Ultra Pacing

Want to easily cut 1 to 2 hours off of your next 100 miler with no additional training?  But wait, there’s more.  What if I told you that it would only cost you three easy payments of $0.00?!

Sound too good to be true?  Kind of like those diet pills you hear advertised on the radio or those “as seen on TV” products?

Well, I’m here to tell you that this is for real!  And, it’s really simple.  The average 100 mile runner can cut 1 or 2 hours off of their time by simply pacing smarter.

What?  You can cut that much time off by running slower?

That’s right!  By simply starting out slower, the average runner will actually save time over the course of the race, finish stronger, and have a much more enjoyable experience.  How do I know this?  Because in every single ultra that I’ve run, I’ve seen most runners (I would guess 95%) go out WAY too fast.  How do I know what’s too fast for them?  Am I psychic?  No.  First, I can hear it in their breaths.  If you’re breathing audibly in the first few miles of an ultra, you’ve started too fast!  There are very few people in the world that can keep up that kind of effort for 100 miles, and I’m sorry to say, you’re probably not one of them.  Secondly, the runners that elbow their way past me before the first aid station, are the same ones I see slumped in chairs or stooped over by the side of the trail later on.

Have you ever started out an ultra feeling like you could conquer the world, only to be reduced to a shameful shuffle in the second half, as bright-eyed, cheery runners pass on by, trying to encourage you with words of motivation?  Don’t you just want to clothes-line them as they pass by?  Is there a worse feeling in the world?  You just want to quit, not just this race, but running altogether.

Now who has had the experience of being that bright-eyed, cheerful runner, passing scores of others in the second half, as you gallop towards the finish with a big smile on your face?  There’s no better feeling in the world!

You know the old saying that “running a 100 miler is 90% mental’?  Well, that’s bullshit.  If it was 90% mental, we wouldn’t need to run so many training miles.  But there is some truth to it.  Running a 100 miler does have a significant mental component, as with any difficult task.  The problem is that as you physically deteriorate late in a race, you drag yourself down mentally.  And as the negativity in your mind increases, it drags you down physically.  You end up in a downward spiral that’s difficult to come out of.

Conversely, when you’re feeling good physically, it gives you a mental boost.  That mental boost, in return, gives you a physical boost.  Now you’re in an upward spiral, and that’s where you want to be.  No matter how non-competitive you might be, if you’re still running and passing people late in a race, it feels good!  Who doesn’t want to finish a race feeling good?

The simple way to achieve this is to start out at a pace that you can sustain for entirety of the race, rather than sprinting off the start line and crawling to the finish.

In a perfect world, you would be running even splits, or at least close to them, but that probably won’t happen (and if it does, I will be extremely jealous, as I have yet to do that in a 100 miler).  But the point is, that the closer you get to an even pace, the better your overall time and race experience will be.  On my best 50 milers, I have come within a couple of minutes of evenly splitting the course.  On my best 100K, I ran 5 laps, all within a couple of minutes of each other.  Now I’m not suggesting that I run the perfect pace by any means (my first year at Leadville, I fell apart at mile 80), but I still managed to place 33rd with 10:19 and 12:30 splits.  In 2015, I ran much better, with 10:18 and 11:37 splits, which put me at 22nd.  This was after being 173rd at May Queen!  If you look at my splits, I ran the first half too fast, yet about 150 runners should have been even slower than me at May Queen.

Leadville is one of my favorite examples of this and is a great case study.  Being the largest 100 miler in the country, there are lots of subjects, uhm, I mean runners.  Additionally, the 1st 40 miles of the race is relatively “easy”, and the first and second halves are pretty equitable with respect to climbing.

Runners in the 25 to 30 hour range are running the inbound 50 miles an average of more than 4 hours slower than the outbound.  Very, very few people are going to run negative splits, but getting that differential down closer to an hour, or even less would absolutely improve all of these runners’ times.  In 2015, only 4 runners had a differential of under 1 hour.  The full range went from 0:25:43 to 7:35:57.  In 2005, Matt Carpenter’s course record of 15:42:59 was run with a 32 minute deficit.

I keep hearing the same excuses over and over; gotta run hard before I get tired, gotta bank some time for later, I’m running way slower than my long training runs, but I feel so good, etc.  I wish some grad student would take it upon themselves to interview runners in the latter half of the race - “do you have any regrets about the first half?”  Then, they need to come back and play those interviews to the individual runners at the start line the next year, because most are repeat offenders that just don’t seem to learn.

Granted, some are first time Leadvillers, or even first time 100 milers, but…  even if it’s your first 100 miler, surely you’ve run enough on your way to this event to give you a general idea of how you should be doing.  There were an astonishingly high number of runners who finished over 28 hours, yet beat me to May Queen.  Please don’t take this as an insult, indictment, or a snobbish looking down my nose at “slower” runners (I actually have a huge amount of respect for back-of-the-pack runners - they spend more time on their feet and deal with more diverse conditions).  I’m honestly trying to point these facts out for those that genuinely want to improve, and more importantly, if you just want to have a more pleasant race experience.  As I started this post with, there is no single thing that you can so easily do to cut your overall time, and to increase your enjoyment of the race, as to just pace yourself smartly from the beginning.

