Before I start this, I suggest you read my race report from Monarchs Way 2019 first, as it will give you a bit of background and insight into how I found it and what I went through. Obviously, any tactic I suggest is tailored to my slow, back-of-the-pack style of running – if you’re quick then a lot of this probably won’t be for you.
I’ve split my advice into 3 areas…physical, mental, and kit.
Good news! This race isn’t about being able to run a sub-3 hour marathon, a sub-20 hour 100 miler, or a 15 minute park run. In fact, while I think a good pace for the first 50 miles is critical to create a buffer against the cut-offs, after that you can probably get by with a strong fast-hike (and not much sleep).
As always, the starting point of the pace requirements starts with the numbers. I created a spreadsheet for the 2018 runners to show their paces across the various leg, versus the cut-offs. This showed fairly clearly that the three finishers were not the fastest, but the most consistent. Everyone lost time on the two long legs (8 & 9) because they were out there for so long, but the buffer that had been built up was adequate to allow a finish. This is the link to my spreadsheet: HERE and although it may take a little time to understand the various tabs along the bottom, it should hopefully be fairly self-explanatory. You will also see my planned timings for the 2019 race, and the actual timings for all the finishers. (Its a pretty sizeable file, so may take a while to load).
So, physically, you don’t have to be a beast to finish the Monarchs Way (unless you want to win), however, that does not mean it is easy. In fact, I would say that more important than huge levels of running fitness is experience. If you have completed one or two 100 milers, and think you are ready for a crack at Monarchs Way…you’re not. That is not to say you definitely won’t finish, but the odds are against you. I would politely suggest that the next step up from a 100 mile run is to a 200-250 mile race (such as Thames Ring 250), which will give you 3-4 days on your feet on a safe (easier) route, and will give you a taste of the sleep-deprivation you can expect. Foot problems will likely rear their head on a 250 mile race, as well as some dodgy weather, which will all be good practice. A few races in January will give you confidence in poor conditions, as well as spending a lot of time in the dark! Obviously, moving at night is an integral part of the Monarchs Way, so familiarity and confidence no matter how lost you feel is really critical (as well as being able to bivvy out (sleep out) if required).
On the surface, travelling 45ish miles each day and sleeping at the checkpoint every night sounds easy…you need to trust me that its not that simple. The ability to fast-hike (i.e. walk) at 3 or 4 mph for 18 hours is an acquired one, a bit like running I suppose, so takes time and training. The training will toughen your legs and feet to resist the stiffness and damage that will inevitably settle into them. Being able to run well does not automatically mean you can fast-hike (and vice-versa).
Foot care, as you will have seen form my race report, is an acquired knowledge…buy a book and read it! I’m not convinced you can always avoid foot deterioration, but you can definitely treat it.
I’m quite dismissive about the physical side of the race to be honest, I think that if you have bashed out a few long races in tough conditions, then you have a rough idea of what to expect. But you need to trust me when I say that one Centurian 100 miler does not (physically) qualify you to finish this race.
How much do you want to finish? What is your motivation for being there? What is your ‘why’?
I can guarantee that at some point in the Monarchs Way, over the 12 to 14 days it will take you, something will go wrong that will give you real motivation for wanting to stop. You will experience a low that is unlike anything you have experienced before. What will take you past that?
I can tell you about the time I learned that I can put up with serious discomfort, during a race I did in January 2017, called the Arc of Attrition. It is a fairly simple 100 miler, but follows the South West Coastal Path, and has enormous amounts of descending down into coves and bays, and then climbing back up on the other side. I had covered 70 miles, reached the last checkpoint in 20 hours, with about 30 minutes to spare. I was absolutely shattered, stomach issues preventing me from eating anything for fuel, and I was totally understanding how much the next 30 miles were going to drain me. I had a brilliant crew and was running with my running wife John (who had waited an hour for me to arrive at the checkpoint) which made the whole experience easier, but as I left the checkpoint, I had to tell myself that I could put up with any amount of discomfort for the next 10 hours / 30 miles. And I did.
So it was a simple extension of this to reach the point in the Monarchs Way where I told myself I could put up with any amount of discomfort for the next 5 days. But I do not know whether I would have reached that conclusion without putting myself through some rough experiences in the past.
The reason most ultra runners enjoy putting themselves up against a challenge is because modern life is (relatively) easy much of the time. There are complications and ‘boring’ stuff like morgages to deal with, but provided that everyone around you is healthy, a lot of modern-day living does not put you in a place where you have to decide between going forward and retreating. An ultra, done well, allows this to happen.
If you have mastered the above mental challenge, the rest is easy!
Can you be self-sufficient for long stretches on your own? The checkpoints are 45 miles apart, so you will be on your own for over 12 hours (at the start), up to 24 hours by the end. The are some shops and villages along each leg, but not as many as you will need. Personally, I love the solitude, both in the day and at night, which is something of a help. The more you carry, the slower you will go, so a light pack is essential…but running out of water and food is not really an option, so you need to know yourself well enough to judge what you require.
