photo by Reddit/Fort Collins user jboeke — Arthur’s Rock on 26 December, morning, 11*F
So, somewhat obviously, I have fallen behind in posting about weekly runs and training — for several reasons:
(1) I tend not to carry a camera with me on my runs, but had self-assigned the task of including one “best” photo from a run from that week in the corresponding blog post. Surprised that it took me about two months to fall off that wagon? I should have seen that coming.
(2) I also tend not to carry any technology with me, besides a simple wristwatch and my non-smart phone, turned off, just for emergencies — no FitBit, no Strava, no altitude-app, none of that, which I believe is a blessing, but which makes calculating vertical gain of each run a bit time-consuming. And as I also self-assigned including the gain of each run, well, there it goes.
(3) I locked myself into a bit of a posting schedule that began to feel restrictive — training week recap on Mondays, shorter post about articles or humor on Thursdays — and sometimes, I want to share all about one run; other times, I just want to speculate and reflect. So when the schedule became too prescriptive, I headed for the hills (literally!), not the laptop keys.
(4) And then there was Christmas and New Year’s and a long holiday where I had sporadic internet access at best (don’t have it at home, only got it at the public library once or twice a week), so I was reading, dreaming, running, cooking, celebrating, and so many other fun things… but not so much blogging.
Anyway. New Year, new more resolved Lucien, and the blog will go on — but with a looser posting schedule, but with at least one post a week about something somewhat connected to this ultrarunning adventure — about which I am more excited than ever.
Before this year, I was a reasonably proficient marathon runner (PB: 2hr 50min), but I had never run an ultra – a foot race longer than a marathon. Intrigued by the ever-growing popularity of these races, I decided to ratchet up the distances. I ended up running six ultras in 2017, the last three of them in a mad five-week period, culminating with the epic 100 Miles Sud de France in the Pyrenees last month.
It has been a steep learning curve, and by the end of these races I knew things about how to survive and complete an ultra that I didn’t know before – things that might help others embarking on one in the future.
Of course, not everyone will agree, and there are many ways to approach an ultra, but just turning up with a pair of running shoes, some water and a few gels, as I did for the first one, and like you can in most shorter races, is not advisable. Ultras take planning. You need to be organised. That’s lesson one.[emphasis by LDM– Excellent! So for someone like me, a hyper-planner and one who thinks the longer and more complex the forms are, the better, at least I have this part down.] It’s a lesson I learned the hard way, and many are the times I’ve stood alone in a stew on the trail cursing my poor preparation.
Lesson one: get planning
One time was near the end of the second day of the Ring O’ Fire ultra I ran in Anglesey in September. The race is one complete lap of the Welsh island on the coastal path. I can just follow the signs, I thought. But when I got there, the other runners were all clutching well-marked maps. Others had phones with advanced trail finding apps downloaded. And all with good reason, because it turns out the coast path is not always easy to follow.[emphasis by LDM– Already encountering this in planning out the Quad Rock course map, wondering if the trail junctures will be marked clear enough to follow in training, wondering what might happen if I missed a turn, wondering if I could be quick enough to shadow other runners on training runs… but I love maps, so a detailed trusty map gives me hope]
The first day, a mere 35 miles, I got around by sticking like glue to other, more organised runners. But I realised this was not a foolproof system, so that first night I found a map and hastily drew the course for the remaining two days on it. I also installed the Viewranger app on my phone and downloaded the GPX file of the course, which had been on the race website all along.
But 62 miles into day two, as darkness was descending, I came to a crossroads. The sign for the coast path said turn left. My map said go straight on. I pulled out my phone. It was dead. Did I trust my map or the sign? I went for the sign as, in my haste I’d been far from careful plotting the route, I now realised. I’d just drawn it on my map roughly, thinking that would be close enough.
An hour later I was waving down cars, knocking on the doors of tiny cottages, scaring the life out of the local people, trying to find out where the hell I was. After more 12 hours running I was a mess. A mess of my own making.
