Survival Tips for Ultra-Runners
“Could you survive the night with what you have in your pack?” My friends roll their eyes at me, but I am dead serious. I want you to imagine with me for a moment. It’s a perfect fall day. The sky is bright blue, the sun is shining and it’s a comfortable 65 degrees. You have had a great summer of training and you are feeling strong and excited for this 20-mile mountain adventure with your two closest running friends. The day is going great until 15 miles in and suddenly a rock shifts under your weight and you go down HARD! You can tell immediately that your lower leg is broken and you won’t be able to put any weight on it. Falling and getting hurt is not always avoidable, but how you prepare for this situation is what will make or break your experience.
Trail and ultra-running are unique in that they attract runners - athletes who are strong and fast and have the ability to get themselves much further away from help, in a much shorter period of time, than your average hiker. Additionally, many trail and ultra-runners come from a road or track running background, which can leave them less aware of the dangers and preparation needed for long hours in the mountains. Imagine in our pretend scenario that you were carrying the minimal amount of food, water and gear for the day. At mile 15 you’re probably starting to feel somewhat fatigued and your food and water will be running low. You don’t have cell phone service so you and one of your friends have to wait while the third member of your party goes out to get help. You know it will likely take them 60-90 minutes to navigate the last 5 miles of trail and another 30 to drive to where they can get cell phone service. Because it’s fall, the days are short and as the sun begins to set the temperatures drop, something you weren’t prepared for because you expected to be at the bar by now.
I was raised by healthcare providers and members of the local search and rescue. I have memories of attending wilderness medicine classes as young as 5 years old, and I was raised with the understanding that if you are able to get yourself into a situation, you better be able to get yourself out. I became an official Wilderness First Responder the summer I turned 18 and two years later spent an intensive month in Lander, Wyoming becoming Wilderness EMT certified. I was pursing a career with the National Ski Patrol but I also wanted to have the knowledge and confidence to help myself, or anyone else I was with, or encountered, while playing in the mountains.
My WEMT training landed me in a position at Park City Mountain resort as a full-time ski patroller, and also allowed me to act as the crew medic during week long wilderness rafting adventures during the summer. I put my training to good use but eventually decided that I would follow the healthcare path to midwifery. Midwifery school led me to running and before long I was pursuing bigger and bolder distances in nothing but sneakers with my lightweight hydration vest. As I became more serious about running, I found my desires to move fast with minimal gear, and to be adequately prepared for the worse, were often at odds. “Could you survive the night with what you have in your pack?”
Now imagine, in our scenario, that you had run this question through your mind before you set out that day. Knowing that fall means longer and colder nights, you had brought an extra jacket and a lightweight hat, as well as the emergency blanket you always carry with you. You were carrying a locator beacon and were able to initiate an SOS to search and rescue within moments of your fall. While you are waiting for a rescue, all three of you are able to stay huddled together for warmth, and your friends are able to use their headlamps to make a splint for your leg, which helps with the pain. You have adequate water and food to maintain the energy you need to stay warm.
It takes approximately 30 people to evacuate one person one mile on moderate to technical terrain (carrying a litter on foot). This process can take an hour plus per mile, and that is only after you have made the call to initiate a rescue, the people power has been coordinated and they have all hiked themselves and their gear to your location. Any outstanding factors such as weather or darkness will lengthen the time until you are in definitive care. Rescue does not happen fast in the backcountry, so you need to be prepared to wait.
None of this is meant to scare you, only to educate you on what can make the difference between a bad day and a fatality. As trail and ultra-distance runners we should always be prepared for the worst and hope for the best.
How do you prepare for the worst in any given adventure? These suggestions should be considered for race day as well as any solo or group adventures you are planning to embark on. While race day will have more support, it is not uncommon for runners to be multiple miles from aid stations at any given point on a course. It is also possible for a runner to become disoriented, either by fatigue, darkness, dehydration, or the weather, and wander off course. Phone reception can be spotty in these remote locations. Do not ever depend on anyone else to ensure your survival.
1. Always know what you are likely to encounter. Watch the weather forecast, including the hourly forecasts, for the closest location possible. Summit Forecast is a great resource if you are going to be up high, as it will allow you to see the forecast for different elevations and areas. In addition to the weather, but familiar with the terrain you are likely to encounter. Will you be forced to get wet during a water crossing? Are there areas of technical terrain where you will be slowing down? What are your options for refilling your water? Are there shelter’s and/or sheltered area’s where you could wait out foul weather?
2. Let someone know where you are going and when you will be back. When things go from bad to worse, knowing that someone will be initiating a search for you can make all the difference. Be detailed in your itinerary, and if possible, contact your person to let them know of any route changes. If I anticipate a run to take me 5-6 hours, I will generally tell my partner to expect to hear from me after 7 hours, and to initiate a search if no contact by 10 hours. Those timelines get much tighter during the winter when survival time can decrease dramatically. Also, be sure to take into account lack of service at a trailhead when determining how long it should be before your contact person hears from you. If you spend a decent amount of time in areas with low cell service, I highly recommend investing in a locator beacon such as the Garmin InReach Mini. It fits nicely into a pack and connects with your cell phone for easy access. As long as it is charged, and can get a satellite signal, you can do everything from access your location on a map, to send an SOS to local search and rescue, to request your boyfriend has pizza waiting when you get home.
3. Be prepared to spend the night. I’m not talking about carrying a sleeping bag and your stuffed bear on every trail run. Surviving the night is much different than spending the night in comfort. The three necessities you need are food, shelter, and water. For food, 1-2 extra bars in your pack should provide enough to get you through a night. What you carry for shelter will depend on the weather. Always carry enough layers that you could spend the night, without moving much, and not freeze to death (again, we are talking worst case scenario here. I’m not expecting you to be warm and happy or even to keep all your toes. Just be prepared to stay alive.) Finally, do you have enough water, or the likely ability to filter water to last you through the night. Keep in mind that in hot/humid conditions you are going to drink more water and in very cold conditions you are more likely to have your water freeze and be unable to drink it.
4. Get trained in wilderness first aid! Weekend long wilderness first aid courses are available all over the country and will give you the skills and the confidence to help yourself, your friends or even strangers who may get injured in the mountains.
5. Always have an energy reserve. As ultra-runners we like to be exhausted but in the remote wilderness, exhaustion can mean the difference between life and death. Train properly and eat and drink adequately throughout your adventure. Always have enough energy that you can reasonably avoid hypothermia or dehydration should you be unable to move OR the energy reserves to run out quickly for help.
6. Gear I always carry:
a. Garmin InReach Mini
b. Sawyer Mini Squeeze water filter
c. Petzl Actik headlamp with fully charged batteries
d. A map of the area
e. A basic first aid kit which includes KT tape, waterproof matches, needle/thread, and an emergency blanket
f. Enough layers so I could survive the night (always a buff and a change of socks).
g. Water and electrolytes appropriate for the distance between water sources
h. 200 calories per hour (expected finish time) plus and additional 200-500 calories.
As ultra-runners we spend a lot of time on the trail and in the mountains. It is our responsibility to be able to care for ourselves and our friends. Thankfully, we live in a time where we don’t need to compromise warmth and safety for weight. Invest in good, lightweight gear and before any adventure ask yourself “would I be able to survive the night?”