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Tutorial: Create a pace chart for an ultra marathon

This is part of a multi-post tutorial on creating a pace chart for an ultra marathon. Start with the Introduction, or skip to a specific section:


During every ultra marathon, I carry with me a homemade pace chart that looks something like this:

My pace chart, so that I know how far it is to future landmarks and how long it should take. I based my splits on last year’s winner, plus 5 percent after factoring in course changes.

My process and end-result continually evolve, due to past learnings and to the particularities of the next race. But I feel confident now in sharing a framework for creating a pace chart for an ultra marathon.

Ultras versus road & track

In a traditional race on the road or a track (e.g. mile, 10k, marathon), normally there is little variability in pace, because the terrain, footing, weather, daylight, and elevation remain relatively constant. As an example, in April at the Boston Marathon, my fastest mile was 5:26 minutes/mile and slowest was 6:11, with an average of 5:48.

Moreover, traditional road races have predictable split locations, e.g. every 400 meters, or every mile.

In contrast, most ultra marathon courses have extreme variability: pavement, gravel, singletrack, and cross-country; dry, muddy, and river crossings; daylight and darkness; and flats, moderate grades, and heartbreaking steeps.

In addition to the variability in the course, another factor has a dramatic effect on pace: fatigue. With few exceptions, ultra runners lack sufficient endurance to maintain a consistent pace throughout the race. Instead, the winner is the speediest runner who slows down the least.

Due to the course variability and fatigue factor, paces vary wildly throughout an ultra. Last year at the San Juan Solstice 50M, for example, my fastest mile was 7:20 minutes/mile and slowest was 20:23, with an average of 11:20.

The mile-by-mile uniqueness of each ultra course makes impossible any reliable apples-to-apples comparisons between two races. For every race, a unique pace chart is needed.

Benefits of a pace chart

Creating a pace chart takes some time. But I think it’s worthwhile for anyone who wishes to maximize their performance, whether you’re at the front or the back.

1. Pacing

Most ultra runners start too fast and hemorrhage time later in the race. A pace chart acts as a governor in the early miles, which improves your odds of a strong finish, or perhaps just a finish.

A pace chart gives you the confidence to run your own pace without feeling pressured by the momentum of the field. Essentially, your pace chart will say, “You don’t suck. Everyone else is just too excited and running too fast. You’ll catch many of them later.”

2. Resupplying

A good pace chart will show the distance and estimated time to the next aid station, and the cumulative time to get to each major landmark on the course. This data informs decisions about how much food and water to leave with, and where to pick up new equipment like a headlamp, extra clothing, or fresh pair of shoes. By carrying a pace chart print-out, you don’t have to remember these numbers or rely on course signage.

3. Crewing

A pace chart can easily be adapted into a Crew Chart, which might look like this:

Crew chart from Run Rabbit Run, which was a huge help to Amanda.

It helps the crew determine when and where they should expect to meet their runner(s), and decide how much time they have between points if they are contemplating a middle-of-the-night snooze or a challenging drive between two points.

4. Familiarity

Even if I didn’t carry the pace chart with me, I feel that the process helps me to prepare for the race. It forces me to study the maps and course profile, consider the weather at various points along the trail, and identify prospective spots to make a move and pull away from the competition. Due to the pace chart, I am a more informed and confident racer.

Equipment

To maximize the value of a pace chart in an ultra marathon, I highly recommend a GPS sport watch like the Suunto Ambit3 Peak. A simple watch is usable, but a GPS watch will display current and average pace, lap and cumulative distances, elevation, vertical gain and loss, and current and average heart rate. This data is immensely beneficial.

Wearing the watch is not quite enough, though. Make sure to change your display settings so that relevant data is shown.

A framework, not step-by-step instructions

Creating a pace chart for an ultra marathon requires at least moderate analytical skills and spreadsheet know-how. I wish that I could offer a pace chart template that could be adapted to each race, but the uniqueness of each race and the limited availability of data are challenging obstacles.

If you undertake this process, please recognize this tutorial for what it is — a framework, not step-by-step instructions — and prepare to be creative with your approach. At the end of the day, you only need something that is functionally accurate. Ultimately, you will run your own race.

One Response to Tutorial: Create a pace chart for an ultra marathon

  1. Adam St.Pierre June 13, 2017 at 9:45 pm #

    Andrew- thanks for the shout out to this essential component of ultra race prep. A pace chart is a great way to mentally prepare for a race and I do them for all my competitions (as well as for athletes I coach). I’ve found that by studying the course profile and using past training data for runs mimicking parts the course you are preparing for, one can estimate with a fair degree of accuracy how fast he/she will cover each split. For some athletes using the past winner’s split plus a % may not be a great method, in particular athletes who may not be quite at your competitive level (although there may be great insights to be gained from mimicking an athlete who does well on a course as using winner’s time + a %). Best of luck at Bighorn and UTMB!

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