Case study number two: coming out of Py in the Pyrenees, 11 hours into the 100 Miles Sud de France, as night fell, I pulled out my brand new Petzl MYO head torch. A top-of-the-range beauty straight out of the box. The light it gave off, though, was a bit dim. Maybe this was some clever lighting system that I hadn’t seen before. Dim light so you could see other things? No, that didn’t make sense. Then I realised – the batteries were dead. I couldn’t believe I hadn’t checked them before the start. I stood cursing myself once again. (Luckily the organisers insist you bring spare batteries and a spare head torch, so I did just about manage to make it through the night.)
Lesson two: take on enough sustenance
Every article on ultra running talks about this, and I’d read them all. I’d heard the quote countless times that an ultra is really just an eating competition with some running thrown in. But when you come from a road running background, it can be a hard message to fully take on board. [emphasis by LDM– Just looking at nutrition today, and marveling how on earth I could go from, say, 100 calories an hour, which is comfortable and good for me up to 5 hours/30 miles to the more recommended 200-300 calories per hour…]
So in the Miwok 100km race in California – my second ultra – I spent 20 miles struggling, weary, barely able to get myself beyond walking pace. Then at an aid station at 50 miles, some guy saw me trying to fill my pitiful thimble of a fold-up cup with a drink.
“That’s not a cup,” he said. “This is a cup.” He thrust a cup the size of a pint glass in front of me and filled it to the brim with an energy drink. I drank the whole thing down. Ten minutes later, I was running like a maniac, sprinting up hills, whooping as the other runners grimaced at this hyperactive imbecile in their midst.
I felt so good I ran right passed the next aid station without even stopping. Big mistake. Lesson still not learnt. Ten minutes later, I crashed again.
So, eat, drink, run, eat, drink, run. That’s an ultra.
Lesson three: get a bigger cup
For those races that make you bring your own cup, I now carry a huge, lightweight plastic vessel attached to the outside of my bag. And, at every aid station, I fill it to the brim.
Lesson four: get some extra cushioning
This may not be an issue for those with feet made of hardened leather, but for people with regular, soft, delicate feet like me, take note: you will need more cushioning for an ultra. This may be obvious, but I’m a steadfast believer in minimal running. I’ve spent a long time learning to run with good form and I long ago stopped heel striking. It means I can (usually) run in nice light racing flats. Even in marathons I cruise around wearing shoes specifically designed only for 5ks and 10ks. So I thought I could do the same in my ultras. I couldn’t.
In each race, I spent the last third or so with my feet on fire, trying to avoid any bit of hard ground, preferring whenever possible to run through long grass (slower) than on baked earth or tarmac (faster). This impacted on the rest of my body as I tried to change my form to protect my feet. I would finish each race in my minimal trail shoes glancing jealously at those people wearing those big fluffy Hokas. “It’s like running on a bouncy castle,” one Hoka runner told me. Eventually I caved in and got a pair.
And I have to say, they were a revelation. In the 100 Miles Sud de France, I was on my feet for almost 40 hours. That is a long time. My hip flexors ached, my quads were like bricks, by the end I was hallucinating … but my feet? My feet were fine.
Lesson five: turn off your GPS
This won’t be popular with everyone, and it has its drawbacks, but I found knowing that I still had 40 miles, or 50 miles, left, when I was already feeling dead on my feet, only stressed me out. Then, after what seemed like forever of running, I would look at the watch again and I’d have 39 or 49 miles left. It killed me each time, like running into a hedge. So in the 100 Miles Sud de France, I didn’t start my GPS. I just used the time, to get a rough idea of whether it was day or night. And mostly I felt more relaxed.
I asked many top ultra runners for their advice before I set out on this journey, and almost all said to try to stay in the moment, to take it one step at a time. This is sensible advice, crucial even, but almost impossible with a constant bleeping reminder on your arm of how far you still have to go. [emphasis by LDM– So here is a vote in favor of my tech-less running style — even music/ear buds are much too distracting for me, so while I might have to prepare more in lieu of GPS, I might be more ready to exist in the moment.]
Without it, I just kept moving, legs turning, up and down, through whatever the race threw at me until I got to the finish. Which, it turned out in France was more than 100 miles from the start, according to those who did keep their watches on. Seeing your watch click past 100 miles and to realise the end is still nowhere in sight must be incredibly debilitating. But me, I ran on in blissful ignorance, churning away, like a monk mediating on the moment. Well, sort of.
