Art of the Low-Mileage Ultra. From Eric Robinson, a wise young man who runs 2-4 ultras per month. Despite everything I’ve said below, I believe that if I were to be reborn and train for marathons and ultras, I would adopt Eric’s training. There are a few elements of good advice below, so I won’t simply scrap it. The tip for strengthening quads on the slant leg-press machine I believe is still invaluable.
The following long ramble aims at helping first-timers finish a 50-mile race, though seasoned ultrarunners may find something worthwhile here as well, since most of what’s said has been gleaned from ultrarunners with a lot more miles in their legs than I have.
The Prime Directive. Never do anything in a race that you haven’t tried first in training. This applies to food, drink, shoes, belt packs, run/walk strategy, and mental attitude. In a 50-mile race, mistakes are amplified – you’ll have all day to regret them.
Training. You can run 50 miles on as little as 30 miles a week of training. Matt Mahoney runs the Leadville Trail and Hardrock 100-milers on 15 mpw (plus lots of cross-training). However, your chances of finishing will improve with higher mileage, you’ll feel better at the finish, and you’ll recover faster. Keep in mind, though, that hundreds of runners do ultras “just for fun,” on very modest training.
The factors that spell success in a first 50 are:
1. The weekly long run(s).
2. Consistency in training (i.e., rarely skipping more than two scheduled days of running unless you’re ill).
3. Proper strategy during the race: (a) eating, (b) run/walk ratio, (c) foot care, etc.
I ran 9:49 at age 53 at the American River 50 on just 30 miles per week. For many weeks before the race, I faithfully completed a 20- to 24-miler on Saturday. My finishing time wasn’t fast and my recovery was slow, but I had lots of fun, and I finished. The point is: my long runs, plus good planning and strategy, got me through my first 50.
If you’re running low mileage (under 50 mpw), and you aren’t a sub-3:00 marathoner, it’s probably a good idea not to think about projecting a finishing time. And if you aren’t aiming for a specific time, it makes little sense to complicate your training with speedwork.
However, if you are doing speedwork already, you should probably continue, since it appears to increase endurance and toughen the legs so that they feel less sore during the race. Dr. Blake Wood runs Hardrock, the most difficult of the 100-mile trail ultras, and he reports that since he began including one day of speedwork in his weekly training, his legs have felt less trashed during and after the race.
How long should your long runs be? Ideally, you’ll run at least several 20s and several 24- to 26-milers before your first 50. Even better, you’ll run at least one 30-mile walk/run. Many ultrarunners do at least two 30-milers per month, and some do a 30 every weekend. There’s even a trail-tough group who do a 30 on Saturday and a 20 on Sunday.
My buddy Dave Littlehales and I power-walked the What, Mi-Wok Trail 100K together in 1997 (Dave, a former 2:50 marathoner, has a congenital hip problem that prevents him from running). We got to talking with one of the trail sweeps who mentioned that he’d run the Western States 100, and I asked him how he trained. He said, “Oh, I come out on these trails for 12 to 16 hours, and sometimes I’ll do 20 hours.” Stunned, I asked him how he ran these very long training runs. “Pretty much like we’re doing right now,” he said. (We were power-walking at 12- to 16-minute pace.)
For training runs longer than 20 miles, you should include walking breaks to ensure rapid recovery and avoid getting overtrained. There are exceptions–if you’re very talented or very experienced, you should do whatever you can, so long as your training volume allows you to recover quickly. Bill Misner, a famous ultrarunner now in his 60s, still runs his 20-milers straight through without walking– at 7:00 to 7:30 pace!
If you’ve been training consistently for several years and have run several marathons, a good strategy for a 24-mile training run is to run the first hour, then alternate walking for 1 minute and running for 5 minutes the rest of the way. You can walk 5 minutes and run 25 if you prefer, but 5:1 is a lot easier on the body. For training runs longer than 24 miles, consider using the 5:1 formula for the whole distance.
If your target race is hilly, it’ll help to train on hills for obvious physical and psychological reasons. However, hilly races are fiendishly deceptive, because it’s the downhills that will kill you, and downhill running requires specialized training. (More on training for the downhills under “Secrets of the Wily Old Ultrarunners.”)
Food and Drink. The ancient Indian healing system known as Ayurveda describes three basic body types, and each type seems to thrive on specific running fuels. Some runners thrive on Gatorade, for example, while others hate it. (Ultrarunning legend Ann Trason calls it “Gatorbarf.”) Some people do well on GU, but others find the caffeine too stimulating. I won’t talk much about Ayurvedic body types, for space reasons, but if you want to learn more, I recommend John Douillard’s book, “Body, Mind & Sport”. (Douillard is a bit dogmatic about diet, take his recommendations with a grain of salt.)
There are certain universal dietary factors that seem to that apply to all runners. Many runners hit the wall badly at 18-20 miles if they drink race fuels that contain fructose. Their stomachs tie in knots and their energy dives through the floor. I suspect it isn’t the Kenyans that are beating America’s top marathoners – it’s Gatorade.