Let’s at least get one thing straight here, THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS BANKING TIME!!  If you like monetary comparisons so much, let me put it to you this way - Any overdrafts you make in the first half of a race, you will pay back in the second half, with a hefty interest rate, and an overdraft penalty to boot!  Maybe this is another interesting grad student research subject - do runners that go out too fast also tend to have lingering credit card debt?

But seriously folks, your body has a best possible race time in it - doesn’t matter whether it’s 20 hours or 30 hours.  The only way to actually extract that best possible time, is at an ideal pace.  And that ideal pace is going to be relatively steady throughout the race, even though your perceived effort will increase with fatigue.  You go out too fast, and I guarantee that your overall time will wind up being more than that best possible time.  And if you do go out a little too slow, don’t worry, you will have more than enough time to make that up.

The next logical question is “how do I determine my ideal pace/finish time?”  This is a great article on the subject - http://www.irunfar.com/2016/02/emergent-methods-for-determining-ultramarathon-race-day-pacing.html  I typically just worry about coming up with a realistic (though challenging) finish time.  I then sit down with the RD’s description, any race reports I can find, and the elevation profile, and plot out how fast I should be running for each mile.  I then come up with splits between aid stations and total up the final time.  If my total is off by too much from my predicted finish time, I simply reevaluate and readjust.  This is the spreadsheet that I assembled for Leadvile - https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1tLo5UxO5I1yqWypPuhZFXWUIEKfry1ujZT9M4fHBUmw/edit?usp=sharing  I put together a similar spreadsheet for every 100 miler.

There are many ways to come up with a realistic finish time, most of them covered in the iRunFar article.  It’s a good idea to use multiple approaches and compare them to minimize error.  The more ultra experience you have, the easier it will be, but even if you’re new to a particular distance, you should be able to come up with some realistic estimates.  There are a number of calculators on the web that will take your recent race result and estimate your time for an untried distance.  Just keep in mind that most of them don’t account for elevation changes between the races or technical terrain/running surface.

Everyone slows down with added distance, but faster/more experienced runners will slow down less than the rest of us.  If you’re a mid-pack runner attempting your first 100 miler after having only completed 1 or 2 50 milers, your 100 mile time will be slower relative to your 50 mile time than for someone who runs lots of 100 milers.

It’s typically better to be conservative in the estimates and start out a bit slow.  You can always make up the time later in the race with the energy you conserved in the beginning.  This isn’t the case with a 5K sprint, but is absolutely true on a 100 miler.  Unless you’re vying for the podium, it’s almost impossible to start out too slow.

Here are some of the tricks I use to keep myself on a reasonable pace early on:
  • I try to imagine what I would be running like at mile 80.  If I wouldn’t be running up a hill at mile 80, I shouldn’t be running up it at mile 10.  The vast majority of runners push too hard on the uphills.
  • I look forward to having runners pass me early on.  This was a hard one at first, but has become easier with experience.  I see every runner that passes me as one that I will get to pass later on.  I don’t do this in a mean spirited way, but I’ve gotten pretty good at reading most runners and can usually tell that unless I’m having a bad day, they’re not going to stay ahead of me.
  • Use your GPS as a warning tool to slow you down when you’re going out too fast.  Most runners look at their watches and think “damn, I’m running too slow”.  Towards the end of a race, if you’re trying to beat a certain time, that’s fine but do not use the watch as a reason to speed up in the first half of the race.  Sometimes, I even put tape over my pace and time and don’t peel it off until the second half.

I’d love to hear back from people who took this to heart and made a real attempt to pace more evenly.  Even if you think I’m just full of it, I’d love to hear why.  And if anyone wants some personal help in coming up with a good goal time or pacing strategy, just shoot me an email.

3 comments:

  1. Great blog post. I am training for my first 50 miler at the moment and determining a pace for the race has been on my mind quite a bit. I run by heartrate/MAF and on longer training runs I see how I have to slow down a lot to stay at/below my target heart rate which is frustrating because I know I have more juice. I am about 2 months into MAF training and have 2.5 months more to go for the race, so I hope things improve more. Seeing that it really makes sense what you describe.

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  2. How about a race that starts uphill? Straight uphill like RRR100? I assume just a much slower hike than usual to keep the hear rate lower?

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    1. I talk about pace because its more easily understandable and more importantly, its measurable. Pace should be constantly adjusted for factors such as slope, technical terrain, heat, etc. The underlying issue is effort, which should start out very low and gradually increase to maintain a somewhat constant pace. Unfortunately, effort is too subjective for most runners, and most feel like they're going out easy, when in fact they are not.
      RRR is a great personal example. So many runners passed me on that initial climb up the ski slopes, yet I finished 3rd out of the tortoises. Unless there's some great prize for getting to the top of a climb first (like the polka dot jersey in the Tour de France), why kill yourself? I'd rather worry about my placement to the finish, where it actually counts.

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