Friday, May 18, 2012

So, Who Wins...the Fast Guy or the Mountain Guy?

Regarding this post, which continues to get a lot of reader interest, I haven't yet provided my own take on who has the better chance at a fast finish at Leadville--the fast guy or the mountain dude. But now I'm ready to offer my take.

I see myself more as the guy whose weekly approach is to run 100 miles in 13 hours versus 100 miles in 18 hours. That's partially a product of the environment in which I live (Parker, Colorado, which has limited dirt trails and is 40 minutes from the mountains) but also of my identity as a runner. When it comes to races, I'm a runner, not a hiker (though I love recreational hiking). I do like the occasional difficult mountain race, such as the Jemez 50-Mile (which involves some insanely steep, scree-laced climbs and descents), but by and large I'm attracted to races that involve a lot of running, not hiking. That's not to minimize races that involve a lot of hiking; I consider Hardrock to be the ultimate challenge and one day I will confront that gnarly course as an official entrant.

What I most like about Leadville is that it gives me everything I want in a race at this stage in my life--mountains, beautiful trails and a little bit of road. My favorite section of Leadville is when you're dropping into Twin Lakes on the outbound. This part of the Colorado Trail is awesomely runnable and you can just fly into Twin Lakes.

Getting back to who has the better approach--the fast guy or the mountain guy--I think that for Leadville the faster guy's training is, by its nature, higher-risk/higher-reward than the mountain guy's. Because he did his intervals, tempo runs, etc. and has good turnover and efficiency, the fast guy stands the chance of running a stout time at Leadville since it's a "runner's race." But, if things go bad for him, which is very possible in a high-altitude environment like Leadville, he may have a hard time getting into the finish since he didn't put in a lot of time on his feet like the mountain guy.

Conversely, the mountain guy, even though his speed and efficiency aren't as good as the fast guy's, has put in the time on his feet to be able to withstand lots of punishment and a long day out there on the Leadville course. His training approach, while quite taxing from a time standpoint, has built up tremendous strength that will benefit him on Hope Pass as well as late in the race. His approach is lower-risk, but I'm not sure if it's higher-reward or lower-reward since he probably wouldn't stand a chance if the fast guy is having a good day.

At Leadville, I give the slight nod to the fast guy. Only slight, though.

In a race like Hardrock, I go with the mountain guy ten times out of ten.

I believe to my marrow that if you want to be a better runner, yes, you have to hit some good volume and go really long on a regular basis. If you're doing a race like Leadville, you'd better get out there on the mountain trails and do some serious climbing and descending. But you also need to log good quality. Go to the track and challenge yourself with some fast intervals that will improve your VO2 max and efficiency. Do a weekly tempo run, which will enhance your strength and lactate threshold, allowing you to go harder for longer. If you do no quality and just emphasis long, slow distance, you're not going to get faster.

Ultimately, I think the optimal training program is to marry both approaches and get to the mountain trails while also spending time at the track and on the road doing fast stuff. If you can do both, you're in a good place.

Where am I right? Where am I wrong?


  1. ha, tough to be wrong when you support both training approaches and ultimately decide the best answer is to marry the two approaches.

    but you did say the faster approach is slightly better for leadville. who knows. i think the base (both genetic and years of training) play heavily into this. i also think age plays a big part. if you're older, speedwork coupled with the mileage you need to log won't allow you to recover properly to gain the benefit from such a combo. if you've pushed your endurance for years, but haven't worked on your pace, throwing speedwork in will show big rewards at first. but over time, improvements even out.

    i think if you think about this approach over a multitude of years, the guy who spends more time on his feet ends up being better trained. in a shorter timeframe, with the prior elements controlled (age, base), the speed work pays bigger dividends.

  2. I would be interested in Lucho's take.

  3. My limited experience has demonstrated it's easier to get used to altitude than it is to get fast. I agree.

  4. I wish I could make my way to Leadville to check it out for myself.

    One of these days......