I’ve found three fairly good alternatives to fructose-containing drinks such as Gatorade, HydraFuel, etc. They are: Sustained Energy, Yammit Bars, and Organic Food Bars. These bars are great – they give me a long-lasting, smooth energy “ride,” without peaks and valleys. I particularly like the Yammit Bars. I also like the Clifshot gels. I interviewed seven-time Western States 100 winner and course recordholder Scott Jurek, who confided that he likes the Clifshot products.
GU works great for many runners (Ann Trason likes it), but I find it too stimulating. Nothing’s more tiresome than running in the company of a GU-loaded ultrarunner who’s babbling his/her head off while paying absolutely no attention to anything you say. Beavis on Jolt Cola.
Sustained Energy works great for me for about 30 miles, with no bonking at 18-20 miles and no tummy trouble. But the taste becomes nauseating after 30, so I generally switch to Hammer Gel or some other fuel at that point.
You’ll find Coke and Mountain Dew served at most races, and if you use caffeine on a regular basis, go for it. If your diet is oh-so-pure, a late-miles hit of caffeine and white sugar is like rocket fuel. But be real sure there’ll be Coke at the remaining aid stations, because it can get ugly if your tank runs low. Beware especially at the American River 50 – both times I’ve run AR50, the aid station at the foot of the final 1300′ climb has been out of Coke when the 10-hour finishers arrived.
I no longer use caffeine or white sugar, thanks to a bad experience at the 1996 What, Mi-Wok 100K race, where I drank Coke for nine hours and DNF’d. (“Did Not Finish,” “Did Nothing Foolish,” “Did Nothing Fatal.”) I became severely hypothermic, even though the temperature was mild. Karl King, an engineering professor who’s a keen student of sports nutrition and a frequent contributor to the ultra list, told me that taking nothing but caffeine- and sugar-loaded drinks depletes electrolytes. Sure enough, after hitching a ride to the finish, I ate a cup of salty chicken noodle soup and five minutes later was feeling fine.
I carry Sustained Energy in flat 4-oz plastic bottles that I buy for 79 cents in the cosmetic section at the drugstore. Sustained Energy is amazingly soluble–I can get enough into a single 4-oz bottle to carry me through a marathon. I put masking tape on the bottle and mark the doses with a pen.
During races, I run through the first hour on plain water, then begin taking Sustained Energy every 20-30 minutes. My body seems to appreciate being allowed to run the first hour food-free.
I formerly did 20- to 30-mile training runs on plain water and electrolytes. I felt better on plain water than if I took race fuels. But I realized that when I did that, it took longer to recover, so I now take some carb and protein (currently Clifshot gels after one hour, and an Organic Food Bar an hour or two before the run). Karl King says that not taking fuels during long runs increases the body’s production of cortisol, a stress hormone that causes premature ageing. Karl says all of the runners he’s known who did their long runs on plain water look older than their age.
In races, be ready to change your fuel strategy according to your body’s needs. At the Point Reyes 50K, I used Sustained Energy and Hammer Gel for the first 15 miles, then switched to plain water until the last few miles, when I took a little Hammer Gel. No rhyme or reason–it was what my tummy felt like doing on the day.
I use a Camelback M.U.L.E. pack during long training runs. I’ve used the same pack for nine years, and it’s still in great shape. The design is wonderful, with many pockets and tie-down straps. You can buy a larger bite valve that delivers a better flow.
If you prefer to carry your bottles in a belt pack, I highly recommend the flat bottles from Angeles Pack Co. The Race Pack belt lets you carry two bottles slung low at the side of your hips instead of on your butt. With the bottles suspended at the side, the belt doesn’t go bump-a, bump-a against your belly button, like other packs do. Angeles Pack Co., 370 W. Colorado St., Arcadia, CA 91007; (818) 447-0584.
Be sure to test your belt pack/bottle system in training. Over long distances, a poorly positioned pack can be miserable, requiring continual adjustment.
Handheld bottles are quickly accessible and can protect your hands if you fall. They become surprisingly comfortable after a few runs. The Ultimate Directions hand-held bottles are sold in most running stores and at REI. Be sure to screw down the lids tightly, or they’ll leak on your car seat on the way to the race. There are lots of bottles besides the UD. (Five pages at REI.) I used them for years, but frankly, I don’t like them. I now use wonderful 24-ounce bottles that I buy for $3+ at Mike’s Bikes in Palo Alto, CA. Turning the bottle over, I see that they’re made by Specialized. A quick Web search reveals that you can order them online – they’re the Big Mouth model. These bottles have a soft nipple that’s easy on the teeth (the UD bottles are hard plastic). When open, the nipple stays open (the UD nipples invariably close before I’m done drinking). When squeezed, the Specialized bottles quickly return to shape (the UD bottles stay squeezed; unless you squeeze in exactly the right place, you have to blow into them or press the sides to get them to return to shape). The Specialized bottles also never leak (UD bottles do); they have a huge mouth (wider than the UDs), and they’re transparent, so I can tell instantly how much fluid is in them, and which bottle holds water or drink mix). Finally, you don’t have to suck your guts out to get a good flow with the Specialized bottles (UD bottles require a strong pull).