So, now I’m an expert, which is lucky because I’m hoping to run the most competitive ultra in the world next year, the Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc. I’ll need every advantage I can get to finish that in one piece, so if you have any tips of your own, please share them below.
DO. NOT. BE. INTIMIDATED. If you have completed a marathon or two, you can–in 16 weeks–add an ultramarathon to your running resume. Really. [emphasis by LDM — great confidence booster!]
“In South Africa, 14,000 runners each year enter the Comrades Marathon, 54 challenging miles of big rolling hills, and each year about 85 percent of them finish,” says George Parrott, ultrarunning vet and director of training for the Buffalo Chips Running Club of Sacramento. “The moral here is that your expectations can get you to the finish line of an ultramarathon, and that this kind of distance is not unworldly.”
Okay, but first, what exactly is an ultramarathon? Anything beyond the classic 26.2-mile distance–races from increasingly popular 50-Ks to 100-milers to solo crossings of continents. For your first adventure on the far side of 26.2, we suggest that you look a bit beyond the 50-K–really just a stretched-out marathon–to 50 miles, the first true, bragging-rights ultra. So find yourself a friendly 50-miler, count back 16 weeks from race day, clip and post the following training plan–and get to it.
You’re not going to spend most of your waking hours running. That’s because prepping for a 50-miler is much like marathon training, but with fewer and slower intervals, and somewhat longer (and slower) long runs spiced with walking breaks. Our plan offers enough miles in the proper dosages to prepare you for your first 50, while leaving you with enough time and energy to have, like, an actual life.
Ultra training is not about speed, or even distance, but rather time on your feet. Hence, the core element in getting you ready is the long run “sandwich”: back-to-back long, slowish runs on successive days (likely Saturday and Sunday) bookended by two days of total rest. [emphasis by LDM — plus, B2B runs allow high weekend mileage while decreasing risk of injury]
When you start the 16-week schedule below, you must be at the point where you’re running 15 to 18 miles for your weekly or every-other-week long run.
You’ll be doing a bit of long, but not-so-fast interval work to boost muscle strength, stamina, and aerobic capacity. This will also keep you from settling into a semipermanent slow slog that makes a 12-minute pace feel like a 100-meter dash.
When it comes to running the long stuff, friends make for more fun. “Find training partners who have the same goal, so you can all encourage each other and learn from each other’s experiences as your training progresses,” says Luis Alvarez, who finished his first 50-miler to celebrate his 50th birthday. “And if you have someone who has experienced the distance and is willing to train with you, so much the better.”
1) Stay flat
Find as flat a 50 as you can, and as close to home as possible. Running this far for the first time is tough enough without the added stress of steep hills and travel.
2) Get familiar
Train on the terrain you’re going to race on: trails, asphalt, or–as is common in many 50-mile events–a mix of the two.
3) Take breaks
“Stopping briefly for walk breaks in both training and racing is the key to being able to move forward at all times,” says Buffalo Chips ultrarunner Becky Johnson.
4) Pack a bag
Most 50-mile events will drop your race bag near the 35-mile point (some also will make a drop around 20 miles). Your drop bag(s) should include solid fuel (your favorite energy bars, candy bars, or gels), sunscreen, long-sleeve T-shirt and/or nylon windbreaker, clean socks and an alternate pair of shoes, and Vaseline or skin lube.
5) Start slowly, then back off
Because when it comes to 50-milers, pacing errors no longer penalize just your finishing time, but the possibility of finishing at all. “Start off a full 30 seconds-per-mile slower than your marathon pace,” says Parrott.
6) Eat, drink, and (try to) be merry
During the race, eat whatever worked for you during your training runs: cookies, raisins, figs, crackers, pretzels, energy bars. Whatever. And drink continuously: eight ounces or so every 15 to 20 minutes, including electrolyte-loaded sports drinks. Consider high-caffeine drinks such as Mountain Dew over the last 15 miles.
7) Find a rhythm
One popular run/walk pattern is to run 20 minutes, walk five minutes. Do this from the outset, or after you’ve run the first 15 or 20 miles, or whatever pattern has worked best for you in your training. Some prefer a shorter mix of running five minutes, then walking one, believing that this is less stressful than the 20:5 pattern. Note: Walk all uphills, even the small ones, and even if it means short-circuiting a run segment.
