Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Reader Question on Volume vs. Quality and Training for a 100-Miler

Note to reader: Question edited for better clarity.

Hey Wyatt, I'm training for my first 100-miler in June and am curious about your thoughts on volume versus quality as I know you've experimented with both approaches. Do I need to run lots of miles or will quality with some long runs sprinkled in do the trick? - JL

Great question and one I get quite a bit, which is why I've decided to post this question and my answer. The short answer is, there's no one specific approach to training for a 100-miler that works for everyone. There are some tried-and-true elements of training for 100s, such as the long run, but by and large what you do beyond that comes down to what works for you and only you. And you need to tailor your training to the specific challenges of the race (mountains and hills v. flat, trail v. pavement, cold v. hot, altitude v. sea level, etc.). If you're training for Rocky Raccoon, there's not much need to hit the mountain trails. If you're training for Hardrock, you're not doing yourself any favors training on a sidewalk. You get the idea.

I know guys who have trained for and won 100-milers running 140 miles a week with a ton of quality (track intervals, tempos) sprinkled in. Mark Godale comes to mind. Back in his prime, the dude would crank out 5:20 mile repeats and killer tempos every week, all while doing doubles just about every day (an approach I took in 2008 and 2009 and it seemed to work for me). I know guys who have trained for and done well in 100s running half those miles. Lucho comes to mind, though know that Lucho built a huge base over a period of several years as a professional triathlete. And, though I don't know him personally, I have heard Bob Africa takes a less-is-more approach to big undertakings like Leadman.

I have done well in 100s after running 100-110 miles a week for weeks on end (Burning River 2007, Mohican 2008, Mohican 2009). I have run 100+ miles a week training for a 100 and not done well (Leadville 2010). I have tried lots of approaches over the years, rationalizing to myself why each should work, and experienced varying results. Lately, it's mostly been mediocrity. What I have ultimately come to realize for myself, based on trial and error, is that I thrive on volume. I need lots of mileage and tons of aerobic work, with some quality like tempos and hill repeats every so often (a few times a month) just to stimulate different systems. Big volume pays off for me especially in the latter miles of 100s. The best race I've had in a few years (Leadville Marathon 2013) I came into having mostly run in my aerobic zones, with some fast stuff here and there (mostly fast finishes), for the previous two months. The reason I didn't break 20 hours at Leadville in 2013, or come damn close to it, was that my stomach went south and my ankle was still jacked from an injury. But I am convinced that the aerobic stuff I did all summer had me in amazing shape when I lined up for that race.

Anyway, the key, I think, is to listen to your body and train as hard as you can without breaking yourself down. Getting to the starting line of a 100-miler healthy is half the battle. So, if you need it, take Monday off after running 40 miles over the weekend (just an example). Don't feel like you have to go out and grind through the mileage day in and day out even if you're feeling horrible--and definitely don't do fast stuff or go super long if you're feeling crappy (been there, done that and it's a road you don't want to go down, especially when you're old like I am). The key is to adapt to what you're doing with your training. Just remember that your body will tell you how it's responding and rest is how your body gets stronger. The gains come not when you're piling on the miles but when your eyes are closed and you're asleep. You run 30 miles and then the next day you rest/do light active recovery stuff so your body can recover and make gains from those 30 miles. The same goes with tempos, hills, intervals, etc.

As far as quality, I believe quality and volume are what make a great marathoner. I've long been skeptical of quality's helpfulness in training for 100s. But it depends on how you define "quality." Anyway, in 100s, you're mostly aerobic (zone 2, maybe even zone 1). If you "go anaerobic" in a 100 for a long period, that's not good because it'll result in muscle breakdown. You need to stay aerobic and burn fat in 100s. So it makes sense to me to do most of your training in an aerobic, fat-burning state and get super efficient. With that said, I'm not convinced long tempo runs of 12 miles at 6:30 pace (just an example) really have a big payoff in 100s when that pace may be twice as fast as what you're doing on race day. Sure, long tempos will help with strength and speed (huge in the marathon) and they'll induce some adaptations, but in 100s you're running significantly slower, so why not log most of your miles at that pace especially when it's inducing fat-burning--which you need when going the distance? Don't do everything at aerobic effort--you'll go stale--but aerobic efforts are the bread and butter of your training.

