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Mixed bag: UTMB performance assessment || Perils of racing conservatively

Just twelve hours after finishing UTMB in Chamonix, Amanda and I split for the second half of our vacation, in Provence, hence the delay in post-UTMB coverage. For my sake, I hope to post it all this week before my guided trips start on Sunday and my recollection fades.

I placed 34th at UTMB, with a finishing time of 24:44:07. That’s respectable, given that it was the most talented field in the history of ultrarunning, and that the 104-mile course had 31,000 vertical feet of climbing.

But relative to my potential, my performance feels so-so. And it certainly fell short of my expectations. On an exceptional day, I thought top-10 was possible, and top-20 seemed likely if I ran strong. (In hindsight, top-15 and top-25 would have been more appropriate, since there were ahistorically few DNF’s.)

For 1.5 years I’d invested an extraordinary amount of time, energy, and expense into preparing for UTMB, so I’m a bit disappointed that my performance wasn’t magical. On my flight back across the Atlantic I’d hoped to feel as I did after Leadville in 2008, Run Rabbit in 2015, or Boston in April.

Being too hard on myself

There are some reasons to be pleased:

1. It felt near max

At the finish there was unused gas in the tank, but not much, and it could have been depleted if there’d been more runners within striking distance at the end. (Instead, when I left the final aid station, Vallorcine with 11 miles to go, the next vulnerable runner was 28 minutes up.)

2. Seed vs finish

Based on ITRA rankings, I was seeded 93rd, but finished 34th, meaning that I outperformed my seed by a net 59 spots. A few DNS’s helped my cause, but relative to the field I raced better than past performances suggested I would.

3. Patience, patience, patience

At the first timing checkpoint, Le Delevret (Mi 8.5), I was in 128th place. Over the next 96 miles I steadily gained 94 net spots. One-hundred mile races reward patience.

A steady improvement in my placement throughout the race

4. Not chicked

Versus the world’s best female ultra runners, I’m usually a little bit faster, though not always, and I usually spend some portion of the race behind the top women. The first two females, Nuria Picas and Andrea Huser, finished about an hour back.

Note: There’s been some pushback against the phrase, “getting chicked” (see the comments), and since I don’t plan to change it I’ll at least explain my take on it. In my running circles, this phrase has been used as a simple measure of performance, because for sub-elite men like me the comparison to elite women is more telling than the comparison to elite men. Shame on men who make this comment out of embarrassment by being beat or passed by a female who is more talented, fitter, harder working, or having a better day.

5. Better than it looks

The low number of DNF’s among the elite men made cracking the top 10 or top 20 unusually difficult. And while was the course was shortened slightly, times were slowed by mud, limited visibility, and frequent layering transitions due to intermittent precip.

But, it wasn’t magical

Why am I not thrilled with my performance?

1. Spanked by the elites.

The winner, Francois D’Haene, finished in 19:01, an embarrassing difference of 5:43, or 3.5 minutes per mile. That gap is insurmountable even if I was a full-time professional runner, knew the course intimately, and was on a world-class PED program. It’s humbling to witness the inferiority of my God-given talent.

2. Never mixed it up with the elites.

Besides Sage Canady and Jason Schlarb, who had off days, I didn’t beat or even temporarily match strides with any of the US elites. You can’t become one if you don’t run with them.

3. Low average HR.

My average HR was 121 bpm, which is significantly lower than my last best 100-mile effort, Run Rabbit (127 bpm), and surprisingly lower than Bighorn 100 (123 bpm), which was sub-max. Quantifiably, this indicates that I ran below my physical capacity.

4. Poor ITRA score.

The Performance Index establishes apples-to-apples comparisons across races and between runners. My 24:44 was given a score of 727, which is one of my lowest scores ever, even lower than decidedly disappointing performances like Bighorn, Silverheels, or Golden Gate.

What happened?

If UTMB hadn’t been my apex race or if my calendar had an obvious next endeavor, I’d more quickly and more easily get over it and move on. But that wasn’t the case, so let me dwell.

