Racing versus surviving an ultra
At some point in an ultra many of us cross the line from racing to surviving. We go from feeling confident about finishing well, feeling in control of our legs, able to run sections we think are runnable, meeting our target time, running a PB, to being resigned to just finishing, wanting it to be over, wishing the finish line would come a lot sooner so the pain can be over.
The cross over point is usually around 60-75% of race distance. In a race like Ultra Trail Australia 100 it’s the leg from the Aquatic Centre to Queen Vic Hospital, the 54-78km mark. At UTMB it’s usually just before or after Champex at the 120k mark. It’s the point mentally where there still seems a long way to go but you have already come so far that your the legs and mind can feel very fatigued.
Fortunately the ability to race the whole distance is not confined to the elites. Racing the entire distance is relative to one’s ability so anyone can race the whole distance. All it takes is a good training plan and good race execution. There are two main areas to focus on in both training and racing to improve your ability to race the distance – physical and mental. Physically it comes down to a number of things. Training being the most important. Without proper training it’s not a matter of if you’ll go into survival mode but when.
What do I mean by proper training?
1. Long runs specific to your race.
Long runs that are either on the course or simulate the course. One of the biggest mistakes I see is people doing their long runs with far less vertical than their race has. If your race has 5000m of vert in 100km and your 40km training runs only have 1000m of vert then come race day by half way your legs are going to be toast. Train specific to the race. If your race has 500m of vert per 10km then build your training up to have the same. Not many of us live in areas where getting that kind of vert is easy. For most of us it means repping up and down the same short hill until you hit the vert you need. It’s not the most fun way to spend 3-5 hours but its very effective.
Here is a profile of Mile 27 Coach Ben Duffus’ long run in Brisbane a month or so ago as he prepares for some big mountain races in Europe later in the year. A 30km run with almost 4000m of vertical – impossible in a place like Brisbane you say. Not so – have a look.
Whilst most of you won’t need to do anything this extreme you can see that if the desire is there it is possible to get some decent vert even when you only have access to short hills.
If you are racing UTA or one of the many Hong Kong races then stairs feature heavily so make sure your training includes stairs and lots of them. UTA for example has approximately 4000 stairs. If you haven’t trained for that then by half way your legs will start complaining loudly. Analyse what kind of terrain the race you are training for has and aim to mimic it in training.
2. Fast finish your long runs
Adding a faster 30-40 minutes at the end of a 3-6 hour long run gives you the confidence that you have plenty left in your legs after that distance. It also teaches you better pacing since you know you have to pick it up in the last half hour you will need to pace yourself so that is possible.
3. Extra long runs
One to three extra long runs of 40-80km in the 3-8 week period before the race helps condition the legs to what it’s going to feel like at the 60km mark of a 100km race or 120km mark of a miler.
4. Back to backs
Running twice with only a 8-12 hour break between is a great way to condition the legs (and mind) on what it feels like to run on tired legs.
Be warned extra long runs and back to backs are tough and should only be done every now and then to minimise injury risk. Of course there is a lot of grey in that statement, an easy 60 minute run Friday night with long run Saturday morning is technically a back to back but doesn’t impose anywhere near the same stress as doing a tough hill rep session Friday night before a long run Saturday.
I’ve talked about long runs and back to backs in detail here.
5. Specific training
If the race has hills that you will hike up then are you practising hiking in training? In a race like UTMB many people will end up hiking almost half the time, is that reflected in your training?
A race like UTA 100 has a lot of transitions between stairs, hills and runnable sections, are you training for those transitions in training?
If the race has long runnable sections are you doing long tempo runs or sub tempo efforts to train the legs to run continuously for long periods of time? Are you doing speed work to improve your running economy?
If the race has technical descents are you working on your technical descending skills?
Think about all the challenges a race has and work on each of them in training.
Training the mind
The mind has a massive effect on how fast we can run and indeed if we can run at all. Training the mind to handle the discomfort that comes with running 100km or more is critical to racing rather than surviving. Actively working on mental techniques that seek to improve the ability to stay focussed, stay present and not dwell on how much further or how much pain you are in, during training sessions can make a massive difference.
Too often people think it’s just a case of toughening up on the day. The good athletes are working just as hard on their mindset in training as they are on the physical side so when it comes to the race they are confident they can deal with the discomfort that comes with running an ultra.
I’ve discussed more on mental training here.
Race day pacing
If you have trained body and mind well then it’s a matter of putting it together on the day. The biggest mistake people make is to go out too fast from the start. They think it feels easy but 60km into the race they are walking when they should be running – a sure sign of a fast start.
