Ultramarathoners have always walked during their training runs and races. At the Western States 100, failing to walk at least part of the initial climb out of Squaw Valley can have ominous consequences later in the race, even for the front runners.
At shorter distances, walking is controversial. Jeff Galloway, a US Olympian, has helped roughly 200,000 first-time marathoners complete the 26.2-mile distance by inserting walking breaks. And inevitably, there are those who wish the marathon-walkers would just go away.
Galloway, whose marathon PR is 2:16, claims even the top marathoners could race faster if they took a few walking steps to allow their bodies to recover. But it’s a bit hard to imagine Paul Tergat improving his 2:04:55 world record by slowing to a walk for a few steps, then accelerating back to speed. Two hours isn’t very long — is it possible that the extra effort of slowing down and getting back up to speed would pay off? Seems doubtful.
First-timer marathoners are a separate breed from a Paul Tergat or Sammy Korir (2:04:56). As world-renowned sports physiologist David Costill notes, a 6-hour finisher is, literally, a vastly different physical specimen. Galloway’s walk-run-walk scheme may help some runners set a personal best, but probably not others.
The marathon is a race of variables — thousands of them – that all contribute to an individual’s ability to handle the distance. A runner who’s been logging 120-140 miles a week for 10 years is obviously better prepared to handle the distance without walking breaks, than one who’s jogging 60 minutes during the week, as Galloway recommends, and running longer on the weekend. And again, it’s obvious that running is faster than walking.
Will a runner who’s trying to break 4 hours — or even 3 — gain time by allowing his/her body to recover for brief stretches? It depends. Namely, it depends on whether the runner’s body has mastered the distance – that is, whether it can cover the distance at top racing speed without needing to rest.
Paul Tergat’s marathon pace is 4:45.864 per mile. Could he do 4:44 if he slowed to a walk for a few steps each mile? Unlikely. Yet the stories of slower runners who’ve set PRs by walking are legion. They’re people for whom the marathon is a huge stretch, a tremendous personal challenge, given their inherited native abilities and training. Their bodies are, in fact, so drastically under-prepared to race an all-out marathon that they must give their bodies regular, short breaks if they’re to have a hope of setting a PR. They haven’t mastered the distance. Their successes, it hardly needs saying, are probably not extensible to world-class runners who have mastered the marathon.
An ultrarunner acquaintance of mine had a 50-mile PR of around 10 hours, set at the American River 50. The following year, he decided to run/walk to a ratio of 5:1 (run 5 minutes, walk 1 minute). He set a PR by over 1½ hours.
It would be pretty to think that my friend’s experience applies to the marathon, and to all marathoners. But that’s unlikely. Again, I have no hard evidence, but I can’t imagine that former AR50 winners like Ann Trason or Tom Johnson would have improved their times at the 50-mile distance if they’d walked. For those runners, 50 miles is a training run. Trason ran 140 miles a week, sometimes running 60 miles a day, and Tom Johnson did his 25-mile training runs at 6:30-6:00 pace. Although they might walk during a mountainous 100, they simply don’t need to, in a flat 50. They’ve trained their gifted bodies to master the distance.
Here’s Tim Twietmeyer, on his preparation for the Western States 100:
When I’m training hard for something like WS, I’ll run a 50-mile training run or race every three or four weeks. On average, I’m putting in somewhere between 60 and 80 miles and probably close to half of that mileage on one day on the weekend. My biggest month in my career was a May training for WS and I put in 350 miles. I’ve never been a really high mileage guy, but I never get too far out of race shape.
The lesson? The elites are a different breed – they’re born with exceptional bodies, and they train exceptionally hard – because they’re able to. Racing distances of 26.2 miles and beyond are hard for anyone — but they’re less hard for the elites.
What about respect? Most elites, if asked, will say that they respect the 4-, 5-, and 6-hour finishers. If nothing else, they note with approval that running a 5-hour marathon is a heck of a step up from being a couch potato, even if you walk a lot. (The top runners probably also don’t mind the slow runners contributing their entry fees to the prize pot.)
So, who are the runners who get upset by the marathon walkers? Invariably, it’s the in-betweens – the dedicated runners who bust their tails to achieve a 2:30-3:30 finish, and who sneer at the relatively easy training of the slowpokes.
Surely, they’re right. Surely, the marathon is a different game for the serious runners who’re logging 50-80 miles per week. Surely, they’re justified if they get upset when the 6-hour run/walkers call themselves “marathon runners.”
But it’s good to remind ourselves how values work. Claude Bouchard, a sports physiologist at Louisiana State, found that just 10 percent of elderly runners have “highly trainable” bodies, while 80 percent have bodies that are trainable across a broad spectrum of average, and 10 percent have bodies that, in his view, aren’t trainable at all.
Assuming Bouchard’s findings apply to all ages, imagine that you’re in, say, the 35th percentile. You’ll have to work hard to prepare your body to complete a marathon in 5 hours. For you, a sub-3:30 finish time that the “in-betweeners” would respect is likely to remain a distant dream.
What’s the value of your 5-hour marathon? In absolute terms, of course – and the in-betweeners do tend to be absolutists – it’s not worth much. If the sub-3:30 runners look down their noses, it’s likely because fear and ego are involved — the two often go together.
But, what’s the value for the individual with a minimally trainable body, in becoming fit enough to finish a marathon?
The answer is almost contained in the question: the value is huge. Common sense tells us that a 5-hour marathon has great value for the right individual. Nature rewards us when we work to “stretch our edges” – when we work to become fitter, healthier, more energized, loving, inwardly strong, or wise. When we expand our abilities, nature rewards us unmistakably, and the reward is joy.
This is a concept that’s as old as humanity. It’s an idea that’s been rediscovered endlessly, by simple observation of life. It’s an idea that won’t die, because it’s anchored in bedrock reality. It’s an irreducibly simple truth: “Expansion equals joy.”
The 5-hour run/walkers are stretching their edges and experiencing the due reward. No matter how we judge them, we can never deprive them of their joy. They’re doing important life-stuff, and nature is judging them and applauding.
I’ll go further. It’s not merely unwise to judge the 5-hour finishers – it’s dangerous. Nature’s law – “expansion equals joy” – has a dark flip side. Anything we do that’s the opposite of expansive – that reduces or takes away our health, love, strength, wisdom, and joy – results in suffering. To take an example that all runners can relate to, the most contractive thing we can do, as runners, is overtrain. That’s because overtraining kills expansion – it literally reverses our progress, and it carries all manner of unpleasant side-effects: irritability, depression, low energy, diarrhea. Dark, dark stuff.
When the in-between runners work on their own expansion — lowering their PR, say, from 2:50 to 2:45 – nature rewards them with the same joy that it gives to the 5-hour finishers. Nature is continually trying to do a good thing for everybody, if we’ll only cooperate.
The twin laws of expansion and contraction apply also to our mental attitudes. Physiologists now know that negative, contractive emotions such as anger, disgust, and resentment carry negative physical consequences.
I can’t help suspecting that nature loves the 5-hour finishers, and that that’s why they’ve been given a venue (the marathon) where they can work on their joy. I think the in-betweeners would be doing themselves a favor if they recognized this. They’d be less inclined to hurt themselves with negative attitudes about the slower runners, if they recognized that the slow runners are engaged in the same pursuit: not to set up artificial barriers – what’s a “good” marathon? 2:45? 3:30? – but to improve and find joy.