1. Training

My fitness does not explain a so-so performance. I was in the best ultra fitness of my life, as evidenced by my workouts: this summer I set a new FKT on Pawnee-Buchanan and new PR’s at will on oft-run segments. Under David Roach’s guidance, I was peaking at just the right time.

2. Minor strains

Part of my struggle was physical handicapping. I strained my left calf on the ascent of Col du Bonhumme (Mi 25), which left me with restricted range of motion and fearful of it blowing up completely. My psoas muscles (i.e. hip flexors) were also tight for about half the race, further hindering my stride.

Four full days after the race, my right leg was back to normal, but my left calf was still noticeably swollen.

3. Race strategy

But I think the real flaw was my conservative race strategy. My race was textbook cute: I started slow, caught many runners who went out too fast, and looked strong at the finish.

But it lacked the deep suffering that’s necessary for a career performance. If I’d gone out faster, I most certainly would have been worse for wear in the final half or quarter, and maybe even DNF’d. But if I could hold on I would have been carried to a better time: I’d have utilized the faster momentum of the elite field, and would have been more psyched that I was in the mix. Instead, I mostly floated in No Man’s Land, passed quickly those who had fallen off the back, and wondered what was happening at the front.

I wrote and posted this assessment before speaking with David, and his independent assessment of my race was consistent with mine, especially in the faulting of my race strategy. In an email, he offered some additional insight:

I agree with most of your assessment. However, I honestly think a big part of it was poor advice from me that messed up the race early. The problem was that UTMB 2017 will go down in history as the first time a mountain 100 was a true race. And in true races, you can’t get disconnected from the field and have big goals at the same time. I am proud of you for how you fought, and 34th is still amazing there. But that ceiling was right, and I just treated this like the pre-UTMB 2017 world.

You had a top-10 in you on the perfect day, but it would have required GOING FOR IT in a way that would mean a 50/50 shot of finishing. It’s like throwing a bunch of eggs at the wall — a few might not break. Those unbroken eggs survived at that top effort from gun to tape. The problem is that the gaps were big given the terrain. At Western States, which is a much faster 100-miler, a runner who falls back early can come back because the gap isn’t huge. At UTMB, that same conservative start resulted in you being hours back early in the race, which is almost impossible to make up. Jeff Browning had a similar experience to you, but about 2 hours faster. Normally he finishes very close to the leaders by closing hard, but that same race strategy didn’t yield the same result at UTMB.

UTMB 2018?

Do I have unfinished business at UTMB? Yes. But I need to ponder my broader one- and two-year goals before committing to that. About two years ago I decided to utilize the remaining years of my physical prime by investing myself fully in endurance running. I’ve done that, and now must decide whether I should double-down or whether I should find another place to play.

40 Responses to Mixed bag: UTMB performance assessment || Perils of racing conservatively

  1. Steve Sims September 12, 2017 at 4:11 pm #

    My vote is a sub 2:30 attempt next year. By traveling some during the winter and doing some 15-30k road races you will optimize the great base you have. One mans opinion.

    • Andrew Skurka September 12, 2017 at 4:19 pm #

      I would like to die knowing that I went under 2:30…

      Boston’s not a fast course, but the hometown vibe probably make it the best candidate, no? Or maybe hedge bets and get two on the calendar?

      • Steve Sims September 12, 2017 at 5:22 pm #

        Grandma’s in Duluth in June might be a good back up for Boston having lousy weather. Point to point down the Lake Superior coastline. Check out the weather and course.

      • Randi Young September 13, 2017 at 11:10 am #

        St. George is a good fast course!

      • Mike Varieur September 13, 2017 at 11:29 am #

        Hey Andrew. I ran 2:30 in BAA (1984) and think the course is a quite fast. For a fit runner who gets some good downhill training in. Risk with Boston is the weather, coming out of winter you could get a hot day.. could mess things up. Might need a plan b if you see heat in the forecast. And if u get cool temps and a tail wind, you’re gonna p.r.! Good luck whatever you do!

        • Andrew Skurka September 13, 2017 at 11:34 am #

          That was the story last year, f’ing hot. Was in 2:30 shape but had to settle for 2:32.

