Monday, January 27, 2014

Overemphasis on Training in 100 Mile Trail Run Prep - Angeles Crest 100 Lessons 2006-2014

"Nothing on Earth can stop the man with the right mental attitude from achieving his goal; nothing on Earth can help the man with the wrong mental attitude."
-Thomas Jefferson

BAD ATTITUDE 101 - Angeles Crest 2006 at Eagle's Roost
I am not the most qualified person to be telling you how to train for a 100 mile mountain race.  I am not fast, and am lucky to crack the Top 25 of a deep race field.  I don't even log high mileage all that often (number of weeks in 2013 over 70 miles = 6, number of 100+ mile weeks not including a week with a 100 mile race in 2013 = 0).  I have even coached runners for Angeles Crest (and various other 100 milers) that have failed to finish their respective races (don't ask about my Dave 'Comet' Chan story, please).  There are many more qualified AC experts out there.

All that aside, you have found this blog entry (so pull up a chair and stay a moment).  I'm here to present a perspective that I've been chewing on for a few years now, something I've struggled to fully grasp or articulate, but it crystallized in a conversation with a fellow student of 100 milers, and someone far more credible than I (who will likely blog on this very topic in the near future *nudge, nudge* ).

Okay, I lied, look how pretty I am here.
Running 100 miles (or "migrating 100 miles", to quote my fellow blogger Ashley) in a single day is a brutal challenge.  It tests us physically and psychologically, sometimes to the very fabric of our being.  It strips us of all excess energy, to the point where all facades fall away and we're left raw and emotive, just a primal being often going off of pure grit and gut instinct.  In my case this is often not a pretty sight.  For some of my closest friends it is a time to fully enjoy the show, as I behave in ways I might not want to be seen behaving at any other time (at least publicly).  I might throw a tantrum or two. I sometimes complain. I often puke. Sometimes I even cry like a baby.  And hold on to your seat for this one, there are instances I am dead quiet for extended periods of time.  *GASP!*

Chamoun leads Gleason up Williamson - AC 2012
I'd estimate in all of the training programs I've personally executed over the last 12 years preparing for marathons and longer races, my two most dedicated, high mileage, most focused training programs were in 2006 training for my first Angeles Crest 100 Miler and in 2008/2009 training for the Western States 100.  Interestingly enough, until I tried to run my 2nd hundred miler in a 2 week period (AC/Leadville back-to-back in 2013), both AC '06 and States '09 were my two most difficult 100 milers (see: most frequent low points, most death marching, and highest cumulative time in aid stations).  I don't care if you finish these races in 18 hours (or faster) or 30 hours, to me, speed is relative and it is an impressive feat of courage (and foolishness) to even toe the line of one of these monster mountain endurance runs.  Conversely, two races I probably had the least consistent training for, AC '13 and Rocky Raccoon '10, I had some of my better times.  Yes, those are wildly different events. I suffered tremendously at AC last year due to my lack of training (and other influencing factors), but I ran times I consider to be good for me at those two events (with less than ideal training).  This had me examining some of the finer points of 100 mile race prep with many friends of mine who have a depth of personal experience at 100 miles.  Leading up to a conversation between Pam, Kate and I, about interesting and notable performances on less than ideal training earlier this week.

As far as I'm concerned, this hypothesis could apply to the Pam Smith's (see: runners who win races) just as much as it does athletes who are fighting cutoffs for a high percentage of the race, and everyone in between.  Granted, the athlete who has less than ideal training might not be competitive for a win in today's deeper fields of competitors since most elites I've read up on now consider every element of what I'm about to talk to you about.

DISCLAIMER: I do not intend to insinuate that an athlete does not have to train very much to finish a 100 mile race.  Training up to this distance is essential.  Doing so intelligently, patiently (over an extended period of time), and consistently over race specific terrain is ideal.  The goal should be arriving at the starting line healthy, rather than "how many times can I run 100 miles in my weekly training" no matter the consequences.

HYPOTHESIS:  a great many athletes, especially first timers, place a dramatic overemphasis on training in prep for a 100 mile mountain race

To say this another way: many of us focus so much on cumulative weekly miles, running fast, running up steep terrain, tempo runs, speed work, stair repeats, strength training and getting physically ready that we overlook some pretty essential aspects of 100 mile racing (not to say we're all racing, but 100 miles in an event is distinct from just going out to do 100 miles on your own with no time constraints).