  5. I will contend that you have to do the vertical. There is no substitute. It will prepare you and make you stronger for a true mountain ultra. See the following interview with Max King and at about 3:45 he speaks to how doing the vertical has made a big difference in his strength as a runner... this from one of the fastest guys out there:

    Also just look to the best in the sport- where do they live and train: in the mountains, not on the flats or at a track. This is not to say that flat tempo runs are of no value or that regular track sessions will yield no positive effects, just that there really is no substitute for the training effect yielded by a regular 4 mile climb from say 7000 ft to 9000 ft.

    As was clearly demonstrated last weekend at Transvulcania, "the race was made on the ups and won on the downs". Training without significant vertical will help with neither and lead to non-optimal performance.

  6. 3vium: All great points. In the original post, however, I mentioned that the fast guy does do a mountain run about once a week. The big difference is that he doesn't do mountain runs everyday like the mountain guy does. I absolutely agree that, if you don't do any mountains, then you're at a huge disadvantage in a mountain race. That said, I also think that just trail running makes a difference, even if it's in a hilly area. But, yes, you have to have experience on big climbs to excel in mountain races.


  7. Wyatt,

    Although either of your hypothetical well-trained "runners" may perform better than the other on a given day, the one who lives and trains in the mountains will likely achieve a greater fraction of his/her potential in mountain races. This is both a cardiovasular and a skeletomuscular issue, not a desire or drive issue. Intensity training sessions are fundamental to attaining peak performance and thus can be considered separately. The "mountain dude", although going slower on average may, in fact, experience higher average intensity training. Structuring the intensity correctly is the important thing, whether they be track sessions, hill repeats, or whatever.

    Reflecting on my personal experience from years of competition in endurance sport that involves mountains, a once a week excursion will not allow for optimal preparation for races in the mountains. There may be some exceptional examples but I would argue that regular (meaning many times per week) training sessions in the mountains are the basis for excellence on race day in the mountains.

    It is a tough situation for those who want to race in the mountains but who live in relatively flat areas and/or are location-constrained by career and family choices. I lived that for a long time. When I first moved to the mountains the reality of the training impact was visceral.

  8. Interesting discussion, Wyatt.

    I'm surprised you don't really discuss nutrition. I would guess that the runner who perfects race-like nutrition is going to have the better outcome.

    For example, the "fast guy" can probably do a 20 miler in ~3 hours or less, and maybe he routinely only eats a couple of gels and gets by on 20-30 oz of water. If he never trains himself to eat and drink more, he's likely to have major problems in a 100. On the other hand, if he's making an effort to consume a lot of calories and fluids on these 3 hour runs, he's likely to be more successful.

    The same goes for the mountain guy. Because he's doing longer (4-6 hours) runs, he probably gets more practice with nutrition. But it's still something to focus on. When I first started doing 4-5 hour runs, I found myself not really eating anything after about 3 hours or so. I could make it through the end of a run, but I was likely in such a depleted state that I wouldn't be able to continue for much longer. Now I try to focus on eating as if I'm going to be running for much longer. Even on a 2 hour run I think "how much would I eat in the first two hours of a 6 hour run?".

    just my $.02.

  9. Here's one answer to this question: An excerpt from an article describing Matt Carpenter's record smashing run at Leadville: "Most ultramarathon runners focus on endurance by running as much as 50 miles on weekends. Carpenter chose to focus on speed. He never ran farther than 25 miles a day but did plenty of short, fast workouts. The training paid off." Here's a link to the full article:

  10. Guy: Yes, I've read Carpenter's account (many times). Living in Manitou Springs, he most likely logged a lot of miles on Pikes Peak, which had to help tremendously on Hope Pass and in other sections of Leadville.


  11. I hate to be pedantic but you answered a different question than you asked: "Who has the better shot at a top finish?"

    Speed guy will definitely edge mountain guy if he has a good day. But regarding the question you actually asked - Mountain guy may not win, but he'll still be up on the podium even if he has a bad day. Speed guy? Not so much.

  12. Steven: Good point. When I said "winning," what I meant was winning between the two runners--not winning the race outright.