8) Be prepared
Just how much time is this thing going to take you? To get a ballpark expectation, double your best marathon time and add two hours to get a realistic 50-mile time. So for example, a 3:30 marathoner could expect to run his or her first 50 in about nine hours. [emphasis by LDM — looks like a 12-hour adventure for me!]
If you have been curious about taking the leap from 26.2 or 31 miles (50K) to 50 miles, figuring out how to train …
Photo by Keith Facchino
If you have been curious about taking the leap from 26.2 or 31 miles (50K) to 50 miles, figuring out how to train for your first 50-miler may seem daunting.
But don’t stress—the primary goal in your first 50-miler should simply be to finish the race. With the proper build up, mental attitude and persistence, it’s an achievable goal for most athletes. [emphasis by LDM — I love the confidence-building here.]
To finish your first 50-miler, begin the training process early. “Allow a four- to six-month build-up if you’re starting to run again after a layoff,” says Scott Drum, Ph.D., Director of the High Altitude Performance Lab in Gunnison, Colorado, “or about three months if you have been training consistently for the previous three months.”
Since most 50-mile ultramarathons are on trails and may involve rough terrain, altitude and hill, it’s important to select a race that suits your abilities and usual training environment. A flatlander who lives at sea level, for instance, should avoid graduate-level 50-milers like Colorado’s high-country San Juan Solstice 50 or Devil’s Backbone 50 in Montana’s Gallatin Range (two of my faves). (See sidebar for some good first-timer options. [Included in original link, in addition to a sample training plan and nutrition/hydration tips. LDM])
Turn Up the Volume
Volume is simply how much training you are doing overall, week to week, measured in time or distance. For simplicity’s sake, we’ll use distance. Since 50 miles in one day may be more than you currently run in a week, it will take more training volume to achieve your goal. [emphasis by LDM — love this, especially when I look at other runners who are already bouncing out 75+ mile weeks 3-4 months in advance]
Whereas an average beginner marathon-training program varies weekly from 15 to 45 miles per week, a weekly volume of 50 to 60 miles will allow most runners to experience a great first 50. Assuming that you have run a marathon before, add 10 to 15 percent to each week’s total volume by increasing the length of every run if possible. Increase mileage for three weeks, and recover during a fourth week by dropping your mileage down into the same range as week one.
It’s All About the Long Run
Just as long runs are the backbone of any marathon-training plan, so it is when training for a 50-miler. Says professional ultrarunner Sean Meissner, “The weekly long run is the key to training for your first 50. As long as you’re progressively increasing the distance, do not worry about speed.”
In your first 50, you could be running between seven and 15 hours on race day. To build your endurance, long runs should be performed once a week or every 10 days, depending on your run history and ability to recover. Work to extend your longest long run to around 30 miles. Don’t be afraid to walk—in fact, practice it—during your long runs, because you will most likely walk in the race. [emphasis by LDM — crucial to remember, because running muscles are a bit different from walking muscles are a bit different from walking-after/during-lots-of-running muscles]
The 10-percent-per-week rule for increasing volume and distance is one I both love and hate. It’s a good guideline for most folks, but does not apply to everyone. It absolutely does not apply to talented or accomplished athletes in other sports who are running their first 50-miler. For the rest of us, it is a great starting point, and a safe bet.
As your training progresses, consider specificity, which means your training should be relevant and appropriate for your race course. If you are lucky enough to live near the goal race, run sections of it whenever possible.
If not, try to run trails or terrain that resemble the race course. If the race is fast, smooth singletrack, find a dirt bike path to run. If the race includes monster climbs, hit your local mountain trails or find something that challenges those same muscles and kinetic mechanics.
If a busy schedule that includes families and work makes you pinched for time, run hard. Studies show that a small amount of speed work can have a profound effect on your fitness.
While overall training emphasis should be on your long run, volume and consistency, everyone can benefit from speed work. My favorite way to incorporate speed is doing a 20-minute tempo run, which is run about 25 to 30 seconds per mile slower than current 5K race pace.
