My ultrarunning career began when I ran the 2016 Broken Arrow 52-Kilometer Skyrace. At the time, the 52-kilometer race distance seemed so far and I wanted to test my limits at the distance. Since then, I have remained curious about how far I could run and I’ve recently wondered what it would feel like to run for an entire day.
I’ve been inspired by several incredible 24-hour endurance challenges of those in our trail running community such as Kilian Jornet’s 24-hour ski mountaineering challenge, Brandon Stapanowitch’s 24 Hours of Inclinathon where he amassed 44,000 feet of vertical gain on the famous Incline, located in Manitou Springs, CO), Camille Herron’s 24-hour running World Record where she averaged 8:35 per mile, and most recently my friend Annie Hughe’s 24-hour run to celebrate her 24th birthday. The concept of 24-hour events intrigued me because I often wondered what it would feel like to dedicate an entire day to doing a single activity that I love and enjoy it to the fullest.
For the past year, I’ve been on an injury roller coaster of achilles’ tendon flare ups that have kept me largely from running. The silver lining is that I’ve had more time to practice another sport I enjoy: cross country skiing. This sport does not hurt my tendon and has helped me develop further as an athlete by increasing my overall fitness, aerobic capacity, and building strength in new ways.
With an itch to test my ultrarunning endurance limits, and given that I felt more confident on skis than ever before in my life, I decided to participate in the Equinox 24 Hour Ultra Ski cross country ski competition in Leadville, CO. This would be my first 24-hour endurance challenge, and only my third time racing on skis since I began cross country skiing two years ago.
The third annual Equinox 24 Hour Ultra Ski, held one week ago on March 19 and 20, 2022, took place at the Mount Massive Golf Course cross country ski area at 10,000 feet above sea level. In addition to the challenge of high altitude, participants also faced the harsh winter weather of the Colorado Rockies. Luckily, the race fell on a 40-degree sunny day and the cold northern winds that blow harshly onto the golf course in winter months were more tame than typical days. The course itself was an 8-kilometer loop, mostly flat with a few gentle rolling hills that seemed to become increasingly difficult as the race went on loop after loop. It was the perfect setting to test not only how far I could ski in a day, but also how I could handle the cold of the night, sleep deprivation and energy deficits (cross country skiing burns more calories than any other endurance activity!). This would be a great opportunity to see if I enjoyed doing 24-hour endurance challenges and may one day lead me to completing my first 24-hour run.
Reflecting on the race one week later, I can confidently say that it was one of the best racing experiences of my life. In 24 hours, I covered 178 miles and went through incredible highs and lows that I will never forget. One of the best moments was completing the final loop on Sunday morning with some of my closest friends who ran the loop on the snow beside me. One of the lowest lows came unexpectedly after the race when I discovered I had frostbite on my left big toe! My friends rushed me to an urgent care center for frostbite (a three hour drive away) and the wonderful hospital staff saved all of my toes just in the nick of time. Overall, I learned more from this race than any other and I’d like to share my takeaways for those considering 24-hour endurance competitions for the first time or those looking for tips to improve their performances. For the remainder of this article, I share my top three takeaways from my first 24-hour endurance challenge, which I hope will give you a better understanding of the major challenges of such competitions, tips to completing them and overall why they are events that have a special appeal unlike any other.
Variety of food/nutrition products is the single most important thing you can do for your nutrition strategy in a 24-hour endurance event. Expect your body to crave different foods at different points during the race. For example, during the morning and night you might want warmer foods and drinks such as ramen or coffee, while during the day you may crave cold fruits and electrolyte drink mixes. Remember that your body’s craving can be difficult to predict beforehand, so showing up to the race with a variety of products will leave you better prepared for satisfying these cravings.
Furthermore, both physically and mentally it’s important to have variety. Ingesting the same few products for 24 hours straight puts you at a higher risk for nutrient deficiencies or toxicities. No single product has everything your body needs for an entire 24 hours of endurance sports. Teach yourself to better tune into your body’s cravings and ingest what you need, as opposed to what you guess you’ll need beforehand. Mentally, variety is also important. Even if a certain product always works for you during training runs, that doesn’t mean it will work for 24 hours. Instead of bringing one or two types of gels or energy bars, bring at least five or six. Change of taste, texture, nutrient density and liquid content are all great things to mix up when you’re creating your nutrition plan. Below is a list of nutrient considerations and examples of what products to use:
- Caffeinated Products (Solids and liquids. Examples include coffee, gels, caffeine pills, Clif Bars, etc.)
- Hot Foods and Liquids (Broth, soup, ramen, rice, mashed potatoes, pasta, coffee, tea, hot chocolate, etc.)
- Savory foods. Include both salty and not salty. Low fiber and fat options will digest easier (Bread, crackers, charcuterie meats, cheeses, quesadillas, pastas, etc.)
- Simple carbohydrate-rich foods (Sweet breads, rice cakes, granola/energy bars, gels, pastries, pancakes, waffles, muffins, etc.)
- Calorie-free hydration products (Nuun tablets, electrolyte powders, salt tablets, etc.)
- Carbohydrate-rich liquids or electrolyte drink mixes (Tailwind, Maurten, Gatorade, etc.)
Anticipate Temperature Changes
Extreme temperature changes are a major challenge of most 24-hour competitions. This is because you will be competing at all times of day including mornings, afternoons and evenings. In most environments across the world, the time of day will have a significant effect on temperature because of the varying levels of sunshine. It is rare to have a 24-hour race where the temperature remains consistent, and you should anticipate the possibility of overheating, freezing or both. Temperature changes affect pace, hydration/nutrition strategies, and gear requirements.
