 kilometers) from Squaw Valley to Auburn, in California along the Western States Trail. Steep and remote, it must be completed in less than 30 hours. Some of the nature spots along the way include Emigrant Pass, the Granite Chief Wilderness, the canyons of the California gold country and the Middle Fork of the American River.

multi stage

From UltimateDirection.com

Hardrock 100

This race is a looped 100.5 miles of dirt trails along the San Juan Range of Southern Colorado with a total elevation of 67,984 feet. Starting at 6 a.m., the cut off time for the race is 48 hours. Runners cover extremely rugged terrain, steep scree climbs and descents, snow, river crossing, and boulder fields. Alternating between clockwise and counterclockwise every year, this extremely challenging course leads participants from Silverado through the towns of Telluride, Ouray and Sherman and back, crossing 13 major passes in the mountain range. Survival and navigational skills are required.

Multi-Day Stage Races

The multi-day stage race is a different beast from the one stage. As the name suggests, it is a race that takes place over a number of days. The total distance of the race must be over marathon distance to qualify as an ultra but each day does not have to be, so you will often find multi-day races with day runs ranging from around 35 kilometers or 21.7 miles. Often, the distance is around the marathon mark and with a couple of longer stages up to 100 kilometers or 62 miles. Each multi-day race is different.

As you are running over a number of days, these races involve having a kit, camping and food supplies. Every race is different, but typically a race organizer will provide the tents or overnight accommodations and the runner will take the rest of their kit and food in a backpack. The organizers may provide food and transfer of sleeping gear if so, this is great news for the runner as they don’t have to run with a big backpack. If not, then the issue of weight on one’s back versus taking enough food and warm clothes becomes an issue.

Training for a Multi Stager

The biggest piece of advice from experts on working towards a multi stager is to build up your endurance base. These races are going to call on you to perform day after day, so you need to be strong enough to withstand the strain that you will put on your body.  At the beginning of your training, work on your endurance with different disciplines – cycling, rowing, and hiking are all useful options. Then, when you are into your running program, focus it around the daily average mileage you will have to do for a race. Don’t forget to add in the variables such as extreme heat or cold, altitude, the amount of ascent and the varying terrain.

Psychologically, these races are different from the one stagers. You have to keep motivation high over a long period of time. They are not as immediately physically demanding as 130 miles in one go, but they definitely require mental pacing to maintain a positive attitude. Day three can be a bit depressing.


Three of Our Top Multi Stagers

There are so many great races out there to choose from. Here are three of our favorites:

Grand to Grand

The race starts from the awe-inspiring north rim of the Grand Canyon, one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World, and finishes on the summit of the Grand Staircase, one of the world’s most iconic geological formations. The course takes you through a high desert landscape of sand dunes, red rock canyons, buttes, mesas, and hoodoos. You will navigate compelling slot canyons and experience the remotest part of continental America in the way of the earliest settlers: the Navajo and Paiute Indian tribes. This is where Montezuma’s gold is still reputed to be buried.  Ultra Running

Marathon des Sables

Known simply as the MDS, the race is a grueling multi-stage adventure through a formidable landscape in one of the world’s most inhospitable climates – the Sahara desert. The rules require you to be self-sufficient, to carry on your back everything except water – everything you need to survive. You are given a place in a tent to sleep at night but any other equipment and food must be carried. 

Everest Trail Race

Set against one of the most iconic and awe-inspiring backdrops on the planet, the Everest Trail Race is one of the world’s toughest high-altitude ultra-marathons. Winding through the remote Solukhumbu region of the Himalayas in Nepal, the Everest Trail Race (ETR) is an annual multi-stage footrace, with a brutal altitude of more than 25,000 meters. Along hard trails of frozen earth, crunching through crisp snow and running over different types of rock, red, green and grey in color, prepare to cover a grueling 160 kilometers over six days. 

Inspired to Run?

Whether you decide that your next race is going to be a multi-stage or a one stager, you are probably already in the throes of training. Long days out on the road and trails that lie ahead, one of the most valuable things you can have in your program is a great partner. There you have it!  Happy Running.

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Elisabet Barnes Interview: Ultra Running Champion and Irun4Ultra Ambassador

By Alice Hunter Morrison

Moroccan-based journalist, winner of Best Africa Blog, writer for RunUltra, author of “Dodging Elephants: 8000 Miles Across Africa by Bike,” and Special Correspondent for IRUN4ULTRA, a subsidiary of Hope So Bright.

Elisabet Barnes is one of the world’s best women multi-day runners on the circuit. She is the 2015 Women’s Champion of the Marathon des Sables and earlier this year won the Big Red Run in Australia outright.
She attacks all her races with a great spirit and good humor and always takes the time to encourage and support others. She is one of Irun4Ultra’s newest Ambassadors and the team is delighted to have her on board.

Hi Elisabet. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself

I am from Sweden but have lived in the UK since 2007. I met my now husband Colin at work and moved over… At the time I was working as a management consultant in London but now I have left the corporate life for running. I am a running coach, own a running shop with Colin, and I am part of Raidlight’s Dream Team. I am 39 years old and I did my first multi-stage ultra in 2012.


You are a star in the desert races with MDS and the Big Red Run wins under your belt. What were those two races like for you?

Every race brings something different and that’s what I love. Of course, winning is great but it’s not my primary drive. I love the adventure and the experience as well as the people you meet. The MDS is a tough race because the environment is very harsh and camp life is very sparse and simple. Therefore, even when you are “resting” in camp it can be tough, for example, if it’s really windy or hot – which most of the time it is! The Big Red Run takes place in a desert of different character and it has more support such as bag transport, hot water, and massages therapists. It makes a difference. The MDS is always the race that seems to take the most out of me although other courses can be harder to run.

Did it feel good to come first overall in the Big Red Run? Do you think women are moving up to equal the men in ultra-running?

It was great to win the race outright of course but I had to work for it. We had a good group at the top and we kept pushing each other. It was a great competition but also good camaraderie at the same time. There are several examples of women winning ultra-races outright. Women have good endurance and mental strength and we can be patient, pacing ourselves well over long distances. Theoretically, men should still have the advantage but it’s encouraging to see women in the top of races and hopefully, it can help inspire other women to believe in themselves and make their dreams possible.

Elisabet Barnes

Credit: Alexis Berg

How was your recent Grand to Grand Experience?

I loved Grand to Grand. The running was tough and involved a fair amount of hiking plus a bit of crawling on all fours to get up the steepest dunes I have ever seen! I thought the course was mostly scenic, the campsites were beautiful and the atmosphere was great throughout, with everyone supporting each other.

You say that stage races are your races of choice? What do you like about them?

Stage races are adventures over several days, mostly a week. I think that makes it interesting because a lot of things can happen. You need to think through your strategy and consider not only your running, but things like the changing terrain, the weather, your recovery etc., plus balance the weight of your required and recommended equipment as you often need to carry it all. You also get to meet a lot of interesting people.

What are the important factors for success in a stage race? What do you need to avoid?

You need to avoid getting carried away on Day 1 (pacing), and you need to avoid getting ill – (clean hands at all times). Avoiding blisters is also preferable but not always within your control.

What are you training for at the moment? And, what does your training consist of in an average week/month?

At the moment I am just recovering from Grand to Grand but I feel OK and will start running again shortly. The next race on the calendar is the Costa Rica Coastal Challenge in February so I will start building up to that. My training through the year is quite different in periods due to my uneven workload. (I work particularly long hours leading up to MDS which is not very practical for training). Unless a race is close, I do strength training three times a week and ideally, I run most days with one rest day, but it varies. Where I live is very flat and I do a lot of road running normally although I have access to the beach which is good training for desert runs.

What does a typical race year look like for you?