Some runners like Rubbermaid bottles, which are cheap (but not cheaper than the Specialized bottle), reportedly excellent, and sold at supermarkets. Clear bottles are best – you can instantly see what you’re drinking and if you’re running low. For training runs, I formerly carried 29-cent sport-cap bottles from Trader Joe. Check these nifty-looking bottles from Nathan Human Propulsion Labs. Ultrarunner Keith Gilstrap says: “I love my Nathan bottle. I can easily carry some ID, a few bucks, my truck key, and a eye-drop-size bottle of Elete (electrolyte solution) in the pocket. The bottle also has a clip on it that I use to clip it onto my backpack that I carry around with me all of the time. The handle is adjustable and stretchy. I will be buying another one of these bottles soon for two-fisted action.”
Many ultrarunners eat appalling junk. I heard of a runner who chews big mouthfuls of butter during ultra races. Hey, whatever works. But one dietary fact worth knowing is that the immune system, which is vitally involved in exercise adaptation and recovery, thrives in a slightly alkaline environment.
In fact, the lore of yoga suggests that diseases symptomatic of an over-acidified body include bronchitis, sinusitis, etc. Interestingly, these are the same ailments that researchers identified in 20% of the finishers of the 1991 L.A. Marathon during the week after the race, when their immune systems were compromised and their bodies were highly acidified.
Whenever I feel I’m on the verge of a cold or bronchitis, I can reliably make myself sick by eating acid-forming foods. And I can generally avoid getting ill if I immediately switch to a diet high in alkaline-forming foods.
Alkaline-forming foods include: most fruits and vegetables, some nuts (e.g., almonds), some beans (red kidney, aduki), and a few grains (millet). You’ll find lists of alkaline-forming foods in Paavo Airola’s book How to Get Well and Herman Aihara’s book Acid and Alkaline.
Electrolytes. This topic deserves a separate section, because it’s a biggie. Eric Robinson ran the Angeles Crest 100 and had a terrible time. At one point, he noticed that his hands were bloating, and halfway through the race he had gained 5 lbs. Thinking this was caused by excess sodium, he stopped taking his electrolyte pills. Soon after, he crashed badly, continuing only because several friends wouldn’t let him DNF. Eric resumed taking sodium pills and soon felt much better and was able to run most of the final 11 miles.
Sodium is the main electrolyte that you need to worry about in an ultra. Karl King, an ultrarunner and scientist, has developed a sodium product called Succeed! Electrolyte Caps. I have mixed feelings about the Succeed! caps. I used them at Western States and gained 6 lbs in 56 miles. Something tells me this is not normal. I suspect that I was overloading my body with sodium, and that it retained water to dilute the excess. But I’ll continue to use sodium pills in unusually hard races and very hot weather. There’s some excellent information on electrolyte replacement in the resource section of the Hammer Nutrition site.
You do need sodium. Geri Kilgariff, a talented ultrarunner from Arizona, nearly died at Western States when she took too little sodium. So did ultrarunning legend Don Choi, who had to be Medevac’d out of the race when he took insufficient water and sodium. If you finish a race and feel hypothermic–a deep, bone-chilling coldness–take some sodium, as it may help normalize your body’s metabolism.
By the way, if you have to be Medevac’d out of Western States, you’ll have to pay for the ride–to the tune of several thousand dollars. So, take care of yourself.
One problem with the Succeed! caps is that they contain a powerful lactic-acid buffer that makes your legs feel less sore in the late stages of a race; thus you may be tempted to take too many Succeed! caps, in the mistaken belief that it’s the sodium that’s making you feel better.
Ultrarunner Bill Misner holds a Ph.D. in nutritional science. Misner believes the current recommendations for sodium and hydration are excessive. Probably the truth lies somewhere in between. My recommendation is “better safe than sorry,” especially when a serious mistake may be fatal. An excellent source of supplements and fuels is the Zombie Runner online store run by ultrarunning legends Don “DC” Lundell and Gillian Robinson. Don takes tons of pictures while he runs ultras. His online gallery is a wonderful place to “visit” some of the best-known trail races. Don’t overlook his photos of the yearly Hunter S. Thompson Fear & Loathing 50K/50M race through the streets of San Francisco.
For the first 30 miles of an ultra, I take Electrolyte Stamina Tabs, a multi-electrolyte formulation that I buy at the local health food store. It’s also available from Elite Health Products at (800) 722-8181. (Excellent mail order outlet for hundreds of sports nutrition products.) If I’m feel really wasted after the first 50K, I may start taking Succeed! caps.
Equipment. Whether your first 50 is on trails or roads, you’ll want to be extremely careful to prevent blisters, sore spots, and other foot problems. It takes just one tiny grain of gravel to cause a race-ending blister. The moment you feel that grating sensation under your foot, stop and remove the offending object. Never imagine that you’ll save time by postponing first aid until the funish. You won’t.
