It looks like my last post on long, slow distance (aka, "LSD") training for ultras set off a veritable firestorm, relatively speaking. In the spirit of continuous improvement and challenging even my own assumptions (I like to go fast), I'm going to go deeper into my thought process, at the risk of offending those who think the very thought of LSD is akin to blasphemy and idiocy.
When you train for a marathon, usually you have a goal time in mind. If that goal is 2:59, then that means you need to train a lot at 6:50 pace--with many long runs hitting that pace. The more volume you can put in at 6:50 pace, the more prepared you will be for 26.2 miles. Goal-pace training is a big part of what we refer to as specificity.
But specificity is about more than goal-pace training. It's also about preparing yourself for the conditions and contours of the course. If the course has hills, like what you find in Boston, then you'd better put in some time on ups and downs. If your race is likely going to be in the heat, then you'd better be ready for that. Etc., etc.
I think that, in many respects, the principles of successful marathoning are fairly well established, even as new understandings come about regularly. It's a safe bet that Renato Canova, Jack Daniels, Brad Hudson and others are onto something.
Like many, I do not think the same principles that guide successful marathoning necessarily apply to racing 100-milers, especially 100-milers of the mountainous, high-altitude variety. Hundred-milers require a lot of mental toughness, but they also require a lot of physical preparation. You have to run a ton in your training, and it's best if most of your training is in the same conditions and environment as the race itself. Ah, but proper pacing is also critical.
Let's go back to the marathon. If your goal is a 2:59, then it's probably best that you attack that goal with relatively even splits the whole way. You wouldn't want to go out and do the first half in 1:25 if you'd trained specifically for a 2:59. To do so would be to risk blowing up.
Especially in mountain 100s, oftentimes we see huge variations in splits between the first half and the second half. The Leadville 100 is Exhibit A for this phenomenon. It takes a special (and smart) Leadville runner to do a negative split on that course (unless they were totally sand-bagging it for the first 50 miles). In 2011, when I ran a rather decent 22:35, my first-half split was in the neighborhood of 9:15 (11:06/mile, including stops), meaning it took me 13:20 (16:00/mile) to do the second half.
In 2009, I won a 100-mile race in the last 20 miles because I'd started conservatively enough to save my energy for a strong final push.
What if I'd run the first half of Leadville in 2011 in, say, a time of 10:00 or 10:30 (~12:00-12:30/mile including stops)? Would a slower start have allowed me to have a stronger second half? Ah, perhaps we have an example to work from!
At the 2012 Leadville 100, the runner who, in my opinion, executed the smartest race was Brandon Stapanowich, a young up-and-comer from Colorado Springs who has a very bright future in the sport. Brandon, who, unlike me, has a lot of talent and brains, finished the race in a very impressive 19:32, which was good for seventh overall. But that's not what most impresses me. What most impresses me is the intelligence behind Brandon's race strategy. Guess what his first-half split was? It was 9:06. He went into Mayqueen, the 13.5-mile mark, in a rather pedestrian 1:57. As many of us know, Brandon could have run to Mayqueen and covered the first half a lot faster than he ultimately did last August. Instead, he chose a conservative first-half approach, which then helped set the table for an impressive second-half split. I also think Brandon arranged his approach around the fact that he's a super strong climber, which helped him excel at the Hope Pass and Powerline sections. To wit: I believe he was the only top finisher whose return trip on Hope was faster than his outbound. So, it's quite obvious that Brandon held back a bit in the first half, and then decided to up his intensity in the second half.
While some of the guys in front of Brandon may have run faster second halves, few achieved a more consistently paced first and second half.
When I think about running 100s, it seems to me that proper pacing, like what we see in Brandon's 2012 Leadville 100, is critical. Does it make sense to go out in a 100 at 8:00/mile pace, when deep down you know you're not going to be able to hold that pace in the end? Or, does it make better sense to go out at, say, 10:00/mile pace and save energy that you'll need in the end? A 100-miler doesn't have to end in a death march to the finish. If one paces themselves correctly, one can stay strong from start to finish. Herein lies my own $60,000 question: What is the ideal pace for me in a 100 like Leadville? And by ideal pace I mean the pace at which I achieve optimal efficiency. Is my optimal pace the pace I purposely train at for months, or is it some arbitrary pacing schedule I choose on race day?
Again, in 2011 I ran a 9:15 first half and a 13:20 second half at Leadville, clearly a larger than ideal separation. What if I'd come into Winfield in 10 hours rather than 9:15. Would my second half have then been much faster than 13:20 since I'd held back even more for the first 50 miles? Could I have maybe run the second half in 11 hours or 11:30 instead of 13:20? Which begs the question: Does it make better sense to train a lot at that pace (about 10:00-11:00/mile) rather than at 7:00 or 8:00 pace? For me, being a guy who likes to run fast, it's hard to imagine training at paces that slow, but maybe doing so, along with plenty of exposure to the Leadville course itself (which I'm going to get this summer), would enable my body to achieve super efficiency--a level of efficiency I've never had in 100s.
It's good to ask these questions in February, when my training hasn't really begun. Questions are good. It's healthy to probe deeply into one's training habits, because there are almost always better ways to do things. My search for those better ways continues.