A flexible approach to your race sounds like an obvious statement, but I frequently come across people that tell me exactly when they will be eating/sleeping and they struggle to change their plans when things go south (and things always go wrong). Mending something on the move sounds obvious, but making sure you have the necessary parts is much harder. For example, I always used to put a few strips of duct tape onto walking poles, to distinguish them from other peoples…until I broke one and used the tape to fix it. Every since, I’ve always had some strips of duct tape on my poles for this or any other purpose. Being able to problem-solve is a really useful attribute.
The mental approach to the distance is also (I found) critical. It is easy to say “don’t think of the whole distance, just a leg at a time” but rather harder to do it in practice. However, you will be out on the trail for days, so some kind of ‘distance’ strategy is required.
Planning ahead, knowing where your next village or shop is, will be hugely useful. I spent a few hours going over the route on google maps looking for signs of civilisation, and being able to look forward to a meal in a few hours time is hugely motivating. Similarly, churches usually have an outside tap for water when shops are closed.
Recce any sections that you can, as it will give you an advantage on the day. I would say the two long sections would be most useful to know beforehand, but others will probably disagree with that. I did not get the chance to recce at all, so it is not critical.
Have a good list of what you need to do when you get to the checkpoint, as it will serve you well when your brain has turned to mush. It does not need to be huge, but if it lists all the important stuff it will give you confidence that you have not forgotten anything. Mine included:
MW Checkpoint checklist
Shoes & socks off. Wipe down feet. Dry.
Newspaper into shoes.
New batteries? Replen spare batteries?
Lie out bivvy to dry?
Get rid of rubbish.
New charging block.
Put stuff onto charge. Headtorch, watch, phone, blocks.
Wipe down all over.
Fill water. Fill flask.
Scrape feet. Vaseline. Socks & shoes. Gaiters.
News shorts? Long trousers? New top?
Clean buff. Hat. Gloves. Warm hat & gloves?
I could go on about the mental preparations for the Monarchs Way, as I think it is the most important factor (as for most ultras) but I won’t.
Shoes – at least 4 pairs, as it will take days for them to dry out from the dew on the long grass in the mornings. I used innov-8 roclite 325’s (boots), but learnt that they are not padded enough underneath after 6 or 7 days hence some of my foot pain. Most other runners had hoka’s or similar. I put newspaper into my shoes while they were drying, which was simple but seemed to work well.
Socks- whatever is your preference. I used Injinji liner toe socks, and then a normal pair on top (usually More Miles crew socks). For the waterproof socks I always use Sealskinz, but there is a variety of different makes that others swear by too.
Gaiters – my hardcore set are Berghaus goretex gaiters, and are made for winter races. However, they stopped anything whatsoever getting into my shoes and were also semi-waterproof.
Long hiking trousers – Montane terra trousers did me really well. Quick drying but great protection for the legs in long shrubbery.
Waterproofs – Berghaus deluge trousers, and Mountain Equipment Rupal jacket. The trousers are great because due to a long zip up the side you can put them on over your shoes. The jacket is simply bomb-proof and has got me through some serious weather. I started off carrying a thin lightweight Gravitas jacket by Alpkit, which would keep me warm and reasonably dry, but as time went on and I got slower, I changed to the hardshell as warmth would become critical.
Something on your head for hot & wet weather.
Poles – I have a nice pair of mountain king poles, but for Monarchs Way I wanted something with really comfortable handles…hence I used a pair of cheap (but heavy) poles by Trekrite from Amazon…a bargain at only twenty pounds.
Charging blocks – I managed to keep my gps watch, phone, and head torch all charged throughout the event, using charging blocks that would themselves be recharged periodically by Lindley. I used ones at 20,000mAh, which would contain about 5 full charges for my phone before dying. I would carry one with me, and have one being charged by Lindley throughout. I believe Anker ones are the best, but I just used cheap ones from Amazon.
Food – it really doesn’t matter, as long as you know you will enjoy it after days and days of eating it. As I learned, there’s only so many days you can eat the same thing. Take more than you think you will need, as the checkpoint food is great but limited.
GPS – everyone seemed to have Garmin Etrex 30 or 64. Get used to using it beforehand (they can be quite tricky), especially zooming in and out to make sense of the GRX track you are following. Do not try to use your phone or a watch (or a map, unless far more talented than me) as it won’t work!
Headtorch – I used a Petzl nao+, but anything with a decent amount of lumens will work. And carry a spare!
Bivvy – as part of the mandatory kit, a bivvy bag was one of the heavier bits of kit. I had an Alpkit Hunka bag with me, but did not actually use it, as it was not cold enough or wet enough to need it. It was reassuring to have it with me though.