Test your shoes in training! A number of ultrarunners in the Sierra foothills of northern California loved the long-discontinued ASICS Gel Moro and its successor, the also defunct Gel Extreme. My feet tell me the Gel Moro was the most comfortable trail running shoe ever made. The local running store sold 130 pairs, with just two dissatisfied customers. I logged 1700+ miles on my first pair and they were still wearable. R.I.P. Gel Moro — we’ll miss you. I’m currently wearing Montrail Leona Divide trail shoes. Extremely durable and comfy, but not much forefoot protection. As an experiment, I’ll be making my own rock-barrier inserts from foot-shaped pieces of plastic kitchen cutting mat. I’ll let you know how it goes.
For trail races, it makes sense to wear trail gaiters, which look like Scrooge McDuck spats. I finished the 1992 Pacific Crest Trail 50K with eight huge, gory blood and water blisters caused by High-Sierra granite dust. Since wearing Trail Gators, I’ve never had a serious blister.
For many years, Suzi Cope ran, on average, one or two 50- or 100-milers per month. She has probably run more 100s than any other woman. Every ultrarunner owes her a debt of gratitude for her discovery of duct tape. To prevent blisters and raw sores, you can wrap duct tape (not too tightly) around the vulnerable portions of your feet. Test this in training!
The best source of advice and information about foot care for ultrarunners is John Vonhof’s book, <Fixing Your Feet>, which you can order directly from him. This book contains every foot-care trick and technique you’re likely to need. HIGHLY recommended. Vonhof describes all the best duct-taping and bag-balming strategies.
Bag balm, by the way, is exactly what it sounds like–it’s for cows with sore udders, and it works wonders on ultrarunning feet. See Vonhof’s book for details.
Most 50-mile races allow you to prepare “drop bags”–plastic or paper bags or shoe-boxes marked with your name, which you leave in appropriately marked piles at the starting line, to be delivered to designated aid stations on the course. Information about bag drops is routinely included in the information packet that’s usually mailed to pre-registered runners.
What should you include in your drop bags? For starters, your favorite race fuel(s) that won’t be available on the course. Perhaps a little screw-top plastic cup of sunscreen. Extra duct tape, wound on a stick. Clean socks. A long-sleeved shirt or Tyvek jacket. A flashlight if you’ll be running after dark. All the little extra comforts of home. Vitamin B. Vaseline. Spirulina.
Yes, vitamin B. Take along some Rainbow Light Complete B Complex, a combination of vitamin B with spirulina, a nice energy booster. Vitamin B is the cheerfulness vitamin. Taking one pill every 1-2 hours, beginning 6 hours into a race, can make the difference between feeling blue or feeling pretty good while various bodily appendages begin to fall apart.
Run/Walk Strategy. My first ultramarathoning mentor was Jim Walker, an ultra veteran from Grass Valley, California. Jim has run 120+ marathons, finished Western States four times, American River 50 eight times, and the notorious Badwater race (135 miles across Death Valley in midsummer heat) once. Jim holds the record for the round-trip ascent of Mt. Whitney. Obviously, he knows quite a bit about ultrarunning, and like many ultrarunning veterans, he’s generous with advice.
Before I ran the American River 50 the first time, I stopped by Sports Fever to check strategy with Jim. I said I planned to run 25 minutes and walk 5–or maybe run 50 minutes and walk 10. Jim said, “Oh, no!–you’ll tear yourself up. You should do 5 and 1.” I said, “You mean, run five miles and walk one?” “No, no! Run five <minutes> and walk one <minute>.”
Jim explained that 5:1 works like magic, that it’s far less stressful than 25:5. He said he decided to run AR50 straight through one year, and finished in 10:15. The next year, he did 5:1 and ran 8:24. “I even stopped at Granite Bay for a bowel of soup in the RV.”
I used 5:1 at AR50 and finished in 10:14 at age 53–no speed record, but I felt pretty good throughout.
Mental Factors. Unlike the marathon, a 50 has not one, but two “walls.” The first comes at the familiar 18-mile point. If your training and your race fuels are working well, you shouldn’t have much trouble here. Far more worrisome is the dip that may come between 30 and 40 miles. It’s unfamiliar territory, and problems at this point can make you anxious, and depressed at the thought of possibly not finishing. Once again, the right fuels can help you get through. First and foremost, though, you should realize that <every> ultrarunner has experienced a “bad patch” that seemed like it would never end, only to feel wonderful just 5 or 10 miles farther down the road.
If you’re in <real> trouble at 35 miles, you can always switch to Coke, Pepsi, and Mountain Dew. Sugar and caffeine can chase away the blues. Personally I’d prefer to DNF rather than start stoking caffeine, which takes me out of my center and makes me iritable. Chose to DNF at my first Quad Dipsea rather than take caffeine. To each his own.
