A Staten Island triathlete and endurance coach ventures into the ultramarathon realm where there are seemingly no limits to human endurance. In 2013, he successfully finished the Grand Slam of Ultrarunning (picture of 2013 Grand Slam finishers above; I'm second from right), becoming only the 282nd person (since its beginnings in 1986) and only the fourth New Yorker to finish four of the oldest and most prestigious 100 mile ultramarathons in the U.S. in only 10 weeks.

Monday, July 11, 2011

When a Race Has Too Many Unknown Variables...Wing It!

Hope Pass, the highest point of the Leadville Trail 100 (12,600 ft). My goal is to get my pacer to get a picture of me in a similar photo...and to finish the race of course!

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When it comes to training and racing, I am never a patient guy.

I am also very meticulous in planning for big races, so that I have a set strategy and every factor is covered during the race.

Twenty years of training and racing triathlons and marathons has set me up as such. And all these races have a lot of things in common, such as a standard distance, standard transitions, standard surface type most (road), etc. Yes, there are differences, such as in elevation, but such variables are small enough to be handled by the right strategy.

But in the dark realm of ultras, the variables are very different for each race. And they are frequently extreme. Massanutten is known for its extensive rocky trails. Leadville is known for its high altitude and hilly terrain. Badwater is known for its intense heat.

I've come to the realization that most ultramarathoners really cannot cover all of these variables when they train for these races. But most experienced ultramarathoners will finish these races and finish them well despite the extreme factors.

So how do they do it?

It takes a trip to the Catskills this past week to give me some realizations on how to approach these races. You see, my upcoming Leadville Trails 100 Mile Ultramarathon in August is literally on the top of the Rocky Mountains. The elevation changes and the high altitude combine to provide a formidable challenge for runners attempting to finish this race.

Course elevation for Leadville (out and back course).

The Catskills are a great place to go for mountain training, but the Catskill Mountains pale in comparison to the Rockies. I simply cannot even come close to the conditions at Leadville.

The elevation changes in the Rockies are much more extreme than the Catskills. Although 1000+ feet climbs are the norm in the Catskills, elevation changes in the Rockies are much more extreme. The brutal first climb up to the highest point on the course, Hope Pass (the right peak on the above graph) is over 3000 ft. in elevation. Most of the peaks in the Catskills are only about 3000 ft! There is no possible way to train for that climb.

Most of the race course is also over 10,000 feet in elevation. Hope Pass is a towering 12,600 feet above sea level, and I have to go over it twice. At that elevation, the lack of oxygen might become a bit of a problem during the race.

And unless I hold my breath for the duration of my training runs, there is really no possible way I can train for altitude.

Sure, I can try to mimic the low oxygen environment by buying expensive barometric tents or re-breather devices that try to create the high altitude environment. But even those devices are a bad substitute for the real thing; I've seen evidence that most of these devices aren't really effective at all.

I faced a similar circumstance with Massanutten this spring. With the exception of taking the 50 mile trip to Bear Mountain every single day, how was I supposed to train and be ready for Massanutten's extremely rocky course?

How do other ultramarathoners prepare for these extremes?

Simple, they can "wing it".

Heck, if you cannot adequately prepare for the extreme challenges of the course, it's time to improvise!

Triathletes can plan a great deal for their races. So can marathoners. Most of these races do not have the extreme challenges that ultras have, so it's quite easy to mimic course conditions in local neighborhoods. They are the best in planning their race strategies months in advance of their race, and can train adequately for the challenges involved in those races.

Although some ultramarathoners do try to plan for the challenges in their upcoming ultras, most really cannot totally plan for the extreme conditions they face in these races. As a result, they'll need to quickly adjust to any adverse condition facing them. The truly great ultramarathoners are experts at solving problems on the spot as they arise. They can be extremely tolerant and patient. They can access their current situation, identify any challenges that they currently face, and then proceed to adjust their strategy accordingly. Ultramarathoners are the best at being patient and solving their problems as they arise in a rational and logical way.

It's the patience thing that I have to work on here.

I do have some patience, but 100 mile ultramarathons require a lot more patience than I can normally tolerate. And when my patience runs out, I can start making some "less than intelligent" decisions that can put me in a worse state. And that can cascade out of control until I DNF.

So, the overall strategy for Leadville is the complete opposite of my strategy for Massanutten...to keep it simple, keep it patient, and try to solve every problem as they arise.  It would never be my main strategy in any of the triathlons that I've done, but hey, considering the circumstances involved, this will have to be my strategy for Leadville. 

All the planning in the world is not going to get me through this race in August. But perseverence will. Better to just keep it simple and try adapt to the conditions as they present themselves. It is a tough strategy for a "Type A" competitive triathlete to accept. But I think I'm finally coming to terms with this new philosophy now. It worked very well in Vermont last year.

Chances are that it will work for me in Leadville this year as well.

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