          Love Boston crowds and it’s my hometown race, so it probably will be my pick.

          • Mike Varieur September 14, 2017 at 12:59 pm #

            In the 7 or so times I’ve run it, the crowds are the best anywhere! Big plus!

  2. Steve Babler September 12, 2017 at 5:52 pm #

    “Not Chicked”?!? WTF? To me that term is just offensive,misogynistic slang that no one needs to use. Granted, I am not an ultrarunner, and may be missing some context here. But when I read that, I thought, ” Wow, I read this blog because he is generally very articulate, measured and informative, but here he comes off like just another bro.” Disappointing.

    • Andrew Skurka September 12, 2017 at 6:14 pm #

      I think you’re missing context and being too sensitive. The elite women are amazingly good, and given my talent they’re a telling benchmark about how I performed.

      • Steve Babler September 12, 2017 at 7:37 pm #

        Maybe I am being to sensitive, and missing the context. Tone is lost on the page. But a quick search running blogs written by women turns up quotes like “I hate this phrase. It represents every insult of the collective frustration I’ve accrued over years and years of dealing with sexism in sports”
        https://www.womenswilderness.org/from-blog-headquarters/ultrarunning-money-biological-sex/
        and “I absolutely hate the term “getting chicked.”https://www.google.com/amp/s/fitisafeministissue.com/2014/05/16/on-getting-chicked-and-why-strong-female-cyclists-need-to-have-sympathy-for-the-guys-guest-post/amp/
        Certainly it’s a controversial term to some. So far we’ve only hears from guys. Any ladies out there willing to share their thoughts regarding this?

        • Andrew Skurka September 12, 2017 at 7:53 pm #

          In both articles you site, they believe that “getting chicked” implies some level of embarrassment for the male. I don’t see it that way, and I don’t know why any man would be embarrassed about being beat or passed by a woman who is more talented, harder working, or simply having a better day. Shame on men who feel that way, get over it.

          • Anne September 13, 2017 at 8:34 am #

            The “not chicked” term is still jarring even with your added disclaimer. Don’t attempt to differentiate between your appropriate usage of the idea, versus how other men use it “inappropriately”. You’re a leader: model good language (like you usually do) and avoid grey areas.

          • David Wiese September 13, 2017 at 11:00 am #

            The problem is probably that, historically, it is a derogatory phrase. Although I believe you are truly well-meaning, it still carries baggage. With the political climate in the US right now, maybe not the sword you want to fall on?

          • Joffrey Peters September 14, 2017 at 6:09 am #

            I have to agree with the other commenters here. The word “chick” has derogatory and diminutive connotations, regardless of how you intend it. The comparison to elite female runners is good – it’s a very well-trained group against which to compare yourself, and that’s fine. But using the awful phrase “chicked” to make that comparison leaves you sounding like a douchy frat bro at best, and does nothing to help make that comparison. As someone who still derives some income from guiding, it seems unwise to put of at least half the hiking population.

      • Randi Young September 13, 2017 at 11:16 am #

        Hahaha! Back in my day, it was excellent fun being the chick who did the chicking. Don’t think there were ever any guys who felt truly demeaned by the phrase. But if the fellows nowadays have such delicate egos, then maybe it’s time to retire the phrase.

      • Connor September 14, 2017 at 11:05 am #

        Actually, it’s you who is missing the broader context of the word. While you may have good intentions, calling women ‘chicks’ is inherently derogatory. It is diminutive, and even dehumanizing (baby bird, anyone?). It has been normal in the past, but that does not make it appropriate. The specific tone and context are irrelevant because it is always inappropriate to call a woman a ‘chick.’ Hence the many responses you are getting here.

        You mention in other comments that you feel confident and comfortable with your masculinity. You mention that you don’t find the phrase chick to be offensive. I think you should recognize that it doesn’t have anything to do with you. What matters is how that phrase makes other people feel. Whether or not you (or your immediate peers) find the word offensive has no impact on if the word is offensive.

