One of the challenges of ultras, especially as you progress past the 50K distance, is that you never practice your race pace. Sure you’re running slow on your long run, but I guarantee that at whatever pace you’re doing that is going to be too fast for a 50 miler and waaaaaay too fast for a hundred. Just because you’re not reduced to a couch potato for the rest of the day afterwards doesn’t mean you’re fresh enough to knock out another 80 miles.
And since you don’t practice your race pace, you inevitably end up going out too fast. You run what feels sustainable, but you’re never entirely sure until you get 20-30 miles in and realize – nope, too fast. Part of the problem is you never know how slow is slow enough until you try the distance and realize a little slower than long run pace is too fast. And 5% slower? Too fast. 10%? Ditto. It has taken me far too long to realize that a sustainable 100 miler pace is about 20% slower than my bread and butter 20 miler. I’ve got enough experiences in races at this point that I don’t need to practice going this slow. My body just naturally starts moving along at this pace.
If 20% slower is good for hundreds, then that’ll end up being too fast for a 200 miler. After some internal debate, I settled on starting Buckeye another 20% slower. Partially because this kinda makes sense, but mostly because the math works out to an even 14 minute pace. And I love my round numbers.
Now this is not a speed that I’m used to moving. My flattish road runs are normally in the 9-10 minute range and my evening walks are +/- 15 minutes. I can hit 14 minutes walking if I’m really pushing the pace, but this is obviously not sustainable for 50 miles let alone 200. This will require me to start out in an aggressively conservative walk/run right from the start.
So I did something I’ve never tried and that’s to practice my race pace during my long runs. I had space on my calendar for two long runs between ES100 and Buckeye. I wanted to ease into this a little bit so I targeted 12 minute miles on my first one. Hoo-boy was it hard. I was eventually able to settle in, but I was constantly looking at the average pace on my watch to make sure I didn’t go too fast. This past weekend I went all in at 14 minutes even and it was a little bit easier to pull off. During both runs, I was not targeting even splits for every single mile. I’d give myself about a minute on either side depending on whether a mile was uphill or downhill. The whole point of the slow pace is to have a very low effort level. Sometimes it’s more efficient to “push” a bit using gravity going downhill to bank time.
Some people may scoff at this approach since the whole point of long runs is to develop fitness and this is the junkiest of junk miles. Honestly, that was my opinion going in. I’ve only got 7 weeks between races so I’m not worried about the fitness aspects since I’ve been more in recovery mode than attempting to build fitness. I thought it was worth the time (oh, so much extra time!) to practice patience. Racing 101 is not to try anything new on race day and yet we never think to apply this to pacing.
My biggest learning experience from this though was that I believe it actually will end up providing me a training stimulus. In order for me to average a 14 minute pace, I had to walk about 85% of the time. That’s 17 miles of my normal 20 mile long run. I never, ever, and I mean ever walk that far. I walk 25-35 miles a week in the evenings, but that’s only 5 miles at a time. Ask any runner and they’ll tell you there’s a big difference between running 5 miles and 17 miles. You know what? It’s a big difference for walking, too! I had different muscles sore the following day than normal. That’s a training benefit. Now who knows how much that’ll actually benefit me next week, but every little bit helps.
And I’m going to need as much help was I can get.