Some years back I bored the handful of readers that my now defunct personal blog had acquired with random walks through the conceptual space of this slippery thing called running. As it turns out, no one was much interested in my pointless efforts to explore the fuzzy boundaries between
running and walking, climbing, dancing, parkour, track and trail, solitude and companionship, and all the rest that makes one kind of running a different animal from the other.
Pointless I learned because runners take their preferred kind of running (and they may have several) be it chasing middle distance PBs on the track, setting FKTs on some super technical mountain traverse, emptying or focusing their cluttered minds during a jog, or one of the many others, for
granted. No one cares that there are countless other kinds, let alone kindred but differently labelled pursuits.
However, even with this lesson in my back pocket, I feel that answering the title question cannot get around a bit of stage setting (no pun intended) because not only are multi-stage races still something of an outlier (so many of you may not have participated in any before), but quite a variety of very different events hide under this term, so if this is not your first that doesn’t necessarily mean you know what a different multistage is like.
What is a multi-stage race?
To understand what kind of multi-stage the Manaslu Trail Race is, the topic of the second post in this mini-series, requires delving into differences between the family members of this tribe. But obviously there are commonalities too, the term exists for a reason, so let’s start off with those.
Most multi-stage races could in theory be organized as a single stage continuous race. Some of the shorter ones, 3 days of 25 km each, would make for a “short” ultra one day event, the majority, including the Manaslu Trail Race cover distances in the 100 miler, e.g. the UTMB, order of
magnitude. Longer ones exist but are rare.
Breaking up the distance
Most multi-stage events, given their kind of terrain, break up the total distance into quite doable – for the average non-elite enthusiast – daily distances, which is telling because it shows that they prioritize participants’ ability to take in the environment. Unless one is able to perform at (close to)
elite level 100 milers on trails, especially when in the mountains or deserts, and on technical trails, are a 50% running at night experience. The multi-stage version allows you to fully enjoy the landscapes you traverse.
Same distance, same landscape, much less pain
On top of that, for most doing a normal 100 miler means visiting the pain cave (not heard of it? google Courtney Dauwalter who made the term famous), struggles with food and fluid intake, sleep deprivation, and worse. For many that is the point of doing the 100 miler, but it is not the best way
to experience the environment you run through.
Obviously that doesn’t imply the racing is therefore any less intense, just different. Those full on going for the podium in a multi-stage event race every day for several hours but have ample time to recover and refuel, physically and mentally, and don’t need to work through (all) their lows during
the actual running. Depending on the kind of runner you are, multi-day faster running is not necessarily easier than a continuous slow run over the total distance. Speed hurts, ask any track runner.
Intense experience, for longer
A second thing they have in common is that the format speaks to what makes long distance walking trails such a natural attractor for those loving the outdoors: getting up in the morning for again another day of the same, but different nevertheless because of new sights, sounds, smells etc., and then another day, and another, a routine building up quicker than you could have imagined, a camaraderie with fellow travelers that would take forever at home. Compared to the short-term adrenaline and dopamine kicks on offer in our daily environments (at least for most of us) this kind
of extended high intensity experience goes deeper, and feels more genuine, for some even transformative and is more memorable than most one-off “normal” highlights.
How is the challenge distributed?
With this out of the way, differences between multi-stage races are largely based on how difficult they make (some of) the daily runs. By including one or more really long days, an example being the 80 km stage of the well known Marathon des Sables (MdS) and/or by making participants carry all they need for the whole event on their back, again MdS, and/or weather conditions and terrain that guarantees serious physical discomfort if not worse for most, again MdS, rest or no rest, one can ensure a pain cave experience.
All of this does not mean that the multi-stages that stay this side of the extreme are easy, don’t wear you down, or are going to be pain free. Even with sufficient opportunity for rest and recovery, getting enough food in remains a serious challenge, and fatigue does build up. But for nearly everyone they’ll include enough recovery to make the most of each day, enjoy the environment they are in and even explore it beyond what the daily stages have to offer.
Multi-stage races vs fastpacking
One way to think about these “normal” multi-stages races is to compare it with fastpacking the same route. Most will transport anything you don’t need during the daily stage to the next sleeping place, which allows you to cover the distance, terrain allowing, running, and thus in a much shorter time. Most will look after you with accommodation and food rather than you having to deal with that yourself at the end of a long day. In return you get the advantages of fastpacking, i.e. covering about twice as much ground in a day than a “normal” day of walking would provide you, thus allowing to do routes that would cost the average walker a lot more time.
A race for the smartest
And of top of that they offer you the challenge of a race, enticing you to get the best out of yourself, which is a great way to make the whole experience way more intense and memorable than it might
have been otherwise, all in the company of like-minded fellow travelers. And it is the kind of race that doesn’t necessarily favour the overall fastest, but the overall smartest participants, who manage to pace themselves best and look after themselves best.
My personal summary is that if your primary motivation for enjoying long trails is to challenge yourself while having maximum opportunity to take in the environment around you, and do it in a way that guarantees an intense experience, doing a multi-stages race like the Manaslu Trail Race is for you.
Which brings me to the topic for the second post: Among the many stage races on offer, why run the Manaslu Trail Race?