Attitude is key in an ultra. A wonderful feature of ultras is the friendship and mutual support that’s generated, late in a race. Doing a difficult thing together, people find little reason for cutthroat competition. As Frank Shorter said, “The marathon is just too difficult to waste energy thinking about hating the other runners.”
A helpful, encouraging attitude toward others opens an inflow of joy. If you can become bigger than the pain and encourage others even while your own body is falling apart, you’ll discover that the race can be a personal victory. You’ll never say “Never again.”
People who try to use weight by running are often disappointed. They lose 10 or 15 pounds and hit a plateau and find it hard to lose more.
Don’t be discouraged! Realize that if you’re exercising regularly, you’ve won the biggest part of the weight-loss battle. Don’t give up—you <can> lose more weight.
Best book I’ve found on weight loss: Eat to Live. The author, Joel Fuhrman, MD, is a former world-class figure skater. The book is meticulously researched — everything that Fuhrman says is backed by references to reputable studies. I disagree with Eat to Live on several points. I don’t believe everyone can thrive on a vegan diet, which Fuhrman feels is optimal. I’ve tried veganism for years at a time and have never felt optimally well. I do much better drinking a glass of milk daily. But the diet does shed the pounds, and you never feel hungry.
Another first-rate book is Eat Fat: Lose Fat, which presents a mountain of reputable evidence refuting the link between cholesterol and saturated fats and heart disease. I’m not making a recommendation here, so don’t sue me if your ticker gives out, but I do feel much stronger – and lose more weight – when I’m not cutting out all saturated fat from my diet.
To drop an <additional> few pounds, you might consider several commonsense solutions. First, consider a <short-term> weight-loss diet. The key to short-term dieting is to realize that a diet can truly be enjoyable, satisfying, tasty, and filling.
First off, <stop> thinking about all the foods you <can’t> eat. Instead, sit down and make a list of all the foods you <can> eat. You’ll quickly see how easy it is to plan a day of satisfying, tasty meals and snacks. To help you plan your diet, I highly recommend the books by Dr. Dean Ornish.
Did you know that certain fats can actually <help> you lose weight–like flax seed oil and safflower oil? In fact, there’s a large body of research about “healthy” fats that hasn’t been widely reported in the popular fitness magazines. You’ll find an excellent summary of this research in John Finnegan’s book, <The Facts About Fats>. An even better resource, though more technical, is Udo Erasmus’s book, <Fats That Heal, Fats That Kill>.
Another useful reference is Ann Louise Gittleman’s <Beyond Pritikin>, although Gittleman recommends safflower oil, which in the amounts she recommends has been found to pose health hazards. Other experts recommend flax seed oil as a better alternative. Beware, however, that Pitta (will power) body types do <not> tolerate flax and safflower oils well, as they’re very stimulating.
There are two ways to run marathons and ultras without “hitting the wall.” First, you can do high-mileage training. My friend and former speedwork coach, 64-year-old Carl Ellsworth, won the 1994 and 1995 Northern California road-race Grand Prix series in his age group. Carl never uses sports drinks in the marathon or in training, only water, yet he never hits the wall. “When you’re out there just three hours,” he says with a smile, “the wall isn’t much of a problem.” Carl attributes his success to the years when he was running 100-mile weeks.
Another way to avoid the wall involves several factors. The first is training. Former Olympian Jeff Galloway says the body is only capable of doing on race day what it has done recently in training. So it’s a good idea to gradually build your long runs up to 26 miles or more, including frequent walking breaks. His marathon training program is explained in <Jeff Galloway’s Book on Running> and <Marathon!>.
The second strategy for “de-walling” the marathon involves appropriate fuels. I discussed these in “Running Your First 50-Miler.” That section also gives advice for carrying your fuels, since most marathons provide sub-optimal race drinks at aid stations.
The question of fuels is <not> trivial. It is simply not true that any fuel works equally well for all runners. I strongly recommend that you experiment in training with the fuels mentioned earlier, as well as any others that seem promising. Experiment and find the ones that work for you. It will make a world of difference in your races.
I mentioned several ultramarathoning secrets in the sections above: duct tape, Trail Gators, fuels, 5:1 run/walk ratio. Here are some others:
[Training Mileage.] My friend and mentor, Jim Walker, had a revealing conversation with Jim King, three-time winner of the Western States 100.
Jim (Walker) was telling Jim (King) how he (Walker) had been training 120 miles per week in preparation for Western States. He was feeling pleased and proud, so he was surprised when Jim King exclaimed. “Why are you killing yourself?! I won Western States three times, and I never ran more than about 70 miles a week!”
I’m not sure what this story proves, except that it’s impressive confirmation of something Dr. Timothy Noakes says in his authoritative book, <The Lore of Running>. Researchers who studied the effects of high training mileage found that there were no significant improvements in endurance in runners who trained more than 70 miles/week–not even in runners who were training up to 230 miles/week.
Now, then, I know several runners who say they’ve run 100-mile and 50-mile races while training 90 and 120 miles per week, and who swear that they race faster, feel better, and recover faster on the higher mileage. How do you square this with Jim King’s experience, and the research that says 70 miles per week is enough?