        There’s nothing wrong with using elite women as a benchmark for your performance. I think we all agree that placing ahead of elite women is quite an accomplishment. So, be proud of that, but make note of it without using a disrespectful phrase. You’re a prominent voice in an increasingly diverse community, and we would appreciate your inclusivity.

        I’m looking forward to following the rest of your racing career and reading more excellent posts. You’re a fantastic resource – one of the best out there. I’d love to be able to read your posts without encountering sexist phrases in the future. Thank you for considering this, it’s a difficult topic.

  3. David Danylewich September 12, 2017 at 6:53 pm #

    Andrew, I think you should keep going. My impression is you’ve only been at ultra racing again seriously for maybe one or two years? I can see you’re disappointed a hint by your result, but keep your eye on a longer game and go back for a few more years.

    34th is pretty hot too, I would say! Now you really know what the competition is like and have a feel for the course.

  4. Zak Steigmeyer September 12, 2017 at 7:10 pm #

    I also don’t like the “chicked” term, clearly it comes from the men that are uncomfortable getting passed by women that are more talented or have put in more work. Often it’s used ironically, but not always; that’s why I consider it something that would be fine in a conversation where context is clear, but kind of jarring to see on a page. Anyway, I don’t want to just write about that.
    First, Andrew, congratulations on your finish-one of the toughest Ultras with the most competitive field ever assembled, and you fished in a good time without blowing up. D’haene and Jornet really are on another level- in some ways it makes it hard to appreciate just how good-and focused-all of the top ten at utmb are. Their training is years or decades deep, they know the course, and many of them looked like they were putting themselves through a lot of suffering for a lot of the race (Zach Miller especially).
    I’ve thought about heart rate pacing for runs quite a bit as you’ve written about it and as people have talked about it on podcasts and such. I think there’s good evidence that you shouldn’t do something silly like running the first 10 miles at 160bpm, but I wonder if it makes sense to stay so close to your average from the beginning of the race, as opposed to starting out strong (140bpm) and accepting that later in the race it might be a struggle to get out of the 110s. Maybe it depends more on how your stomach holds up at that starting pace- don’t run a pace in the beginning where you can’t consume the nutrition you’re going to need later on.

    • Andrew Skurka September 12, 2017 at 7:44 pm #

      Not sure what the answer is on HR. It’s tough to get data on it — two or three 100’s in a year is a realistic max, and each race day is different (e.g. uphill start at RRR versus flat at UTMB, 70-deg temps versus 55 & raining). Running quite a bit above expected HR at the start seems counter-intuitive, but I’m starting to feel like that’s the way to go. It worked well at RRR, San Juan Solstice, and even Bighorn (although it’s hard to say what my second half would have been if the course hadn’t fallen apart). Meanwhile, in the races when I’ve tried for more of an even-effort like UTMB and Silverheels, I seem to struggle just as much if not more with maintaining high HR towards the end of the race.

      Not to highlight further the “chicked” comment, but it’s rare to have people describe something I write as “jarring.” The negative impression probably stems from a schoolyard idea about the strength of men v women, as if my manliness would be hurt if a woman beat me. I’m pretty honest about my talent, and don’t see it that way. My performance relative to the elite women is probably more telling than relative to the elite men (who are demonstrably in another solar system than me). In this respect, it’s no different than using the Performance Index to gauge how I did, besides featuring a term that at least two people have found offensive (and that I don’t and that wasn’t considered so by the men’s or women’s program where I ran in college).

  5. Amy September 13, 2017 at 8:57 am #

    Those race numbers aren’t seeds per se and saying you finished 100 places better than expected isn’t quite accurate. There were probably 20 or so women with numbers in front of yours.

    • Andrew Skurka September 13, 2017 at 9:08 am #

      Correct, I didn’t look at their numbering system closely enough. It is roughly correlated with ITRA ranking, but not perfectly. There were 92 runners with ITRA scores greater than mine, including four women. I’m wary of saying that ITRA = seed, but it’s the best thing we have. 92 – 34 = 58 spots, not including a few DNS’s. Post updated.

  6. Scott September 13, 2017 at 9:48 am #

    Re: UTMB 2018?

    “I’ve done that, and now must decide whether I should double-down or whether I should find another place to play.”

