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I consider myself relatively intelligent and moderately tough… although, to be honest, who doesn’t think that about themselves?

But when it comes to ultras, I freely admit that I often feel dumb and weak. My 0-for-2 record in 100-milers shows that I’m still trying to figure out how to train my body properly, how to keep a strong mindset when out on the course, and how to handle the challenges that inevitably arise in long races. While some of those challenges are well-known and easy to plan for, some are going to depend on the unique characteristics of the race itself.

And the first time participating in a particular race (or even running on a new trail in training) always seems much more stressful and challenging to me than subsequent attempts. After I’ve done that first run on a new course and some of the mystery is gone, the whole thing feels a lot more relaxed and do-able when I head back out on it later.

Unfortunately, sometimes the races I enter are too far from home to preview on my own, so I try to get myself more comfortable heading into an event for the first time through other runners’ race reports. In many cases, race reports can help me better understand some of the specific challenges a course presents, and to therefore be less surprised (and less stressed) when those unique challenges pop up. A well-written race report might be able to help me avoid the some problems altogether, and could potentially help make the difference between finishing and DNF-ing.

In my mind, the best race reports are those in which the writer answers at least a few of the following questions:

 

  • In facing a difficult stretch, what would you have done differently?
  • What portion of the course was most challenging?
  • What portions of the course were significantly easier (or harder) than anticipated?
  • Were any of the aid stations low on supplies?
  • Were any of the stated distances between aid stations off by a significant amount?
  • Is there any piece of gear you wish you’d had available?
  • Was there any gear you used that turned out being completely unnecessary?
  • Were there any issues with course marking?
  • How busy was the trail with other users?
  • Were there any parts of the course where navigation was especially challenging?
  • How much did your pace slow over the last half of the race?
  • How were the trail conditions?
  • Were any portions of the course rocky or sandy or root-y?

 

Since I don’t use a crew or pacers, getting a heads-up on potential issues can help me prepare my drop bags in the most efficient way possible. For example, reading race reports for the Black Canyon 100k made me more aware of sun and heat problems than I might face, which has led to me setting up my drop bags with more sunscreen, better hydration planning, and different choices in clothing. Having more information has made my stress level drop a bit heading into race day.

Not all race reports are valuable, of course. In general, knowingly or not, most of us tend to write race reports either with an audience of other runners in mind, or for our non-running friends and family. Even within that more useful first category there is further differentiation — I’ve found that race reports from front-of-the-pack runners are generally less useful to me than those from runners closer to my own skill level. But when someone takes the time to write about their experiences in an accessible and pragmatic manner, I’m very appreciative. So when I write race reports I try to do so in a way that will help future runners entering the race for the first time.

It would be a great testament to my adaptability and sense of adventure if I could simply sign up for a race, train a lot, and then show up on race morning without any detailed information about what the race course has in store. In reality, though, I need to supplement my modest running abilities with knowledge and planning.

What’s your view on race reports? Has reading one before a race ever had a significant positive or negative impact on your performance or experience?