“Running to him was real; the way he did it the realest thing he knew. It was all joy and woe, hard as a diamond; it made him weary beyond comprehension. But it also made him free.” ― John L. Parker Jr.
In John L. Parker’s book, Once a Runner, the protagonist, Quentin Cassidy, first breaks the 4-min mile at the track, by himself, after sunset. No fanfare, just moving passed an imaginary line in the sand without thinking too much about it. I’ve always remembered that in order for the magic to be there on race-day, you’ve got to put in the work. And if you aspire to go beyond what you’ve done in the past, eventually, you’re going to have to start doing things that my be considered, say, a little unorthodox. One thing’s for sure though, we get out of this running thing just what we’ve put in. No shortcuts. How hard you throw yourself into your training must largely determine how high you peak come race-day.
2014 marks my fourth start at what has become my hands-down favorite race of all time—the Tahoe Rim Trail 100mi Endurance Run. Never have I been more challenged and in awe of an event. And no other distance to date, captures my imagination like the running 100mi, inside such a stunning venue as Lake Tahoe.
Albert Einstein famously stated, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing the same way and expecting different results.” Every time I’ve done TRT I’ve gotten a little better at it. God knows I have an intimate appreciation of the race’s motto: A Glimpse of Heaven and a Taste of Hell. I know, as I stand before it once more, that I must, indeed, be getting to a point of diminishing returns. But, there’s a fire inside that burns to improve over what I was able to do, just last year, on the hottest day the race has ever seen. So, with evolved training and race process, I’m looking to do in training, what’s necessary to shave another 30-60min off my best. No Challenge. No Change.
Anticipation being the heart of wisdom, I’m essentially duplicating what worked so well from 2013, just beefing it up a bit so that I can expect different—and hopefully improved—results. The body, being like a sponge, should be relatively “dry” coming into a big block of 100mi run training, so that it has a chance to really soak up the volume. Here’s what I did for the last two weeks of May, immediately following Silver State 50miler in Reno (a highly specific event for TRT 100 in July):
With no real structured training since Jan/Feb, I rolled into the spring with two 7-hour, top-finishes at both Marin Ultra Challenge and Lake Sonoma, just the 3-4% gains I was targeting over last year’s 50-mile race times. Then, life intervened, and sadly, I had to make an unexpected trip back East for my father’s funeral. This, indeed, took the wind out of my sails. With poor motivation, I contemplated not doing Silver State, but rallied and did a hilly, hard 50k at Armstrong Redwoods, two weeks out from Silver State and did not feel great. The one event wasn’t enough to replace two weeks of quality training. Insufficient prep, coupled with experimenting with different fuels and gear, resulted in going from running myself into 1st at mile 27 to getting run down by two better runners that day, for a disappointing 3rd place finish, a full hour slower than my 2013 time. Whatever, I still had a great experience (mostly after the race that is!).
Silver State was, actually, just the reality check I needed coming into my June build-up to Tahoe Rim. To be certain, running a 100 miles is not child’s play by any stretch of the imagination. My respect for the distance was reaffirmed. I used the final two weeks of May to not only recover, but finish my school year, enjoy my students and the relationships cultivated over an entire school year, and generally “dry out my sponge” out for the incipient June training.
Here’s the plan for Week I (I was tweaking it since January!):
My strategy last year was come into June fresh and do my biggest week first. Last year, I’d just starting using Hoka One One’s Stinson EVO trail shoe and was delighted to discover I possessed (it seemed) some kind of super power in these shoes, namely the ability to recover quickly and put up 150mi with over 30,000′ of gain, and back it up with two more weeks of balanced run training, both over 100mi. So, in Einsteinian fashion, I had to make the plan a bit more robust this year, shooting for a 180mi week with about 35,000′ of elevation gain. With a “go-til-you-blow” mind-set, I just threw myself into it. Here’s what I was able to (somehow) do last week:
As you can see I clearly employ the “Hard-Day/Easy-Day” approach. Hard days defined as developing the muscular endurance needed to not simply run 100mi, but also attending to the desire to be generating a reasonable amount of power over the second half of the event. Recall that the ultra-running contest doesn’t go to the fastest, it goes to the one that slows down the least.