What often gets overlooked when training is overemphasized:
Checklists of everything I could possibly anticipate: AC 2012 edition
*Nutrition - both day-to-day diet influencing metabolic efficiency and effective race day nutrition strategies
*Mental Strategies - conditioning ourselves to think in a way that empowers and inspires our best effort, learning to deal with the inevitable and often devastating lows of a 100 mile run.  This can include mantras, anticipation of difficulty and acceptance of certain problematic scenarios.
*Hydration/Electrolyte Replenishment - there are many schools of thought here, but often athletes don't even consider how little (or how much) they're drinking or how an electrolyte imbalance might affect their race
*Pacing Plan vs Exertion Plan - you might think to yourself here, "nope, I always have a pacing plan" and that's one of my key points: we are often more focused on some target race time than actually adjusting to the effort/exertion level that is appropriate at that moment based on the signals our body is sending us, which can be greatly affected by conditions (heat, altitude, wind, terrain, humidity, etc.).  This doesn't just mean running too fast, it's sometimes being too conservative.
*Attitude - I hold this one slightly distinct from "mental strategies" although it is closely related.  A positive mentality can sometimes help us look at the same (sometimes ugly) circumstances and instead of panicking or having an emotional breakdown, we can smile and laugh about it.

"Do as I say, not as I do." -  IPA & a donut???
I'm the last person who can tell you what you should be doing for nutrition, but for many athletes, it seems to be almost an afterthought.  Fueling strategies implemented on race day aren't tried-and-true for most.  Sometimes, athletes that have something they've practiced a ton in training goes haywire on race day because of aid station grazing (those candies and cookies look great, I'll have a couple).

Hydration and electrolyte replacement is really personal.  There are some diametrically opposed schools of thought here on how much one should drink and whether one should supplement with electrolytes or not.  Again, if you've given no thought to it, it's just guesswork.  It's amazing that so many athletes spend a year planning to run 100 miles, pouring hours into physical training each week, many more hours just thinking about it, without consideration for anything specific here.

Pacing plans: here's the thing, if you are seeking to finish your first 100 mile race, finishing will be a PR.  Some athletes get so caught up in buckling, going for sub-24's, and completely ignoring the redline signals because of pace splits for a goal time that they sacrifice the finish.  And it has proven to be a grotesque oxymoron for me (and dozens of the athletes I train) that when I focus on everything but my splits, I run my fastest time.  When I focus on my time splits, I fall off them pretty quickly and then have to deal with my negative emotions around that early failure.

"Attitude is a little thing that makes a big difference."
-Winston Churchill

Hurting: Mile 52 at AC in 2011. Attitude shift necessary.
Attitude/Mentality: I remember a few years back being too sick to start the Lake Sonoma 50 Miler, on race day I ended up working race check in and helping build the finish line area.  I got to cheer a few Coyotes and a few other friends across the finish line.  I remember one girl in particular who finished mid-pack and threw a tantrum to her friends, "That was the worst day of my life!" she sobbed.  I sat there awestruck.  Wait, didn't you just finish 50 miles?  What about the people still out there, behind you?  What about the people who DNF'd today?  I will never know this girl's name, but she taught me an amazing lesson that day: embrace the hurt locker.  I went on to Angeles Crest that summer (four months later) and every time I felt miserable, I thought to myself "I'm still moving forward at a decent clip, it could be worse, I'm so grateful to be out here doing this..." and it changed my race.  Without very much race specific training that summer, I ran my fastest AC100 time.  A huge part of that was my perspective shifting.  I put a lot of thought into it beforehand.  How am I going to feel out there?  Probably pretty crappy at some point, but that's what I signed up for.

In summary, there are so many pieces to traveling 100 miles on foot, in a single go.  Training may be a key piece of that, but if you don't consider every other piece, you might just be throwing a lot of that training down the drain.

Another parting shot, a clip of the conversation between Pam, Kate and I:
Pam - "So, how fast do you have to run to go sub-24 in 100 miles?"
JDF - "You gotta run 12-13 minute miles, depending on how much time is wasted in aid. Overall 14:30-ish average."
Pam - "Right. So really, how fit does one have to be to maintain 12-13 minute pace?"
JDF - "Depends on the course, I guess?"
Pam - "Sure, but don't you think it's not often the pace that sabotages one's sub-24 goal, but rather, poor nutrition plans, sour stomachs, and not being ready for the low points (mentally)?"
JDF - "Interesting point, Pam..."
Mr. & Mrs. Smith (photobomb by yours truly)
There's a good chance you'll see Pam on the starting line at Angeles Crest this year with a personal vendetta against AC.  I met Pam in 2010 at AC, at Mile 42.  She was trying to drop out and her husband Mac persuaded me to convince Pam to continue.  So she dropped out at the first aid station that was crew inaccessible.  Coincidentally, it was the aid station where I branded myself with my first ever DNF too, Mile 49, the Mt. Hillyer checkpoint.  Whether there in 2014 or not, I'm betting on Pam to finish her next AC...

My Angeles Crest 100 History in finishing (or DNF) photos:

2006 - Finish, 26:27
2007 - DNF at Mile 49

2011 - Finish,   23:51  (first AC silver)

2012 - Finish, 22:38
2013 - Finish, 23:39
2014 - ????
No idea what this year holds in store, but I know Angeles Crest will hypothetically be my 4th 100 mile race inside of 2 months (June 7 - August 2).  I'm ready to be schooled again by one of my favorite mountain ranges anywhere... and I'll be hitting the starting line leaving no stone unturned...

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