In conclusion, to succeed in 100s (and it feels strange to me to be giving this kind of advice when I have a checkered recent past as far as 100s), I think you need to be aerobically fit and efficient and have logged a handful of very long efforts in the neighborhood of 30+ miles with maybe back-to-back 20s run at some point. Log most of your miles in an aerobic state. Do tempo runs, intervals, fartleks, fast finishes and hills a few times a month (but remember to train specific to the course's challenges) to keep the adaptation process going. But the bread and butter are those aerobic efforts. Just know that stress and niggles are to be taken seriously. Stress of life, work, family stuff, etc., doesn't get talked about nearly enough but it will hinder recovery and undermine the quality of your sleep. Sleep is huge, as evidenced by elite marathoners often sleeping 12 hours a day. So if you have a super-stressful week going, maybe back off the mileage. And definitely listen to the niggles--ice them, massage them, rest them.

Good luck!

Wednesday, October 15, 2014


With 2014 starting to wind down, I've been thinking a lot about what I'm doing running-wise next year. Over the past few weeks, lots of thoughts have swirled through my brain. I've considered taking the year off from racing and doing my own thing, such as running the Hardrock course over three days at a time of my own choosing. In recent weeks, I've become fairly disillusioned with the state of ultrarunning. When I started running ultras in 2005 (not that long ago, mind you), you could register for most races the day of the event. These days, it seems the sport has been over-run, with demand far out-stripping available supply. Some events sell out in a matter of hours; some in a matter of minutes.

I don't mind saying I wish ultrarunning still operated mostly in the shadows. The sport has garnered attention for years, but not like it does today. Admittedly, I could be a hypocrite. On the one hand, I want ultrarunning to be underground. But on the other hand, I'm a runner/blogger.

Soaring demand for limited spots means a lot of things, including the need for ridiculously advance planning when it comes to one's race schedule. I don't like that. I think when one's decision to enter a race has to be made eight or more months in advance, spontaneity is lost. You may not mind registering that early, but I do. I like flexibility.

Of course, what's happening in ultras is just the product of market forces, so it's a waste of time to whine about it. It's been shown that, in down economies, running becomes more popular. With that, you also have a few best-selling books that have driven enormous numbers of runners into ultras. The Western States lottery has never been a gimme, but in 2014 your odds of getting in were, I believe, a mere 8 percent. With tighter entrance criteria for 2015, it'll be interesting to see what the odds are for the approaching Western States lottery, which I'll once again try for. Will the odds get better, get worse or stay about the same?

Then you have Leadville. I'm not even going to go into where I am with that race right now, other than to say it's an estranged relationship after much thought and soul-searching. Which brings me to 2015. After debating giving the middle finger to racing in the coming year, I have decided to once again take part in the madness. But I like to think I'm being much more discriminating with the races I choose to enter in 2015, opting for events I consider high-quality and genuine, along with hopefully a few "fat-asses." As of now, here's what things look like:

April: Cheyenne Mountain 50K
May: Golden Gate Dirty Thirty (50K)
June: Western States Endurance Run or Bighorn 100 (Bighorn registration done!)
August: Pikes Peak Marathon
October: Columbus Marathon

Obviously, Western States is a big question mark. Fortunately, I'll have a few tickets in the lottery (better than the one I had last year), and so I'll be hoping my name is drawn. Western States is a dream of mine. But if it's not meant to be in 2015, then I have a really sweet backup 100-miler that I'll be stoked to run--the Bighorn 100 just north of here, in Wyoming. From what I've heard, Bighorn delivers a genuine ultra experience and is a very challenging race with lots of vertical, lots of mud, an 11am start that has all entrants running through the night, lots of single track and lots of mountain terrain. Oh yeah, and it's a Hardrock qualifier. That's one of the reasons I loved Mohican back in the day--it was genuine and kind of "down home." I miss genuine.