Strava adds another layer of motivation to the week, that if existed a decade ago, would have ensured I was constantly injured. Last year, new to Strava, I participated in their “Junedoggle,” a monthly training series that informally pits ultra-runners from around the world against each other by seeing who can rack up the most run volume in a month. Game on!! I think some folks on there don’t actually race anymore! Sometimes looks to me they just put up big miles to try and stay on top of the MTS (Monthly Training Series). It’s damn addictive, I’ll admit. But, I’m planning to stick with it for two more weeks then drop so I can do a proper recovery week, just as I did last year. My advice for folks using Strava as a motivational tool, is that to remember that’s just what it is—a tool. Make Strava work for you, not the other way around. I thoroughly enjoy it and am aware of the potential pitfalls, related exclusively to my ego.
If you’re going to sign up for a 100mi run, you’re best served by choosing your battle carefully. You want to pick one that inspires you; that alone will fuel your fire in training. In my case, I keep going back to TRT100 not just because it’s such a great event, but also because it’s just a good fit for me as a teacher. I can take full advantage of the month of June, being now out of the classroom, to do the required work that will allow me to see my potential on race-day. For Western States, in the event I ever got in, would present significant challenges, balancing my primary life roles as husband, teacher, coach, and athlete.
I’m fortunate to have both Lake Sonoma 50 and North Face Endurance Challenge in my “backyard,” both events having that star-studded field that really lets me see where I stack up against the best in the sport. With a top-10 finish at Lake Sonoma this April, and the fact that the longer the race, the better I do, I know that given different life circumstances, I could likely top-10 at Western States. But personally, I have all that I need—a beauty of a course in Tahoe, in July, that affords me the ability to test my mettle, against others, but more to the point—against my former self. And, the fact I’m living another athletic life as an ultra-runner is not lost on me. Before ultra-running there was Ironman Triathlon, and the Western States of triathlon is the Ironman World Triathlon Championships in Kona, Hawaii. And having been lucky enough to qualify, go, and finish strong on four occasions, I don’t want the fact I haven’t done Western States feel like some failure. If it happens it happens. I’m just happy to be still improving—at some athletic pursuit—at the ripe young age of 40.
So, in conclusion, here’s a few things I learned last week, running 190mi w/ 40,000′ of elevation gain, a few runs being in some pretty high temps:
1. Hydration is no joke. Taking in adequate water before, during, and after sessions is HUGE and not to be discounted. You’ll recover for the next session way faster if you stay up on your H2O.
1A. In excessive heat, you gotta keep yourself wet. Evaporative cooling is your best friend when you’re dealing with infernal race conditions.
2. HOKAS are the bomb. I rotated three newer pair of Stinson EVO trail shoes all week. They take the abuse so my body takes less. Again, it’s ALL about the recovery!
3. Allow your training/racing process to evolve. This week taught me that experimenting with different gear combinations is essential so that things can be both simple and sustainable on event day.
4. Sleep fixes all. Now that I’m out of school, I can wake without an alarm clock. If you want to boldly go where you haven’t gone in the past with your training, I highly recommend you create a context in which you have the time to get the sleep your body needs, understanding that your body will innately sleep more when the training volume is high. That of course is a directly proportional relationship.
5. Being psyched to do the week is key. I purposefully set up my year so that I’d be far removed from any structured training, come June, so that I wouldn’t find myself struggling to get out the door come Saturday, already with 100mi in my legs for the week. By the time this week started, for example, I hadn’t been up to Lake Sonoma—one of my bread-n-butter training runs—since the race there on April 12th.
6. Having a variety of training venues keeps the fire burning. For Tahoe Rim Trail 100, I’m looking for runs that set me up for success, namely runs that have a lot of elevation gain. I also like loop training run courses. At Lake Sonoma and Sugarloaf Ridge State Park, for example, I can do 20-26mi courses and bank 5-7k feet in vertical. Plus, they’re both beautiful courses, that I don’t seem to get tired of doing. I believe it’s their challenging, majestic (by Sonoma County standards) nature that keeps me coming back.
7. Finally, I learned that the passion for improvement is still there. And at 40 years of age, my capacity to enjoy and absorb the work, I feel is necessary to improve, is still there. I’m especially grateful to have this opportunity and all-too-aware that, inevitably I’ll start down the other side of the mountain, but having the knowledge that I made full use of my time and did, with my modest gifts, all that I could, without fear, and full of passion.
Let’s see what Week II has in store for me. Looking forward to this weekend’s training runs on the course. Looking forward not to just running on the course, but seeing lots of friends out there too. Always a good time. 😀