Let’s say you want to get better at something (i.e. ultras). What’s the best way to accomplish this? Well, you could gather as many materials as you can lay your hands on (books, magazines, blogs) and read till your eyes bleed. There’s a lot of great information out there and by studying it all you can get a very good idea of what it takes to run really long distances. But book learning will only get you so far.
The next step is to talk to people who have done what you want to do. By listening and asking questions you can get a better feel for how to improve. It doesn’t matter whether someone is an expert or complete novice, there is always a nugget of knowledge that can be pulled from them. And if you’re just starting out, the novice may even be a better resource for you as they’ve made all the mistakes that you’re about to make. There’s no better teacher than experience and it’s likely they’ll have more useful information to you as you start out than the expert who may have forgotten half the rookie mistakes. But talking to people will only get you so far, too.
There is no try, there is only do
To really get good at something though, you need to actually do it. I had this epiphany early on in my running career. My goal was never to get good at running. It was to get good at running really long distances. So just running a bunch of miles in and of itself wasn’t going to make me a good ultra runner. Sixty miles a week (which I’ve only done twice outside of race weeks) isn’t going to help me run 100 miles if it’s just 10 miles a day. Ten miles will not train you to run for 8+ hours. In order to get good at running long distances, you need to consistently go long. I’ve semi-arbitrarily set “long” at 20 miles. At this point, you’ve typically blown through all your glycogen stores and hit “The Wall”. Now in reality, you typically pace yourself slower for these distances so you may or may not actually hit fell completely run down. But there no matter how you pace yourself, 20 miles is much harder than 10-15 miles. The interesting thing is that while 25-30 miles is harder than 20, once you do these long runs enough, they’re not really that much harder. [And if I’ve just jinxed myself for this coming Saturday, well, wouldn’t be the first time.]
So the focus of my training for the past 5 years has been to accumulate as many runs over 20 miles as possible. Here’s how they’ve been spread out over this timeframe. The number in parenthesis represents the longest run during the month.
A couple things jump out at me from looking at these numbers. The first is that I used to do a great job at taking breaks during the year. I would spend 4 months building up to a goal race, run it, and then take the next 2 months off. I’ve gone 7 straight months with a 20+ miler and will hopefully have at least two more heading into and then running Eastern States. So I’ve changed up my training cycles and haven’t had an extended break since last Oct/Nov (the 100 was run on 10/1-2 so that was effectively a full two month break). I’ve been wondering recently if I’m moving into over-training. My runs have been bleah. My legs haven’t had quite the same spring as they normally do. I’ve been kinda sore after some runs that typically wouldn’t leave me sore. Now nothing hurts. My form and mechanics seem as good as they have been. I just feel a little off. Who knows, maybe it’s just the 70+ degree temps and high humidity I’ve been dealing with for the past three weeks.
The other thing that jumps out is the number of 20s I ran in 2014. I was just starting out, but ran far more than any other year. I’m on track to obliterate that number this year, but my second half schedule is much lighter on long runs than the first half and I doubt I’ll match it this year. The first half of that year culminated in my first 50-miler (Dirty German), which was I think my fastest ultra race outside my last two hundreds. Once I got to the second half of 2014, my times seemed to slow down across the board. At the time, I was doing more runs by heart rate at lower efforts. I then transitioned to more run/walk efforts as I increased the amount of vertical I was running to match the races I had signed up for.
This year has all been about fast 20+ mile runs. Most of what I’ve run has been on roads with modest vertical (90 feet/mile range), which has lead to much faster paces in training. This includes two 50K runs that were 30+ minute PRs for me at the distance. I had thought these fast long runs is what has lead to my success at Umstead and Old Dominion, but maybe it was also the pure quantity of these long runs. Despite my “bleah” comment above, I feel pretty good physically. What I’ve been able to run this year feels sustainable. In years past, I’ve really needed a full month to recover from a 50 or 100 mile run. Now I feel good to go after a couple days with the bigger limiting factor being blisters. I attribute this to my growing endurance base. Sure, running ultras still takes a lot out of me, but I’m able to physically handle the wear and tear much better now. Or at least that’s the truth as I see it now. It’s quite possible that hindsight will show me something radically different.
So the moral of the story is that in order to get good at running long distances, you just need to do it.