    You said you put 1.5 years into UTMB. Is there anything else that would compel you to be so focused? As awkward as the egg analogy is, it sounds like you need a race or endeavor that inspires you to risk breaking if you want to hit your peak.

    • Andrew Skurka September 13, 2017 at 10:10 am #

      There are some new prospects (e.g. Barkley, Hardrock, WS100) as well as some past favorites (e.g. Boston, Run Rabbit), but I haven’t emotionally committed to any of them yet.

      My general race schedule strategy is that I go big or go home. I’m not interested in running dinky races and getting mediocre results because I’m not inspired to train hard. I’d rather just go backpacking at that point — it’s less expensive, equally if not more enjoyable, and doesn’t demand peak fitness.

      • Jeremy S September 13, 2017 at 11:04 am #

        Would love to see you do Barkley! But I realize what a daunting proposition that is!

        • Brandon September 14, 2017 at 10:09 am #

          Agreed – you owe it to your fans to got for Barkley! 🙂

      • Joffrey Peters September 14, 2017 at 6:14 am #

        I would also love to see you do Barkley! It’s a really awful race, but most who enter are *runners*. You’re an accomplished outdoorsman, and can handle both the distance, elevation, and most importantly, the navigation! That’s what takes many down, and it would be refreshing to have someone in the race who is well-trained for the particular challenges of the race! Winning the Fall Classic is an automatic entry to the main event! 🙂

  7. Martin September 13, 2017 at 10:58 am #

    Andy – I think this is such a thoughtful and excellent analysis. Ultimately you will do what’s right for you, but as someone who has followed you since backpacking light did a podcast with you on the great western loop, I’ve always thought that you had a place in ultrarunning as an elite. I think as much as anything else it’s a head game and slowly the age old strategy of conservatively racing an ultra is proving that it will only get you to the finish line because there are people out there now just going hard from the gate. You absolutely could have finished top 10. Anyone who was watching the elite’s on strava would agree that your fitness was on par with the best out there. I really hope you double down and continue ultra running because I don’t think you’ve hit your stride yet. Best wishes either way and congrats on finishing UTMB, for most people that’s quite an accomplishment.

  8. Jacob Portukalian September 13, 2017 at 11:21 am #

    mi·sog·y·ny
    /məˈsäjənē/
    noun
    dislike of, contempt for, or ingrained prejudice against women.

    Measuring yourself against elite female athletes is not “dislike of, contempt for, or ingrained prejudice against women”. It’s a simple benchmark of performance. At the same fitness level a male athlete should be able to run 10% faster than a female athlete. I almost “got chicked” by my wife in a 10k on Sunday, but I managed to beat her by 13 seconds. What that tells me is that she is actually in better running shape than I am, and I need to be able to beat her by much more in order to be at a comparable fitness level. It’s not “dislike” or “contempt”. It’s just performance standards.

  9. Pascal September 13, 2017 at 11:27 am #

    Hehehe. As David Roche once wrote :

    «There are two types of runners—those who respond to failure with despondent discouragement, and those who respond to failure with renewed motivation. Trail runners who fall into the first group never reach their potential. They are too busy judging themselves and moving forward in hesitant fits and starts. Trail runners who fall into the second group are champions. Instead of comparing themselves to an unattainable ideal of perfection, they keep grinding no matter what, laughing optimistically in the face of disappointment».

    I’m quite sure you will fall into the second group and you will comeback one or two years from now… stronger than ever!

  10. Katherine September 13, 2017 at 11:29 am #

    *My* gut says go back. And then go back again. Run it every year while you still feel in your prime. You probably ran conservatively in part because you were thinking of it as your one big shot. If you have some leeway to totally blow it, you’ll have more freedom to go-for-broke.

    And you’ll have all the more data!

    (7-year-old daughter: “Is Andrew Skurka a real person?”)

  11. Brian September 13, 2017 at 1:49 pm #

    Love your write ups, as usual. And I’ll just throw my .02 in. Like others, I don’t love the term getting “chicked,” but I totally agree with using it as a bench mark. I’m always thrilled if I’m near some of the top women. It means I’m personally doing well, and it usually means I have a higher percentage of smart racers near me.