For runners who just can’t tolerate specific paces and track work, I prescribe fartleks. The word fartlek is Swedish for “speed play” and entails freestyle intervals, however long or short you feel like running them. For example, sprint to that rock a quarter-mile away, get your breath back, then power up the ensuing half-mile hill, recover and repeat over a period of 15 to 20 minutes.
Sneaking tempo runs and/or fartleks into each week will make a difference. Think of it as working the top end of your fitness. When running intervals, you are generally running anaerobically (without oxygen), which makes the body more efficient at consuming oxygen. This means your slower race pace will feel easier. Speed work also resets your brain’s concept of hard, improves economy and increases your muscular force, all of which has a trickle-down effect on slower-paced running. [emphasis by LDM — yes! this is like raising the ceiling of your Fitness House, which brings benefits all throughout training and racing, and while it seems counter-intuitive, I have found that a little dash of speed when I start to feel sluggish in a training or racing run then gives me extra bounce and less fatigue when I resume original pace] Don’t add speed and increase volume in the same week. Adding both is a recipe for injury.
Keep Your Head
The mental component of running your first 50-miler cannot be understated. Says the 2009 Ultrarunner of the Year and 2010 Western States 100 Champ, Geoff Roes, “If your body hasn’t raced 50 miles before, it’s not going to want to do it, so the key is to make sure you want it.” [emphasis by LDM — and this is why it feels absolutely crucial, to me, to make sure to run a race that has a very significant emotional attachment and engagement, a race that jumps into your mind when you imagine crossing the most inspiring finish line or running through the most inspiring environments]
Sticking to your training program and consistently doing weekly long runs is the best way to convince your mind you can and will run 50 miles. It also helps to expect the inevitable. The longer the run, the more chances you have to feel bad. As long as you know a low point will come, it’s easier to deal with mentally and not let it knock you off track.
Matt Hart head coach of CoachingEndurance.com. He’s also a professional ultrarunner, with 50-mile wins at Devil’s Backbone 50, Big Horn 50 and Mount Hood PCT 50.
Strange how I can go from feeling ready and so excited to begin moving toward a 50-mile race in 2018 — to feeling like I should consider another year (or 5) of marathoning first — to feeling excited again, sometimes all in a week or even a day.
Been reading several books on ultrarunning — Field Guide to Ultrarunning by Hal Koerner, Training Essentials for Ultrarunning by Jason Koop, and Ultramarathon Man by Dean Karnazes, most recently, as well as several blogs and websites.
“[If you have run at least one marathon,] your training background will allow you to handle volume and, possibly, added intensity for your first ultra build-up. If your goal is a 50k, long runs should mimic, in distance, those from your marathon training. Keep in mind that trail runs take longer than running the same distance on the road. These same marathon long-run distances are also appropriate for your first 50-mile training build-up, however, you may wish to throw in two to three weekend back-to-back long runs every two to three weeks in the peak training weeks. Limit the second long run to roughly half to three quarters the length of the first day’s run. If you’ve done stamina and speed workouts in the past, continue to add those to your training, but be sure to include extra recovery before and after so you’re rested before your weekly long run(s). Your weekly mileage will be the same as when you were training for a marathon, but the volume is redistributed.” I Run Far’s blogpost Your Ultra Training Bag of Tricks: A Newbie’s Guide to Ultramarathons.
“If you have successfully finished a marathon, you have the physical capacity to finish a 50K, 50-mile, or even a 100-mile race.” –Jason Koop
And since most 100-mile races have a cutoff of 30 hours, and that works out to 18min/mile and the average walking pace is around 20min/mile, “Just about everyone toeing the line for an ultramarathon has the fitness to run 1 mile, or even many miles, at significantly faster than the cutoff pace.” –Jason Koop
One more from Jason Koop: the top characteristics of elite ultrarunners are talent, toughness, and emotional engagement, with emotional engagement perhaps the most fundamental and vital. “It is easy to look at a race to match up how much climbing and descending it includes, consider how hot or cold it will be, and look at whatever other variables exist and say, ‘Well, you are good at X, Y, and Z, so go do the races with X, Y, and Z.’ However, I always begin with finding events the athlete is most emotionally engaged in. I put my athletes in a position for success by first encouraging them to train for events they genuinely care about, then building their physical tools around that event.”