I don’t know. But I suspect that age and individual differences play a role. You may find that you break down if you train more than 70 miles per week. You may find that you can train <very slowly> for 100 miles a week, but when you add speedwork you get sick, and your carefully built training program falls apart. Some people thrive on high mileage; some can’t handle it. There <are> genetic limitations, and in the last analysis it’s up to you to find out what works best for your body. Bear in mind, also, that most runners who seem to easily handle high mileage have built up to it gradually, taking up to 10 years to develop their ability to withstand week after 100-mile week.
You can handily finish a 50-miler on just 30 miles per week, provided you do lots of long runs. Or, you can do quite well in a 50-miler by running 70 or 90 miles a week. If you can run those 70-90 miles at 7:00 pace or faster, you may even win races.
Set your goals and train accordingly. If you’re running ultras just for fun and social contact, foreseeing a long, gradual, comfortable improvement curve, with frequent races, then you surely don’t need to train high mileage. But if you want to race fast times, there simply is no getting around the need for lots of miles.
Let’s say you want to run a moderately fast 50, and you’ve decided to train 70 miles per week. How should you run those miles? Should you run fast, slow, short, or long?
The absolute first priority, regardless of your racing goal, is the long run. The training guide for entrants in the Western States race warns against running 90 miles per week in the form of six 15-mile runs, wrily noting: “You’ll be the best 15-mile runner in the race — but you probably will not finish.”
To run a <fast> 50 or 100, you must either run high mileage, or do training runs of 30+ miles fairly regularly, and you must do lots of them, using a walk-run strategy and building up to the point where you can run them on at least 2 out of 4 weekends per month, while decreasing the number of walking breaks, carefully monitoring yourself all the time to avoid overtraining. Two highly successful runners who seldom ran over 22 miles in training were Comrades Marathon champion Bruce Fordyce and top ultrarunner Ray Krolewicz. You’ll find Fordyce’s story in Tim Noakes’s Lore of Running.
If running 30 miles 2-4 times a month sounds a bit much, bear in mind that whatever your talents and condition, you will <have to> run those miles slowly enough that they don’t kill you. You <must> be able to recover in time for the next run. You’re trying to improve, not destroy yourself. Right now, I can go out and run 30 miles and recover in 3-4 days, so long as I use the 5:1 run/walk strategy. By contrast, former ultrarunner Dana Roueche used to run 33-36 miles every Saturday <without walking breaks.> Dana would arise at 3 a.m. and run from 4-10 a.m. so that he could spend the rest of the day with his family. In a word: awesome.
Don’t be guided by the amazing recovery times of ultrarunners with years of experience and/or exceptional talent.
Not a few ultrarunners get in their long runs by racing. I ran briefly with Suzi Shearer during the Sierra Nevada Endurance Run, a trail double marathon, and I asked her how she trains. “I don’t,” she said matter-of-factly. “I just race–probably two 50-milers or a 100 and a 50 every month. I might go out on a Wednesday and jog a few miles, but that’s all.”
Eric Robinson is another runner who trains by racing. Eric and I chatted during the 1997 Jim Skophammer 24-Hour Run, where we were helping out on the sidelines. Eric said he enters at least two ultras per month and does no other running, except for a single midweek speedwork session. “I keep my race entries in a spreadsheet program, and sometimes I forget to log a race and realize on Friday that I’m entered in a race. It can get pretty hectic.”
[Training for the Downhills.] Race director Norm Klein says that 80% of the dropouts at Western States are caused by the quad-killing downhills of the notorious “Canyons” in the first 56 miles of the race.
Due to the sadism of race directors, virtually every trail ultra features insane hills. If you’ve run hills regularly in training, you’ll probably have no problems with the <uphills>. Most ultrarunners walk the uphills, anyway. The real killer is the <downhills>.
I ran in the ‘97 Western States race and didn’t finish. I dropped out at 56 miles when the doctors said I was in danger of kidney failure. I’m not a big fan of dialysis or irreversible kidney damage, so I quit.Yet I felt massively positive about my race. I had completed the most difficult part of the course, the Canyons, charging the uphills at power-walk pace, without the slightest whisper of a shadow of a hint of a suggestion of quad pain. The next morning, I did a single-leg deep knee bend past 90 degrees, without any pain whatever.
Be warned: I suspect my DNF was at least partially caused by my Stormin’ Norman approach to the uphills. Afterwards, I did a little math, realizing that ultras are won on the downhills and the flats, not the uphills. He/she who can run fastest, for the longest time, wins. No one runs fast on the uphills at Western States. The winners at Western States average roughly nine minutes per mile, by walking the worst uphills and flying over the flats and downhills, with few walking breaks. Don’t try it unless you’re regularly running 140-mile weeks.
In sharp contrast to my experience at Western States, three years earlier my quads were trashed at the 1994 Sierra Nevada double marathon, with just 3700′ of downhills. Clearly, I had done something meaningful in between.