    As for the future, keep going. I would love to see what would happen if you had a 2018 with a very similar calendar as 2017 (spring marathon, super big late summer ultra). What you did worked, so just keep doing it a little longer and see what happens with your fitness and ability to race.

  12. Andrew J September 13, 2017 at 2:05 pm #

    Man, you are elite if you are doing FKT’s and running UTMB like that.

  13. Jacob D September 13, 2017 at 2:12 pm #

    Andrew, congrats on a running a solid race. I’m always in awe of the elites, because it’s evident that fitness is only a part of the puzzle. Knowing the course, and knowing the field seems almost equally as important if you want a specific result. I would chalk up your result to wrong strategy. By the same token, you can’t really say you can go top 10 against the best in the world, unless you have put everything on the line and done it. 2018, UTMB, go get it!

    (Also, you should probably drop the “chicked” remark. I run with several female ultrarunners who I know don’t appreciate it, and I could only ever say it to them in a joking way. It’s not in the best of taste.)

  14. Doug K September 13, 2017 at 5:06 pm #

    that’s still a fine result and solid race, though of course the disappointment is understandable. Typically if my HR is consistently lower than expected though RPE is high or as expected, it’s an indication of some kind of health issue, low-grade infection or so. Perhaps it just was an off-day ?

    Having run some sixty-odd marathons I agree with Mike above, Boston is a fast course. With appropriate preparation and decent weather (always the wild card) it can be a PR course. Weather – I ran 2:41 when shooting for 2:36 on a race where the high was usually low 60s, but was low 80s that day.. still my PR sadly.

    the problem with ‘chicked’ is not the comparison with female elites, the problem is the word ‘chick’.. it doesn’t belong here. I used to be in the same space, could run with the best women on a good day, but even in the bad old days of forty years ago it did not occur to me to think of it as ‘being chicked’, it was just plain old getting beat.. not sure when the phrase came into circulation but it should be ushered out.

  15. Emily September 14, 2017 at 11:16 am #

    Thanks to Steve and the other guys who have commented on the “chicked” phrase. It makes me feel good to know that it irritated some men enough that they spoke up about it, even at the risk of being called “too sensitive.”

    My reaction (woman, regular reader of this site, long-distance hiker): I read the phrase and felt a flash of irritation/anger and then googled it. I wondered, “do people really say this to each other? Is this just how Andrew speaks?”

    I am not a runner, so I haven’t heard/been desensitized to this before. I’m sure there are women out there who don’t mind the term “chicks” in the least (me, I hate it). Benchmarking one’s performance against the elite women seems valid and useful; I don’t think anyone objects to that idea, just this annoying phrase.

  16. Francisco September 16, 2017 at 10:55 am #

    What a thoughtful post-race analysis Andrew. I am confident in your ability to determine the best way to use the remaining peak-performance years in your life, whether that means giving yourself a second chance at UTMB or trying one of the other iconic races like WS100. Given how demanding yet temperamental this sport seems to be, with incredibly talented people having an off day or blowing up and DNFing, I imagine that a big part of your decision will come from answering the following question: Which race excites you and inspires you to put an insane amount of hours of training and time away from your loved ones. After all, life is never about the end result or the finish line and always about the process. Every backpacking trip ends at the trailhead and it is how we get there that makes it memorable or a complete waste of our valuable time.

  17. Gordon September 16, 2017 at 8:16 pm #

    Congratulations, Andrew! Only you can decide if it is worth it for you to continue, but I’ll bet all your readers here would like to see you do so.

    I don’t know much of anything at all about running except what I have read here on your blog. What I found curious about this race was that the first four finishers beat a record time that had stood for fourteen years, and the winning time was over an hour faster. Isn’t that rather unusual in a running event, or is ultra running such a different thing?

    • Andrew Skurka September 21, 2017 at 10:43 pm #

      The course was a little bit shorter than the 2015 and 2016 course, but I think it was probably still a record-setting performance by the top men. There is probably more analysis online somewhere else.

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