I think the timing of Western States and Bighorn suits me well. I'm one of those runners who gets the bug in early April, when I start ramping up my mileage. By late June, I'm usually in really good shape. As the summer progresses, I start to go stale. A 100-miler in late June would mean I'd go into it in pretty awesome shape. I've never gone into Leadville fresh. But it seems I always run well in June.

The additional silver lining to a June 100 is that I'll be able to line up for the Pikes Peak Marathon later in the summer. I've never run PPM, but I've run the Barr Trail enough times to appreciate the challenge of racing up and back down that glorious 14'er to the south of Parker. I'm guessing by the time Pikes rolls around, I'll still be somewhat compromised by my 100 earlier in the summer, but I'll nonetheless take part in a race that I've dreamed of running for years.

The year would then wrap up with a go at the Columbus Marathon, where it all started for me in 2004. It's impossible to say what my goals for Columbus will be. The last time I ran Columbus (2008), I crossed in 2:59, hampered by a hamstring strain. It would be great to go back after all these years away--awesome course, awesome event, lots of memories.

Life is one big pendulum. Right now, ultrarunning is growing by leaps and bounds. In time, the growth will start to level off and things will become more manageable. For now, it's a race in and of itself just to get an entry in your favorite events.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

My Take on the New Leadville Lottery Standards

Over 3,000 hits to the my blog yesterday tells me a few folks maybe wanted to know my take on the new lottery system that Lifetime Fitness is instituting for the Leadville 100-Mile Run. So, here goes.

Just for background: The old system was first-come, first-served. You registered on January 1. The 2014 race closed in, I believe, two days. That was amazing. Just to put things in perspective, in 2010, I registered in April and I believe registration stayed open until May or June. Interest in the race has exploded in large part because of The Book.

With the new lottery system, essentially you pay $15 to have you name put in the hat, and that $15 goes to the Leadville Legacy Foundation, which provides support for all graduating high school seniors in Leadville who aspire to seek further education/training (great cause!). From there, all you can do is hope your name is pulled and that you have a spot at the starting line on August 22.

Many of us knew a lottery was coming at some point. But many of us--myself included--assumed that "race veterans" would have special consideration. That is, if you're a returning finisher or you have multiple finishes under your belt, you'd get multiple tickets in the lottery. Or, better yet, if you finished the previous year's race, you're in automatically if you want it. I have four finishes. I'm not bragging when I say that; my point is that I am (was?) part of the Leadville faithful and I believe I should get more tickets than someone who read The Book and got inspired (and, let's face it, will likely DNF at/by Winfield). That may sound elitist, but it's how I feel and it's how most Leadville vets feel. We feel like we've been forgotten with this new lottery system.

The only folks getting automatic entries, besides those who finish high in the qualifiers, are nine-time LT100 finishers going for their tenth. That's awesome--I'm all for it. But what about the rest of us?

Here's the rub: Human nature is such that a lottery will induce even more demand than what we've seen in previous years. When something becomes scarce or is perceived as scarce, people all of a sudden want it. So, I believe the lottery, which will be open for an entire month, will garner thousands of entries--just as with the mountain bike race. The odds of getting in will be slim.

At Leadville every year, dozens of people come up to me and tell me how helpful this blog has been to their preparation. I don't claim to be some Leadville master, but I appreciate the feedback. I have lined up for that race five times and gone deep into the well each time. I have stood by the race through thick and thin, defending it after the 2013 running that left many in the ultarunning world disenchanted and disgruntled. So, from where I'm sitting, to have to stand in the same line as Born to Run disciples leaves a little bit of a bad taste in my mouth. I have fought for my four finishes and believe I, along with other race vets, should have some kind of special consideration when it comes to a lottery. If the race organizing staff doesn't want to give us 2014 finishers and vets automatic entry into the 2015 event, that's fine--but at least give us some extra tickets to boost our odds of being chosen in the lottery.