Jim King, the three-time Western States champion, has been known to say, “Nobody can beat me on the hills.” A friend of mine saw King trotting up a difficult two-mile hill in the Sierra foothills <backwards>. Jim has huge quads.
Probably the most time-efficient way to build quad strength is with weights. In just two 45-minute workouts per week, you can harden your legs for the most demanding trail race. Here’s how.
The most important part of the hill-toughening workout is the slant leg-press machine. When I began strengthening my quads for Western States, I consulted my trainer, Bob Botkin. Bob is amazing. He certainly isn’t a gym-broiled human lobster, yet at age 76 he can do 12 <slow>, continuous reps of 410 pounds on the leg-press machine, in the middle of a 10-set lower-leg workout. Whoa!
Bob had me sit in the machine and place my feet on the upper right corners of the metal plate. He put 180 lbs (four 45-lb plates) on the bars. Then he instructed me to release the safety lock and bend my legs a little way past 90 degrees and continue flexing and extending <slowly>. “Don’t stop. Make it a ‘washing machine’ motion. After six reps you’ll hate me.”
After six reps my quads were not happy campers. And when Bob allowed me a one-minute break and put on another 25 lbs and had me do another 12-rep set, my quads were moaning softly. “There’s not a lot of time until your race, so you need to work out three times a week to get ready. You can do three sets with a 2-minute rest in between, adding 25 lbs for each set.”
The first two weeks were torture, but then my quads gradually began to adjust, and soon I was actually enjoying the challenge.
I’ll tell you, though, thrashing my quads three times a week at the gym completely ruined my enjoyment of running. My legs felt dead all the time, and I certainly couldn’t zip up the hills with my customary elan. On the other hand, a simple 20-miler became as hard as 40 miles, so I felt I was gaining overall toughness by slogging through the long runs.
Eight weeks before Western States, I did the What, Mi-Wok Trail 100K as a test. I power-walked the race with my buddy Dave Littlehales, the former 2:50 marathoner mentioned earlier, who has congenital hip problems that forced him to give up running years ago. Dave kept me skipping and jogging all day, and we had a great time. In fact, I gained huge confidence from discovering that I could walk and slow-jog 62.2 miles at 16:00 pace, which translates to a 27-hour finish for 100 miles.
The Miwok 100K had 19,000′ of ascent/descent, yet after the race I had no quad soreness at all. Very encouraging–and, as I mentioned earlier, the weights paid off at Western States, even though I DNF’d.
I did several other exercises at the gym: calf raises, hamstring exercises, “butt machine” (the machine where you kick back against weight). Butt muscles (glutes) get a tough workout on the hills–my quads weren’t sore after WS100, but my butt sure was. Before WS100, I told the awesome Suzi Shearer that I felt like a postulant entering the monastic order of 100-mile runners. Her dry comment: “Your postulant is gonna be draggin’ after Western States.” Anatomically, she was correct.
I also did lots of ab work, because I feel it helps my running form. Dave Littlehales and I figured out that if we can keep our weight centered over our hips and not let our butts stick out–“sitting in the bucket”–then running or power-walking becomes nearly effortless. I’ve played with this form adjustment late in 30-mile training runs, and it really works. I’ve also discovered that if I do my yoga stretches regularly, it becomes much easier to run with a straight spine and butt tucked in. Lately, I’ve experimented with Chi Running, while reading ultrarunner Danny Dreyer’s fascinating book. Dreyer believes the most efficient running form is like leaning forward and falling, so that gravity does a good part of the work.
A nice thing about weights is that after achieving a certain level of strength, you can cut back your gym visits to once or twice a week. Matt Mahoney, perennial finisher at the Leadville Trail 100, runs just 15 miles per week but does lots of bicycling, swimming, and weight-lifting. Matt says that one tough weight workout per week keeps him ready for the mountain trails of Colorado. By the way, Matt also runs the Pike’s Peak Marathon ever year just one week before Leadville. Is your jaw dropping? Mine is.
I once asked the runners on the Internet ultrarunning lists (see end of this article) how they prepare for the downhills. Over 40 ultrarunners responded, offering a spectrum of approaches, from mountain biking on hills, to sprinting on a road bike, Stairmaster, running hilly loops, “wall sits” (sit against a wall with knees bent to 90 degrees), lunges, etc. Whatever method you choose, be strong or be sorry.
[Five-and-One Run/Walk Strategy.] I discussed this in detail under “Running Your First 50-Miler.” The 5:1 run/walk ratio is far more sparing of the body’s energy reserves than running 25:5.
Here’s a thought-provoking fact: if you could run for 5 minutes at 6:00 pace, and if you could repeat that 28 times, walking for 1 minute at 20:00 pace after each repetition (a shuffle!), you would finish the marathon in under 3 hours.
Of course, in a trail ultra it won’t always be possible to maintain a 5:1 pace because of the hills. Faced with a hilly course, many ultrarunners power-walk the uphills, go lickety-split on the downhills, and do 5:1 or some other run/walk ratio on any long, flat sections.
