After the fallout from the last synchroblog, I think it prudent that we stay away from relationship or marital advice. This month in Ask An Ultrarunner, I and my three synchrobloggers tackle three questions from runners. Feel free to add your own opinions to these questions or ask questions for the final installment of this year’s WS synchroblog.
Pooped Out asks: I’m a first 25% of the pack ultrarunner who prepares himself well for the one 100 miler I run each year. At least I think I prepare myself well. Everything goes well until the last 30 miles. At that time my perceived effort is huge, yet I’m barely moving. I can’t run any uphills, and even on the flats I struggle. So, my question is how does one prepare for the last thirty of a hundred mile race.
Pooped Out, the perceived effort those last 30 miles is huge because the effort is huge. You’re tired, dehydrated, and exhausted, but do you really think you’re more tired than everybody else out there? If at mile 80, you looked around at the runners who are passing you and asked how they felt do you think that they’d truthfully tell you, “I feel great — like a million bucks!” Most wouldn’t. We’re all tired out there. I’ve said for years that many of us can prepare ourselves physically to run 100 miles, but those who do the best, consistently, are mentally stronger. Sure, you can mess up your last 30 miles by not taking care of yourself during the first 70 miles by running too hard early or getting into caloric, fluid, or electrolyte deficits. You may also lack some training volume to run your best at the end. However, in my experience, what it usually comes down to is mental toughness. Are you going to sit and mope at ALT (85 miles) and complain about all the things that aren’t going well, or are you going to think about the things that are going well and push on to the end? If you suck on the uphills late do you dwell on that or do you remind yourself how well you are running the downhills?
How do you increase your mental toughness? I’m not the fastest runner out there but I usually don’t fall apart at the end. I’ve never walked in to finish a 100. Before getting specific on mental training tips, I’m going to assume that you have physically prepared yourself by running multiple 50+ mile or 10+ hour training or racing efforts before the big day. That you’ve done all the quad work, etc. And that you’ve done a decent job of taking care of yourself during the first 70 miles. What’s left is working on your mental toughness. How do you do that?
- Train to run harder at the end of long runs. I’ll often do long runs with a planned harder effort at the end of 2 to 10 miles. The Ice Cream Sandwich Run is a great example of that. It’s a 52 mile out-and-back run starting and ending at Cal-2 (or as WS calls it, Peachstone) with a trip out to the Swinging Bridge. It’s a huge run with 11-12,000′ of descending, designed by Twiet, and the crux of it is trying to run 1:15 from Foresthill to Cal-2 at the end (8.7 miles). It’s pretty crazy to even think about running that hard during most of the run, but you’d be amazed how fast you can run if you just do it. It makes you focus like you hopefully will on race day at the end. Sure, there is a physical training benefit, but I think the more important benefit is mental.
- Before the race, visualize moving well at the end. But, instead of just visualizing everything going well, also visualize dealing with problems. Perhaps you take a bug to the back of the throat at mile 80 and the subsequent puking episode empties your stomach. This can be devastating mentally, but I find if I have visualized dealing with an unplanned setback that it won’t derail me if it happens during the race. When I was a climber in my previous life, I used to visualize climbing difficult routes and would only visualize success. When I’d mess up the sequence in my visualization, I’d end the visualization because I had failed. And that is exactly how I climbed. Any small mistake used to put me in a mental state of failure and I’d undoubtably come off the rock. Think about moving well through the river, up Green Gate, through the flats of ALT and Brown’s Bar, down to the river and back up to the loud cheering at highway 49, then cruising the downhill to No Hands, across the flats where the trains used to go, up to the streets of Robie and the loud parties, then smiling and enjoying the last decent from the white bridge and around the track. If anything goes wrong in the visualization just work through the problem and deal with it positively.
- Have goals and be willing to modify as necessary. If you find yourself late in the race a ways off your goal splits or place, it is easy to lose motivation and drive and slow down to a halt. I often change goals late to help me stay motivated. For instance, in 2007 I was off my goal of running in the top ten as I was 19th at the river crossing and about an hour behind 10th place. By ALT the goal changed to trying to break 20 hours and it helped keep me focused and motivated.
- Use a pacer that is compatible with your competitiveness. Having a pacer who knows you well and is of the same competitive ilk as you can be very helpful at the end. While pacers were originally created out of safety concerns, they are also used to help us run faster. To keep us motivated and focused on getting to the finish line as fast as possible. Select your pacer carefully and make sure you talk about expectations before you’re in the last 15 miles.
- Focus on the positive. This should be obvious and if you are running hard you will be focused. Don’t think about the night sky, the trees or the river. You can save all the sight-seeing for another day. Focus on the task at hand. Don’t dwell on your problems or what is not going right. Think about what is working well and stay positive.
The Seed asks: I am a fairly solid 50M runner but can’t seem to collect much more than yellow buckles (or, if not States, the particular race’s equivalent) when I step up to the 100 mile starting line. I do have one token silver buckle but it is more of an anomaly, an outlier if you will, compared to my standard performances which, among others, include the following: 2 DNF’s at AC in ’98 & ’99 (I mention those for The Jiz’s benefit); a 28 hour at Western, wait, I mean, States in ’02 where I spent 2 1/2 hours in a beach chair at Hwy 49 aid (mile 93) and it wasn’t because the aid station folks were in pear-adorned monokinis serving margis either; and a 30 hour Wasatch in ’08 in which I got to Brighton (mile 75) in 18 hours (you do the math on that one). Is there any hope for me to have a 100 mile performance on par with say, a 7 hour High Sierra 50M or should I stick with the “warm-up ultras,” as Karl calls them, and maybe try and become a permanent member of The Jiz’s crew to make sure he never DNFs (because only Sky daddy the knows the ripfest that would ensue after that).
The Seed, you do have a poor 100 mile record. Two DNFs out of five starts? You obviously aren’t on AJW’s Christmas card list. I’m not sure if I should answer honestly and tell you to stick with oiling your calves for photo shoots with your dad, or give you a line of positive, you-can-do-it BS. How strong is your self-esteem?
I do believe that each of us are suited for particular distances, terrain, etc. 20 years ago I had dreams of running an Olympic Trials qualifying time in the marathon. I had quality training partners and schedules, but each time I’d run a marathon I’d just die like a dog at the end. I sucked at the marathon. Perhaps I could have done better with today’s energy gels, or if I had more realistic goals, but I believe that my energy systems are better suited for 100 miles than the marathon. And I enjoy racing them much more.
It may very well be that you’ll never run as well at 100 miles as you do at 50. If you are looking to get a silver buckle to keep your pants up that may not be good thing, but if not, who cares if you never run a fast 100? If you are determined and think it is just a matter of training or race-day execution, perhaps you need to get together with Pooped Out and work on your mental training. Or, you could train like this guy:
Horatio Lovejoy asks: I win almost any race I enter. I’m young, a well established entrepreneur, drive a nice car and have a great fiancee. What else should I be doing?
Horatio, congrats on a great start to your life and a great name. Sounds like you’ve spent a lot of your time thinking about and improving yourself, which is a good thing. This country needs narcissists like you. Perhaps the next move for you is to start giving back to the community. Maybe direct a race, or get involved in trail work in your community, or just help at other races like these two guys:
See what my other synchrobloggers have to say to Pooped Out, The Seed, and Horatio Lovejoy.