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How to plan your own ultra or self supported adventure

Photo credit: @lukejarmey

How to plan your own ultra or self supported adventure


Last updated: 25-Sep-17

By Andy Mouncey

You don’t have to pay for the privilege of a race number to have an ultra-distance adventure. Sure, it’s easier to just rock up after someone else has done the donkey work for you, promise to play by their rules, hand over the cash and then give it your best shot – but after you’ve done that for a wee while strange things start to happen (in some of us at least).

Confidence builds. Curiosity bubbles. We get to know what we like about racing and what we don’t.
And we start to wonder how else we might get the challenge-pride-fun trail-fix we need until we find ourselves pondering The Great Adventure Question:

‘Well, What If I Just Made This S**t Up Instead?’

Think of the advantages:

  • Go – or don’t go – when you want
  • You can cut it short without earning a DNF
  • No entry fees
  • Don’t have to wait for anybody
  • No-one will check your kit and inform you that you can’t start ‘cos those lovely lightweight overtrousers are about as much use in the mountains as a…
  • No rules – well, apart from public access, the requirement to be kind and courteous to the folks you meet on the way AND TAKE YOUR STUFF HOME WITH YOU
  • Don’t have to run with some muppet who just won’t shut up
  • Don’t have to suffer being tail-gated by the navigationally-challenged
  • You can stop at cafes and without a race number no-one will think you are covering for being lost or are just not trying hard enough
  • No well-intentioned but hopelessly misguided spectators shouting “you look great” when you don’t and “it’s not far to go now” when clearly it is

Inevitably of course, there is a flip side:

  • No-one will hang a medal round your neck at the end
  • There’ll be none of those nice checkpoints to look forward to
  • You’ll have to sort your own feet out
  • And your navigation
  • And your route-planning
  • The only applause you’ll hear will be in your own head
  • You can’t ever say you missed a turn ‘cos some race saboteur moved a marker
  • And you’ll be forced to think of some cunning way to open a conversation with a total stranger at the end so you can talk about what you’ve just done

Doing Your Due Diligence

Unless you have no responsibilities, no close personal relationships and have perfected the art of living off the grid, it’s just downright selfish and irresponsible to head out the door – assuming you have one, of course – with little more than a literal or metaphorical ‘I’m going out and I might be some time’ goodbye. Some homework is required and doing at least some of the following will, I suggest, simply add to the quality of your experience.

Do I Want To Be Alone?

Well, do you? Or will this be a sharing thing?

And if it is to be the latter remember the one guiding recruitment principle: No Muppets.

Choose people who are a bit like you, value what you value, laugh at stuff you laugh at, folks who have complimentary skills and experience and are just good to be around.

Start Simple

Self-reliance is key and confidence is the currency. So, if this all new to you, a starting adventure could just be to head out one evening, sleep on a hill and be back before the world wakes up. You’ll have a smug factor off the scale all day, I promise you.

Where On Earth?

This is an easy one - choose somewhere that inspires you.

With this readership we can reasonably add ‘challenging’ and (whisper it softly) ‘fun’ to the list. That could be a familiar or a new place or route. And if it is familiar then tackling it like this makes it new all over again.

When On Earth?

Day? Night? Spring-Summer-Autumn-Winter? And then there are the real world practicalities:

  • Weekday or weekends?
  • School term or holiday time?
  • In/out of the busy periods at work?

And what have you got on the day/after you come back? Straight back into childcare or that crucial teleconference at 2am Berlin time for the European sales division?

Your final window of opportunity will inevitably be a combination of what you want to do and what you need to do (to keep others happy).

Unless you live in a van, have a secret trust fund and hop at will from trailhead to trailhead, of course.

How Together Is My S**T?

This is where you look in the mirror and do the honest assessment bit:

  • Can you look after your feet without having to refer to YouTube
  • Do you regard a map as a help or a hindrance?
  • How bad would it be if your favourite gadgets failed?

Essentially, you are doing a Skills Audit set against the nature of the challenge ahead – and while you want it to be a challenge you don’t want it to be a hopeless mismatch that scars you for life and badly frightens your nearest and dearest.

So get real and be honest. You might have to start with something else.

Kit To Die For – Or Die With (or Without)

Do you have the toys you need and how tried and tested are they?

Are you competent in their use?

And if something broke or you didn’t have it, would it just be funny or would you probably die a needless, lonely death?

Remember there are no other competitors coming up behind you and no course sweeper picking up the fallen. So, if the worst comes to the worst and you are stuck, you do need to consider your ‘Get Out Of Jail’ items:

Stay Safe: Emergency text option where phone signal is weak/non existent. In the UK this is Emergency SMS and your phone needs to be registered in advance of your trip. Other countries will have their own service.

Stay Warm: Bivvy bag and emergency food; emergency food means if all goes well you will bring it home un-used; stove and/or firelighting kit.

Stay Intact: If you are injured and immobile one of the greatest dangers is leaking body fluids – blood being the key. You want to keep the stuff from the inside on the inside. That means a first aid kit and the skills to use it.

This clip is from Barclay Marathons’ veteran Gary Robbins. It’s top-end kit for serious self-supported jaunts but you can take the principles and scale accordingly. 

I Am Going Out – I Might Be Some Time – And Here’s Where I’m Going & For How Long

Creating a route summary with approximate timings is not only good discipline for you in that it forces you to examine the terrain stage by stage, but it also provides reassurance for your Significant Other and, if things go south, will help the emergency services find you. That means you make two copies and you walk and talk your SO through it before departure.

Find Folks Who Have Done What You Want To Do

A fast-track to learning is to find someone who has been where you want to go and get all forensic with your analysis. These days that usually means that they have posted something on line that’s easy to reference. Not only can it be an inspiring exercise in its own right, but you will usually find some patterns and trends there that you can use in your own planning i.e.:

  1. When stuff goes accordingly to plan there are usually good reasons for that.
  2. When stuff goes south there are also usually very good reasons for that.

Here are two folks who most definitely went out for a very, very long time…

Sean Conway 

Rosie Swale Pope

There are surprisingly few genuine adventure ‘firsts’ left in this world. And while Ranulph Fiennes has done most of them, this also means that someone, somewhere has done what you want to do or at least got damn close.

All of which means that most of the answers to most of the questions you will ever need to ask about your own challenge are already out there. You just need to do your due diligence so that you have a trip you remember for all the right reasons.

Who Is Andy Mouncey?
Andy is author of ‘So You Want To Run An Ultra’ and writes the training plans for RunUltra. He runs long for fun and coaches for a living. He lives with his family in North Yorkshire, UK. 

Your Comments On How to plan your own ultra or self supported adventure

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11:09 25-09-17

We're glad you enjoyed it! Check out some more of Andy's articles on here, some real crackers!

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02:00 25-09-17

An excellent article! Thanks very much