An afterthought regarding 5:1. Just because it may work well in a 50K or 50-mile, don’t expect it to work in a 100 or a 24-hour race. I’ve never completed a 100 or run a 24, so I’m not the one to give advice here. But from watching 24’s and 100’s, I’ve quickly realized that for the average, low-mileage plodder like me, 5:1 would be <brutal> for races longer than 50 miles or 100K. Adjust and survive.
[Speedwork.] Hmmm…let’s see:
A 30-hour 100-miler is 18-minute pace.
A 27-hour 100-miler is 17-minute pace.
An 8:20 50-miler is 10-minute pace.
Well, gosh, those are all pretty slow running paces. So, who needs speedwork?
Not so fast. Speedwork is actually a great weapon for the ultrarunner. By running just 3 miles of fast quarters, halves, and miles, in virtually any combination, once a week, you can achieve three very useful things:
a. You’ll be able to complete the running segments of an ultra much faster. That’s because speedwork will make your low-effort “cruising speed” much faster. As a result, you’ll have better finishing times.
b. Your legs will get tougher and will feel less wiped-out in the late stages of the ultra. <Any> kind of speedwork will probably help. (Okay, 10 miles of 100-meter repeats? Be serious!)
c. Speedwork efficiently increases overall fitness, which helps your endurance.
[Blisters.] I mentioned duct tape earlier. Also worth mentioning is Compeed, a blister plaster that you can buy or order at your local drugstore. Ultrarunner Suzi Shearer swears by Compeed, and she should know. Don’t forget to get a copy of John Vonhof’s <Fixing Your Feet,> which includes numerous invaluable suggestions for preventing blisters.
[Nipples.]There’s a famous photo of Park Barner, a legendary ultrarunner of the 1970s, wearing a blood-streaked T-shirt after a 180-mile run on canal banks in Pennsylvania, during which he nearly froze to death during the night.
I’ve tried everything to protect my nipples, from Band-Aids to duct tape, and the only thing that works consistently is Vaseline. A single application is enough to get me through a 50, but you may need to experiment. You can buy little plastic screw-top cups in the cosmetic section of the drugstore and fill them with Vaseline for your drop bags.
[PhosFuel.] Dave Remington ran the Angeles Crest 100-Mile and crashed at 65 miles. Along came Bernie Leupold, a longtime ultrarunner who takes Twinlab PhosFuel and Siberian ginseng during 100-mile trail ultras.
Leupold recommended more PhosFuel. Remington recalls: “So I increased my dosage of PhosFuel to 2-3 per hour. Magic! Leg pain went away…. After the finish I felt fine and walked around talking to people. In the days following I did not have any muscle soreness, although there was some edema, swollen legs and stiffness (but not a lot).”
PhosFuel seems worth checking out, but be sure to test carefully before using it for ultras or for shot, fast races. I used PhosFuel during a 30K after following the 3-day “loading” process, as described on the label. By 10 miles I was dead. I thought, “Oh well, I’ll take 2 more and see what happens.” Two miles later, I had slowed to a crawl and felt like wandering off into a plowed field and going to sleep. I stopped taking the pills and several miles later felt a lot better. Go figure.
[The Dreaded DNF] Sooner or later, you may fail to finish an ultra, or you’ll finish in “limp-home mode.” Depending on your attitude, it will be no more than an emphasized learning experience or a meanspirited evaluation by an unfeeling universe of your personal worth. My advice: cultivate the former attitude and avoid the latter. I’m eternally grateful to ultra veteran Herm Cohen, who watched me stagger out of the What, Mi-Wok Trail 100K and said, “Hey, it’s okay–I’ve DNF’d so many times I can’t remember. You’ll be back, just learn from it.” Herm was right–I was back, finishing Mi-Wok the next year feeling that I could have continued for another 30 miles.
Life never judges us; it only gives us feedback. I’ve never known an ultrarunner who simply quit. Life, like ultrarunning, is about RFP–“Relentless Forward Progress.” Any single race is only a single step along the road.
The most powerful attitude that will help you be a winner even on days when the race “wins,” is expansiveness. See yourself as growing through every experience.
Tanaka Shozo, a famous Japanese conservationist, said, “The question of rivers is not a question of rivers, but of the human heart.” Ultrarunning is to a very large degree a question of the heart. Make yours big and you’ll always be a winner.
I hope this helps. Here’s the best tip of all: if you aren’t already on the ultra lists, join it immediately. It’s the best source of information for ultrarunners, neophyte or old and hoary. Just yesterday, there was a post on the ultra list from Tim Twietmeyer, many-times winner of the Western States 100.
To join the ultra list, send an e-mail message to email@example.com. In the body of the message, type: subscribe ultra your name. (Substitute your name.) Don’t put anything else in the message. You’ll be added to the list, and you’ll receive further instructions by e-mail.
There are many ultrarunning resources on the Internet. An excellent place to start is Stan Jensen’s site: http://www.run100s.com/.
Good luck in your first ultra!