Six weeks from this Saturday, I’m racing The North Face Endurance Challenge GORE-TEX 50-Mile in California’s stunning Marin Headlands. I ran this same race in 2010, a few months after the Alaska-Yukon Expedition, and it will be my first ultra marathon since. With $30,000 in prize money for the top 3 male and female finishers, this event attracts a star-studded international field, and to be in the mix I’ll need to bring my best.
I’m not an expert in training for 50-mile ultra trail races — I’m not a running coach, dedicated student of running science, or even a professional ultra runner. Moreover, my ultra racing history is thin. (It does, however, have some highlights: second place in 18:17 at the 2008 Leadville 100, my first and only 100-mile race; a PR of 8:02 for Grand Canyon Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim, which is 42 miles in length and has 22,000 vertical feet of gain and loss; and a 20th-place finish in 8:08 at the 2010 Endurance Challenge.)
So unlike a more seasoned runner for whom a 50-mile race is fairly routine and/or for whom recent ultra finishes constitute training for the next one, I’ve had to spend some time in determining how I should best train. Here’s my approach:
Running to finish or to compete? I have finished ultras before, and I don’t need to pay a race entry fee and fly to California in order to finish another one. No, I want to compete. I’d be happy to finish in 7.5 hours (9 minutes per mile pace), which is usually good enough for top 30, and I’d be delighted with anything better. Whereas a “minimum training” program might be sufficient if I were just trying to get back into the ultra scene with a performance similar to 2010, or if I were just planning to chase cutoff times to the finish line, it won’t deliver the type of performance that I want.
Course stats. The course is 50 miles long, features 10,000 vertical feet of gain (and ditto for loss, so 20,000 vertical total), should take about 8 hours to complete, has a mix of fire roads and singletrack, and never strays more than 2,000 feet above sea level. I need to optimize my training for these features, especially the first two. An off-the-shelf training program for a generic race or for a different race — e.g. 50k or 100-mile, flatter or more mountainous, faster or slower projected finishing time, higher altitude, more or less technical trails, etc — will not prepare me as well.
Injury resistance. In a word, what’s the best training strategy for an ultra? Volume. There is really no substitute for lots of miles, lots of vertical, and lots of time on my feet. Of course, there is a cap on how much volume I can withstand before I get hurt, either due to overuse or to a fatigue-triggered accident. Thankfully, I’ve proven to be very durable and I have a deep base of fitness, so I can be more aggressive in my training than most.
It takes a lot of time and effort to ensure peak performance on race day. I’ve focused it mostly on four elements:
Distance. I’ve run 103 miles in the last 7 days. That’s a lot, but my two longest runs (26 miles each) were still only half of the race distance, and it only averages out to 15 miles per day. On race day, it’s irrelevant if I’m the fastest 15-mile runner — I need to be able to race 50. Over the next month, then, I need to continue to increase the distance of my long runs, with my longest ideally being 50+ miles. Alternatively or in conjunction, I can do multiple long-ish runs (25-35 miles) back-to-back. To avoid mileage volume that will inevitably lead to injury, I will run just a few miles on recovery days, or none at all.
Vertical. The course has 20,000 vertical feet of gain and loss. In comparison, it’s a 14,800-foot round-trip between the summit of Pikes Peak and Manitou Springs, a 12,200-foot round-trip between the summit of Mount Whitney and Whitney Portal, and just a 9,500-foot round-trip between the summit of Mount Washington and Pinkham Notch. For this race, vertical training is just as important as horizontal/mileage training — if I ignore it, my quads will blow out early in the race and I’ll lose positions steadily thereafter. In the last week, my cumulative vertical was 25,000 feet and my biggest day was 6,000, or less than one-third of what I will do on race day. Over the next month, my vertical training plan is similar to my mileage training: continue to increase, with a maximum effort of at least 20,000 vertical feet in a single day.
Time on feet. This is one aspect of ultra training where I may have an edge on most everyone else. I have spent thousands of days on my feet, hiking at 3 miles per hour for 15 hours per day. For an 8-hour effort during which I hope to average 9 minutes per mile, this hiking history is probably not hugely advantageous. But if I were training for a longer and slower ultra (e.g. Hardrock 100) or if I were trying just to finish within the 14-hour cutoff, I would incorporate long day-hikes or even multi-day backpacking trips into my training program so that my body learns how to move slow and steady.
Body weight. I’m as lean as I’ve been in years, but I could still lose additional body fat before I risk recovery speed or my general health. (At least I think so — Amanda and my mother would like me to start eating more ice cream). Excess body fat has a significant effect on running performance, especially on mountainous courses. In fact, I attribute most of the drops I’ve seen recently in my running splits on my regular running routes (e.g. 2 minutes on a 30-minute leg with 1,000 vertical feet of gain) to weight loss, not necessarily improved fitness. As everyone knows, the most effective and sustainable approach to losing weight is exercising more and eating less (and better).
If not dialed in, there are other factors that could ruin race day. But they take less time to work out:
Nutrition. I can run for 2-2.5 hours without food or water without noticing a dropoff in performance. But for an 8-hour effort, I’ll need to replenish. The consensus calorie target is about 250 calories per hour, depending on body weight and output intensity. Fluid needs are more dependent on the temperature, sun exposure, and humidity; 20 oz per hour has worked well on recent training runs. I’ve been using Clif products — Shot Energy Gels, Shot Bloks, and Shot Electrolyte Hydration — since the aid stations will have them and since they seem to treat my system nicely.
Supplements. To maintain a proper balance of fluids and electrolytes, I take one SaltStick Electrolyte Salt Capsules every hour. Without them, my body won’t efficiently use the fluids that I’m taking in; instead, they slosh around in my belly, and eventually I can become hyponatremic. For later in the race when I start running low on gas, I also have some 100 mg caffeine pills on hand, too.
Clothing, footwear, and gear. I’ll cover this in another post.
Personal care. Blisters, bloody nipples, and chafing in the nether region get old over 50 miles. I’ve tested my clothing and footwear on training runs to ensure I avoid these problems, and found an easy fix for my nipples — athletic tape.
The taper. I love to run, and after weeks of huge volume I’ll be disappointed to dial it back in the two weeks before race day. But I must in order to race well: by that point, “the hay is in the barn” and there really is no benefit to additional training. To the contrary, I’ll race much better if my legs are fully recovered and rested. Many ultra runners have ruined or compromised their race day performance by failing to taper.