If this year is anything to go by for the future, it has involved five multi-stage races and a total of 29 days of racing…Of course, I try to spread the races out somewhat so I get a chance to recover. The good thing about multi-stage races is that you can recover during the race to an extent and it is not as physically draining as a long non-stop race. However, camp life can be taxing on the body: being cold, sleeping on hard ground, and eating freeze-dried meals.

You have raced all over the world, what is it like racing in different countries? How would you
compare running in Costa Rica with Richtersveld, for example?  Presumably, you have to change your style/strategy according to the environment?

Every first time is a new experience so you don’t really know what to expect until you are there. Usually the first day becomes a warm-up or “learning experience” before you properly can get into it. Costa Rica was incredibly hot and humid which I had anticipated, so I had done my best to acclimatize in a heat chamber before traveling. Because of where I live I do struggle a bit with technical terrain but I run well on flat surfaces, so on more technical trails I kind of learn as I go and get better as the race goes on. Richtersveld was dry, hot and incredibly arid. It was also a navigational race whereas Costa Rica had a marked course. I prefer marked courses although either is fine. In Richtersveld I had to do a lot of hiking due to the terrain, which in hindsight wasn’t a bad thing as the course was easy to run in Australia a week later.

Elisabet Barnes

Credit: Benoit Laval

You have signed up as an Ambassador for IRun4Ultra – how did that come about?

Linda approached me about running TransRockies for IRun4Ultra and, of course, I couldn’t say no to that. It is great if through my running I can contribute to raising awareness of important causes and inspire people to make changes leading to better health.

So, as you said, you will be running the TransRockies race IRun4Ultra – what are your goals for the race?

TransRockies will bring new challenges that I have to tackle, the biggest being the altitude (I live at sea level). However, this is not a bad thing as I will be doing the Everest Trail Race later in the year so I have to get the altitude training in… It also has a very good field so I expect that it will be tough to compete for the top places! Hopefully, I will be able to do the specific training I need so that I can perform to the best of my ability.

What are you looking forward to about the race?

I am, of course, looking forward to experiencing the Rocky Mountains. I’m sure the trails will be spectacular. I have also heard many good things about TransRockies as a race so I look forward to soaking up the atmosphere, meeting new people, enjoying the running and the camaraderie, and having a great time.

IRun4Ultra is campaigning to raise awareness about autism and ADHD in children, and to focus on diet and exercise to alleviate symptoms. Do you have any connection to the cause/comments/thoughts?

I do not have a personal connection as such to autism or ADHD but I am passionate about health and well-being. Modern society is increasingly encouraging a sedentary lifestyle, the consumption of poor quality food and drink, and unnecessary medication for many conditions. It’s mind blowing just walking into the supermarket and seeing what people put in their shopping baskets! Strong commercial interests from the food – and the pharmaceutical industries are not helping…I am a firm believer that if most people ate more healthily, exercised more and lived less stressful lives, we could prevent many lifestyle diseases, mental disorders, and other conditions. I can go on for hours about this as I am very passionate about the topic!

How will you prepare specifically for the TransRockies?

I will do some altitude training for sure. I just haven’t planned exactly how yet. There will be plenty of hill work too, no doubt.

You and your husband own myRaceKit (https://www.myracekit.com/) so what are your top kit tips for multi-stage racing and what are we likely to see you using for TransRockies?

Every multi-stage race has a different setup so my first advice is to check through the mandatory and recommended gear lists to understand the requirements. If the race is self-sufficient, it is incredibly important to keep your pack weight low. Anything that is only “nice-to-have” should ideally be left behind. Having said that you need to pack “right,” not just light. That means ensuring you recover well in terms of a good night’s sleep and eating enough food. As the TransRockies is well supported I will just be carrying a small race vest with the essentials. The rest will go in my kit bag.

And, finally and most importantly, who is Stig…

Stig is the best Great Dane in the world and he must be Scooby-Doo’s twin brother. He is nearly 7.5 years now and is our shop mascot. He loves trying out the sleeping mats, playing with our customer’s kids or just sleeping on the sofa…

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