The two weeks before a big race can be challenging in the enforced inactivity. Between mid-October and mid-November I ran about 14 hours per week on average, but during my taper for The North Face Endurance Challenge 50 Mile Championship this weekend I’m running less than half that, creating a lot of free time. However, I have found it to be a good opportunity to finalize race weekend details: air and ground travel, lodging, gear selection, aid station or crew support strategy, etc. Last night I worked on pace charts, and the results are interesting enough that I thought I would share them.
A pace chart for the TNF 50 Mile course — and every other mountainous trail ultra, for that matter — is unique to this course. Whereas a pace chart for a flat road marathon at sea level is applicable to hundreds of other marathons, there are too many variables on the course that affect a runner’s pace, notably the cumulative vertical gain/loss and the specific locations of those climbs/descents, trail quality, and altitude. Besides, due to the topography of a mountain course, aid stations and checkpoints are situated where it is most logistically convenient and almost never coincide with mile markers.
Everyone starts too fast, especially the runners who don’t win
In order to develop a pace chart, I needed to find a pace from a past race that I liked. I found seven athletes on Strava who posted on Strava their GPS watch data from their 2013 performance (thanks guys). Since my goal time is 7 hours 20 minutes, I tried to find athletes in this range; I also included some of the top runners out of curiosity. The runners were:
Here were there splits:
When I calculated their average pace over the race, it confirmed what is commonly said about this race: the pace starts off too aggressively. For all of the runners, their average pace gradually increased. And the increase was was not equal across the board: Krar’s pace only increased 40 seconds, Dylan’s 60 seconds, and the remaining 5 runners by 85-103 seconds.
A chart is below showing their average pace over the race. My apologies that the Y-axis is in a numerical format that makes hardly any sense (fraction of an hour), but I struggled to create the chart if that series was in a duration format (HH:MM:SS). The point is the same: everyone slows down.
If the course became increasingly harder (i.e. more vertical per mile, poorer trail quality), the significant increase in pace would be understandable. But that’s not the case — while the second half of the course is probably slower, it shouldn’t be 90 seconds slower.
The “pace creep” was more dramatic with the runners who didn’t finish at the top. Consider that the gap between the fastest and slowest pace between the start line and McKennan Gulch (mi 22.7) is about 60 seconds, but it increases to 100 seconds by the end of the race.
Pace charts based on Dylan Bowman
When I began this exercise, I thought that I would probably base my pace charts on a racer who finished around my goal time of 7 hours 20 minutes. But such a pace would have me going out too hard, losing an increasing amount of time per mile to the leaders. I wanted a pace that was more consistent.
Rob Krar ran the most consistent race, but I’m very doubtful that I could match (even proportionally) his legendary surge last year at Mile 40. He was the only runner (at least among those whose data I used) who averaged a faster pace for Miles 40-50 than Miles 30-40. I’m a decent runner, but I’m not in his class.
Of those I analyzed, I like Dylan Bowman’s pace the best. He ran a very consistent race, not starting too fast and then finishing strong. When I proportionally scaled his splits to splits that are more realistic for me, I got these pace charts: