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.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

The Perfect Race - Vermont 100 Race Report - Part 1

“The greatest barrier to success is the fear of failure.” - Sven-Göran Eriksson


It Started with the Failure in Leadville

   This whole crazy thing started in Leadville!

   The Leadville 100, one of the toughest courses I've ever done, is the course that eats its young. And it certainly ate me alive last August, as I was struggling up Hope Pass, which is a steep 2500 foot incline from miles 40-45 of the race. The top of this course is well over 12,000 feet from sea level, so there is essentially no oxygen here.

    I missed the cutoff time at mile 45, near the top of the pass, and had to go back the way I came and drop out.

    I could have easily blamed the altitude and moved on, but I didn't. Although there are ways to lessen the effect of altitude on performance, altitude cannot really something I can control in training.

    Instead, I blamed it on a factor in which I could control. My weight.

    You see, I tipped the scale there at around 205+ pounds. To be carrying that extra weight in an oxygen deprived environment over 100 miles is definitely a detriment to performance, and the race definitely called me out on it.

My Triathlon Training Thesis

    So I quickly came up with a plan. And a thesis of sorts. My background, and therefore my strength, was in triathlon. I used to eat triathlon, drink triathlon, piss triathlon, and vomit triathlon in the 1990s and I was a success at it. I was regularly making the age group podiums with triathlons.

     So what if I was to go BACK to my STRENGTH and start triathlon training again? What if the swimming and biking actually help get me through a 100 mile ultramarathon? Would it work?

    The past couple of years I was primarily doing ultra training, namely, lots of miles of running (80-100 miles per week on several weeks), with only a smattering of swimming and cycling.

   Changing to triathlon training would cut back on my weekly running volume, but up my swimming and biking to competitive levels. I would even compete in several triathlons before embarking on the 100 mile ultramarathon. I might as well, right? If I'm training for triathlons, I might as well do it up in triathlons!

   So instead of a steady diet of 80+ mile running weeks, with a smattering of cycling and swimming, I actually cut down the running volume significantly to only 2 weeks above 60+ miles. And fill that void with lots of cycling and swimming. It was a very risky proposition, but one I was to undertake.

   But which 100 miler to pick. Leadville was out because it is expensive to go back out there for an experiment that might or might not work. I might as well pick one that is closer to home.

   And the one that I completed in 2010, the Vermont 100.

   My time two years ago in the Vermont 100 was 28 hours and 9 minutes. I was also 200 pounds back then and was still doing the ultramarathon training thing that year also, so it's a PERFECT race to use and compare results.

   Ah, Vermont, how I struggled up against your hills! How emotionally fried I was at the finish line...

...and how I was about to go through the same emotional roller coaster again. Yikes! The physical pain is one thing, but I am very fearful when my mind starts to go. So here we go again!

Execution of the Thesis -  A Successful Triathlon Plan

   Once I pitched it to members of the Staten Island Athletic Club, 3 club members decided to actually help crew me for the race. Amy L., Rob L., and Nancy C., who regularly runs in the Greenbelt's trails with me on group runs, graciously stepped forward to handle the details of crewing for me at Vermont.

 Amy and her husband Rob, 2/3rds of my fabulous crew.

   The training went very well right from the outset. I lost more than 15 pounds, coming down to a lean 182 pounds at my lowest point. I regularly went underneath 180 pounds after some long training sessions as well. My swimming and cycling got stronger as well, and my speed, which as non-existent for almost a decade, came back with a vengeance!

   My Cold Feat 10K time in February was surprisingly perfect! A month later, I killed the hilly Indian Trails 15k course in a little over 62 minutes.

   Triathlons? I was definitely seeing some good things there also. A 2:18 for the Red Bank Olympic Distance Triathlon, placing myself close to the top of my age group. And the Tupper Lake Tinman 70.3 was the icing on the cake, finishing a little over 5 hours (5:04).

   So here I was, in proven triathlon shape. And how will that affect me in a 100 mile ultra race?

   This was an interesting development. Whereas I was regularly pushing more than 80 miles per week in the previous years, my highest running mileage this year was only 60 miles, and that was done only twice this year.

   I usually use some statistics to determine predicted times at races. I regularly use them on the athletes I coach. And it has come through for me this year as well.

Prediction of the 100 Mile Ultra? Statistics Would Fail Here

   The problem is, statistics don't work at all in long 100 mile ultramarathons. The variability is too large to get a good range of predicted times with decent confidence.

   So I went with my gut instincts. Which told me I had an "outside shot" at going under 24 hours. And most of that was pure optimism. I figure I would be wrestling with that 24 hour time throughout the whole race.

   I sure wanted that sub-24 hour buckle though, so I stuck to a slightly aggressive strategy that would maybe get me under that time.

   And what was that? I would start the race at a 12 minute per mile pace. If you do the calculations, that would actually be a 20 hour pace. Yes, that was the risk I was taking!

   But that would also give me a 4 hour cushion in case I was forced to slow down in the latter stages of the race. Hopefully it would be enough to step over the finish line in under 24 hours.

   Up Next - The Beginning of the Race

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