Lotteries suck but they're a necessary evil in the "sport" (not sure this is a sport, which is why I put that word in quotes). Hardrock and Western States have done a great job with their lotteries, though I'd say I prefer Hardrock's lottery when comparing the two. With Hardrock and Western States, as well as the Boston Marathon, you know any tweaks to their intricate systems have come on the heels of great thought, consideration and engagement with those who will be affected. With Hardrock, we're literally talking about rocket scientists who developed the lottery. With Western States and Boston, you have two races that really set the standard for all others. I don't sense that with Leadville's new lottery system. There has been a backlash, confirming that this new system is unfair and faulty. It's not like the wheel has to be reinvented--look at Boston, Western States and Hardrock for models.

I talked with the race director, Josh Colley, yesterday. Josh is a good guy and he's about Leadville. The 100-mile run has to show a positive impact on the community as there's a small but vocal anti-race series community in Leadville. So, I totally support any and all tactics for boosting the Leadville Legacy Foundation. I think he wants a great race and I know the 2013 run inspired him to step it up, which he did because the 2014 running was nearly flawless. I don't know what Lifetime's role is in the race, meaning I don't know how much control the company has over what takes place at the shop in downtown Leadville. The race doesn't make Lifetime a ton of money (probably just a drop in the bucket), but it does give Lifetime a nice boost to its brand. What I do know is that Josh is doing what he thinks is best/right, and I know that as an RD he has to make some unpopular decisions at times (I'm not an RD, but that's my take). I don't agree with the direction that's been taken with the lottery, and for the time being I'm thinking hard about whether or not I return to Leadville. I'm also thinking hard about whether it's time to move on from ultrarunning--too many damned people. I can run in the mountains and do crazy stuff--hell, I can run the Hardrock course if I want.

While the backlash unfolds, here are some ideas to consider.
  • Give automatic entry to 2014 finishers. About 360 finished. Not all 360 would return in 2015 if given the option. Maybe half would return. That leaves plenty of spots (500+) for the lottery entrants, the other automatic entrants, and additional folks such as elites.
  • If the above isn't possible, give runners a ticket for every year they've finished. It is unfair that I, with my four finishes, or my buddy Matt, with his five finishes (just using us as examples), get just one ticket each.
  • Or do what Hardrock does and have separate lotteries--a lottery for vets, a lottery for newbies, etc.
  • Institute a qualification standard. You have to finish a 50-mile race or just about any 100-miler to qualify for the lottery. I know Leadville has a tradition of welcoming all comers, but times need to change when it comes to that. Besides, Leadville isn't a race for newbies. The epic carnage I see every year when coming back to Twin Lakes reveals that the race needs to institute a qualification standard.
  • Institute a service requirement. You need to do at least six hours of trail-related/race-related/outdoor-related service to gain entry. That would thin the lottery field--and it might give the Leadville Race Series some additional volunteers.
  • If boosting the Leadville Legacy Foundation is a key goal (which I totally get and support), institute a surcharge for the fund and/or increase the race entry fee. I would be happy to pay more. As it is, I always give an extra donation to the foundation.
  • Radical: Scrap the existing course and develop a new route that is a big loop starting and finishing at 6th and Harrison. A point-to-point wouldn't work as the start and finish need to be in Leadville in order to keep aligned with the traditions of the race. A loop course would enable more runners and better traffic flow, while keeping the start and finish where they've always been. Then you could have a huge event, but it would also mean you'd need more volunteers because you wouldn't be using each aid station twice. Admittedly, this solution would require years of planning, but there are trails galore, along with old mining roads, in the area and it could be done.
Those are just a few ideas. I'm no expert on this--lots of people know more about lotteries than I do. All I really want is engagement. Runners need to be engaged when big changes are percolating.

At present, I don't know what I'm doing in 2015 as far as Leadville and my race schedule (not that anyone cares). My #1 hope is to get into Western States. But there are a few other 100-milers I'm eyeballing as backups. It may be time to step away from Leadville and do something new. I believe in the end Josh and his team will revisit the lottery and make some changes. For now, to say I'm saddened by this new system would be an understatement. In all honesty, I'm heartbroken over it because I love Leadville--my son has practically grown up on that course. My wife and I have had some powerful moments during that race. I have history there.

I realize this is a "first-world problem," but it's saddened me.