On Friday I’m racing Run Rabbit Run 100 in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. The official distance for this ultra marathon is 102.7 miles, though the consensus among participants is more like 107. There is 20,000+ vertical feet of climbing and elevations are often around 10,000 feet. It will be my longest race of the year, and my first 100-mile race since 2008.
So, what was my training plan for something like that?
I’m a decent runner, but my primary identity and my comparative strength is not running. And even though in 2015 I will have competed more than in any year since college (three races: 50K, 100M, 50M), I decided early in the year that I was unwilling to let my training undermine my primary interest: backpacking.
Thankfully, I think that backpacking can be an excellent complement to running, or at least to ultra running, especially for the longer distances (e.g. 100K, 100M) and for mountain courses. In some respects, it is probably even better than pure running in developing a deep base of endurance:
- More time on feet: 8-14 hours per day, day after day
- Higher sustainable volume: 150-200 miles and 20k-35k vertical feet of climbing per week, assuming on-trail, with less risk of injury
- Hiking practice: If David Laney hiked every uphill for the first 50 miles during his third-place finish at the 2015 Tour du Mont Blanc, maybe ultra “runners” should plan to hike more, too.
- Weight training: Pack weights, even among gram weenies, are still heavier than an Ultimate Direction Race Vest, or no pack at all.
- Calorie-restricted diet: When I return home from a backpacking trip, I am always leaner and I always see a drop in my times, especially on climbs. On intense trips, it’s impractical to carry as many calories as you burn.
Think I’m wrong on this? Maybe, but it’d be hard to prove: relative to the training plans for more established distances — e.g. 1M, 5K, Marathon — there is little scientific consensus on the optimal training program for a 100-mile mountain course. Training advice is almost entirely intuitive and anecdotal, and is often highly personalized, i.e. “This is what seems to work for me.”
Personally, I think one factor reigns above all for ultra marathon training: volume. So I have done a lot of it in the lead-up to Run Rabbit Run, with a notable uptick in the 16 weeks since early-June.
Volume, volume, volume
I log all of my training on Strava. For details, follow me there; I’ll just stick with the highlights:
- 2 x 1-week periods with 100+ miles and 20k+ vertical feet of climbing
- 3 x 1-week periods with 80-90 miles and 15k vertical feet of climbing
- Longest run: 38 miles with 6k vertical feet of climbing
- Longest back-to-back days: 61 miles with 13k vertical feet of climbing
- Kings Canyon High Basin Route + alternates: 200 miles (50% off-trail), 70k vertical feet of climbing
- Wind River High Route + alternates: 200 miles (45% off-trail), 55k vertical feet of climbing
- Aspen Four Pass Loop, in porter role: 28 miles, 8k vertical feet of climbing
- 14 days of guided trips, on which the days are shorter but my pack is heavier
- Multiple day-hikes up Flagstaff and Green Mountain (1500-2500 vert) with a 55-lb backpack of bricks
The littler things
It’d be hard to hack a 100-mile race if I hadn’t put in sufficient volume. But to achieve peak performance, which is my goal, I focused on a few other things, too.
In explaining my lackluster performance at Dirty 30 in late-May, this is one of the factors I identified. With all the volume I have done since then, the weight has come off, and I’m at least 5 pounds lighter now. I tipped the scale this morning at 154 pounds (I’m 6 feet tall), which is about the same as my high school weight. My wife and mother think that I’m too skinny, but in the words of Kate Moss, “Nothing tastes better than fast.”
Given other things going on, there seemed to be no convenient opportunity to scout the course, but last week Amanda insisted that I drive to Steamboat to look it over. I’m glad I did, as I’m now much more familiar with the course and the crewing logistics.
Nutrition & hydration
Through numerous long runs I was able to dial in my hydration and nutrition. My takeaways will not be perfectly applicable to the race, since temperatures in September in Steamboat are notably cooler (by 30-50 degrees) than Boulder in July. Plus, it’s a race, not a long run. But I’m confident that I can spontaneously tweak my intake in order to get it right.
For the last two weeks I have survived without coffee. I miss it, but I think that being extra sensitive to caffeine will prove worthwhile at 2 AM when I’ve been running for 14 hours and still have a marathon to go.
No doubt, I was obsessed with training for much of the summer, and worked really hard to become as fit as I currently am. The temptation is to maintain that fitness by continuing to train, but this would be counterproductive for race day. Instead, in the final 2-3 weeks it’s more important to rest, with only some light running and some intense but short workouts. Equally important, I find that the taper is a nice opportunity to emotionally recharge and prepare myself for the experience ahead.