So, in that sense, training for a race is a bit like studying for a test — you will not receive an A+ without a strong grasp of the fundamentals, but since there is an unlimited amount of potential knowledge to learn and a quite limited amount of time and brainspace, the greatest potential for success comes from studying what you love (as you want to learn more about it, it “sticks” better, it is relevant and meaningful) and knowing as much as you can about the particular test so you can target efforts and gain success.
With that in mind, of course it makes the most sense that my first 50-mile race should be the Quad Rock 50 in May, because I have been dreaming of running that race for over a year, I know and love the trails it is held on, I trust and appreciate the organization that puts on the race, and it helps me build toward my more ultimate goal of completing the “Gnar Slam” in perhaps 2019. Yes, it is daunting, with 11,000′ of ascent (and 11,000′ of descent), technical trails, and an early start (5:30am). And I am nervous about having my first ultra be my first race of the year. But when I am having to muster the motivation to step outside for 5 hours of training in 10 degrees, or the courage to keep going at mile 20, 24, or 28 of a 30-mile run, or during the race itself, when I wonder why I am running around the hills for 10 hours (or more) when I am hungry and my feet are tired, it is this emotional connection and investment in the Quad Rock 50 that will — no doubt about that, it will — keep me going.
So, onward then. Regardless of there being so many faster runners training, even now, with many more miles for this same race, I am here, and I have the desire, and here I go.
Poudre Trail from College Avenue out just past Taft Hill and back. Barely able to leap away from my work station for my lunch break today, between meetings and deadlines and random occurrences, so a slightly shorter run than I would have preferred, but fun with another round of ending each mile with a quick quarter-mile — just enough speedwork to break things up and vary my exertion, but not burdensome at all.
Thursday, 12/07/2017 – 8.0 miles (300′)
Poudre Trail from College Avenue out to Overland Trail and back. Running over the long bridge over the Poudre — in the last quarter-mile before turning around and back over toward work — always makes me think of the 2017 Horsetooth Half Marathon this past April, when I experienced this bridge in the company of about 1600 other runners — and after 10 miles of road running, this already buoyant wooden bridge turned into a bouncy house, which was slightly alarming but mostly grand fun. Later, after my run, my partner and I went to the running club’s annual holiday potluck, where I won free entry to the 2018 Horsetooth Half — but the lady who won free entry to either Black Squirrel or Blue Sky was interested in trading, and I gladly agreed. Horsetooth, in April, will be too close to Quad Rock in May — and is road — so I was thrilled to exchange prizes with her. She plans to run Horsetooth for the first time next year, so perfect timing all around.
Saturday, 12/09/2017 – 17.0 miles (1370′)
Spring Creek Trail – Pineridge, west side – Maxwell – Foothills Trail to the N. CO-23 crossing and back – Maxwell – Pineridge, east side – Spring Creek Trail. Still thinking about the tiredness I felt last week, after that Saturday’s 17 mile run, wondering how much is physical and how much is psychological, so I reversed the order of my Pineridge-going — turning left and moving south then north along the west side first, and finishing after Foothills and Maxwell by turning left and moving south along the east side to finish. It amazes me how different a place can feel when you encounter it in the opposite order as usual — while I felt much less light and sure on my feet, because the rocks were in all different places, I loved watching the Dixon Reservoir approach for the length of Pineridge’s Timber Trail (I normally have my back to it), and it was novel to run Maxwell and Foothills knowing that I had less distance than usual to cover once I got back to Pineridge. Still tired in the last few miles, but was following another runner for the last 1-1.5 miles, and simply focusing on that eliminated any tired feelings — so I think the mental component of this “final miles fatigue” cannot be underestimated.
You know, to the half-hour, how long it will take for your running shorts to dry in the house after being washed in the sink.
And how long it takes if the windows are open in summertime. Or if the windows are closed in winter. Or if the windows are closed and the heat is on.
And your loved one, coming upon you washing said shorts in the kitchen sink or carrying them from on top of your bicycle (which you need now to go out) to your chair, just smiles, maybe says, “Shorts clean now?” but no longer thinks there is anything strange about you sink-washing one garment even though you have a perfectly good washer and dryer…