In my 24-hour ski race, temperatures ranged drastically from 40s and sunny during the day (hot enough for some skiers to switch into shorts and t-shirts!) and around 15 degrees during the night with a north wind increasing the chill factor. These temperature changes led me to wearing different layers and changing out sweaty clothes from the day, so as to be wearing dry materials during the cold night (one major mistake, and likely the reason why my toe was frostbitten, was that I did not think to switch out my sweaty ski boots for a dry pair).
I also discovered that it was very difficult for me to eat any solid foods during the heat of the day, but my appetite returned to solid and warm foods during the night. I consumed much more liquid calories and electrolytes during the day than at any other time. Below is a checklist of troubleshooting questions you can ask yourself to prepare for the hot and cold weather.
How to stay dry and avoid chafing when you sweat
If you’re racing in a humid environment this is especially important. Staying dry will help you avoid blisters, chafing and will better prepare you for handling colder weather should it arrive. The best way to stay dry is to bring multiple pairs of every clothing item you need for your race. Bring extra shoes, socks, shorts, undergarments, shirts, headbands, etc. Switch out garments at the first signs of wetness and don’t wait until it’s too late! Wet clothes and cold nights are not a good combination. Make sure your garments are made of “sweat-wicking” and breathable materials. Anti-chafing products such as Squirrels Nut Butter are also great options if you are prone to chafing in hot weather activities.
How to stay hydrated when getting sweaty
Staying hydrated is the single most important thing you can do to improve your athletic performance in hot temperatures. As a general rule of thumb, 16 ounces of fluid with 300mg of sodium (may vary based on your personal sweat rate, age, size and other factors) is a good standard. Ideally, you’ll be able to test hydration strategies during your training and learn your body’s requirements at various temperatures. Anticipate your sweating to increase as temperature increases. It’s not uncommon to drink twice as much during the hottest part of the day, when compared to the cooler night. However, don’t overlook the importance of hydrating even when it’s cold. Your muscles will perform better when they are hydrated and have proper electrolyte balance.
How to prevent feeling overheated
The feeling of overheating is extremely taxing and can lead to loss of breathe or dizziness. Although running in extreme heat is never easy, you can make it feel easier by dropping your core body temperature. This can be done several ways, including dunking your head in cold water, putting ice in your hat, arm sleeves, neck gaiters, etc., and ingesting cold fluids and foods. Many Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run participants speak highly of ice-cold Otter Pops that can be found at aid stations during the hottest parts of the course. To avoid overheating, you should also more closely examine what you are wearing. How breathable are the materials in your shoes/boots? What colors are you wearing? Remember that darker materials absorb more sunlight and will make you hotter.
How to keep your core body temperature from dropping too low
Keeping your core temperature elevated is the most important thing you can do for your performance in cold weather. This may require you to eat more (exercising in cold weather burns more calories) and make sure you have hot food and drink available. Coffee, ramen, soup, mashed potatoes, hot chocolate and other easily digestible warm foods and drinks can help you from getting too cold. For garment considerations, layering is one of the most important things you can do. Make sure you have breathable materials that are sweat wicking, thermal layers, and some kind of element-resistant hard-shell jacket that can protect you from wind or outside moisture such as rain and snow. Wearing the proper garments for the proper conditions and temperatures will help you avoid the common problem of feeling too hot (which leads to sweating), followed by getting too cold from wearing sweaty materials.
How to keep your extremities warm
Your extremities such as your hands and feet may be some of the first areas in your body where you feel cold. You should take special care of these areas as these are where you are most prone to frostbite or may lose sensation during your event. Spend the extra money on quality, breathable, synthetic fabric socks (not cotton) and seek out various types of gloves or mittens that not only feel warm inside but can block wind or keep out moisture from rain or snow. Always have multiple pairs of socks and gloves should the first pair become wet.
How to rewarm yourself when feeling too cold
If you notice yourself getting cold, don’t panic, but also take immediate action. Don’t let yourself get colder, as this can lead to serious conditions such as frostbite or hypothermia. At the first signs of feeling cold, you should start troubleshooting: Did I layer properly? Is there something I could take off or put on that could make this better? When was the last time I had hot food or drink? If you can’t figure out an immediate solution, take the time during your competition to stop and reset. Find somewhere warm such as a heated building or car with the heaters on high and allow yourself several minutes to rest and rewarm. Change into new dry garments and take the time to be meticulous about what you’re wearing and how it will aid you in this cold environment. When you restart your activity, make sure to keep a constant, steady effort as opposed to surging. Pushing hard and relaxing can result in sweating, followed by a drop in core temperature. A consistent effort will steadily elevate your core temperature and keep it stable throughout your event.
Find Your Crew
Out of the three tips, finding your crew is by far the most important to your success and attitude during the entire 24-hour experience. A crew composed of your closest friends and family will give you superpowers (no exaggeration!) and energy beyond what food and drink provides. With any endurance challenge that lasts more than several hours, a crew is essential to keeping you focused and trouble-shooting the physical and mental challenges that will certainly arise. The right crew can bring you higher highs and help you manage your lowest lows before these lows have the chance to ruin your race or cause you to give up on yourself. When deciding who to invite onto your crew, think of the people closest to you that you know can keep you focused on your race day strategy, problem solve, lift your spirits with their positivity, and most importantly are just as excited as you to be there.
For me, the highlight of my every loop was the opportunity to see the people I’d invited to the race cheering me on. There is no better feeling than having the right crew! My “crew chief” Dan Vega, a great friend/mentor and accomplished runner from Colorado Springs, CO, stayed awake for the entire 24 hours with me and prepared what I should eat and drink every loop. Having his constant support and not having to prepare my own foods and drinks made for smooth transitions every loop and I was able to spend more time skiing, instead of worrying about my nutrition needs. As Hellen Keller famously stated: “Alone, we can do so little; together, we can do so much.”