In all my years of coaching I don’t think I have ever heard anybody say that they finished an ultra with plenty left in the tank, that they wished they had gone harder at the start since they finished feeling so fresh. The start should feel no faster than a normal long training run and you should get to half way feeling no more tired than a normal training run. If you can do that then you can push hard over the last half and all those people who sped past you early on you will retake in the last half and put time on.
If you don’t believe me, Mile 27 Coach Ben Duffus and one of Australia’s best ultra runners, had this to say when I asked him what his thoughts were on pacing, “half way is when the race starts – the first half is mostly about getting in position and after that it’s time to really think about “racing”. So that’s when I start imagining myself reeling people in (and hopefully, doing so as well), and telling myself that even if I’m hurting, they’re hurting more”.
“For the first quarter of a race if it feels good, it’s too fast – in races where I’ve gone well the first 10km in particular have always felt too slow. And of course, fuelling properly from the start so you’re not depleted at halfway is key.”
Race day mind games
The third quarter of an ultra is typically where we start to look for reasons to walk when we probably should be running. There is an internal battle raging between mind and body and the body is starting to win. Unless we do something about it the body will take over. When that happens we end up walking a lot more than we should be and running a lot less than we are capable of. We need the mind to keep control of the legs not vice versa. Despite how your legs may feel it is usually your mind giving up, not your legs.
Let me explain what I mean. Late in an ultra you are running along and you can no longer run another step without walking. You walk for a few minutes and then decide that maybe you can run a bit more so you start running again. What actually happened there? Did the few minutes walk recovery somehow transform legs that had already run 60+km? It’s extremely unlikely that any kind of repair or recovery is possible in that short space of time from a physical point of view. What actually happened was your mind fatigued to the point where it couldn’t force your legs to run anymore. After a few minutes walking your mind regained some energy and can now override the leg’s desire to walk again so you start running again. This is repeated all the way to the finish.
Once you realise this you understand that how much of the last 40km of an ultra you run is far more to do with what goes on in your head that your legs. The ability to stay present and embrace the feelings you have rather than look ahead to how much further and dwell on how sore you are is critical to being able to race an ultra rather than just finish it.
The other key mental strategy is to set goals as to when you will run and when you will walk. It helps to know the course to do this, but even if you don’t, some investigation into the route can help determine which sections you should be running and which you will be hiking.
When I competed at UTMB those goals were easy to set – walk the ups and run the downs. The hardest sections were the transitions from up to down, forcing myself back to running again took the most amount of mental energy. Once I started running again I didn’t give myself any other option other than to run – if it was downhill I ran, no questions asked, no internal debate to be had. I let my legs know in no uncertain terms that this was non negotiable. Of course my legs weren’t particularly happy with this idea especially after 140+km. To keep my resolve in running the downs the key was to never question should I be running or walking. I accepted that it was downhill and therefore the only option was to run no matter how sore I was. To stop my mind questioning whether I should be running or hiking was the key was staying present in my thoughts rather than thinking about how long this downhill was.
Best laid plans
Sometimes a race plan doesn’t pan out like you want it to and then it’s time to adapt. So if you are really struggling to run sections you thought you would be able to and no amount of mind games are helping then change the plan and make up the rules as you go. The key is to set the rules before you start walking. That means the default is to run rather than making the default walking and then just running when you think you can.
In practice what this looks like is as follows; you are running along and the mental energy it takes to keep running is escalating rapidly – you look ahead and see a slight rise. “Okay, I’ll run to that slight rise, walk the hill to where the trail turns left then start running again.” What many do instead is run then all of a sudden slow to a walk. They continue to walk until they feel recovered enough to start running again and then look ahead and think I’ll start running when I get to that tree. If you take this approach you’ll end up walking a LOT more than you should.
Most of us get to a point in an ultra where we simply don’t believe it’s possible to run any more. When that happens you have three options.
1. Give in to the legs, let the legs dictate what they can and can’t do. You have now gone into survival mode.
2. Adjust your plan. Take a walking break, re-assess your run/walk strategy and get back on track.
3. Embrace the feeling. Look at it as a chance to step outside your comfort zone and see if you can rise to the challenge. See if you can use new levels of mental strength to keep running and pushing hard right to the finish.
I know which option I prefer to take!
A combination of specific physical and mental preparation and executing the basics well on race day can mean the difference between racing and finishing.
For more info on how Mile 27 can help please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org
I look forward to hearing about the successes you’ve had in racing, rather than surviving, your ultras.