I'm about three hours from embarking on what may be the second longest run of my life. Mark Robillard, Jesse Scott, Jeremiah Cataldo, and I are planning on running the length of the Kal-Haven trail in Southwest Michigan. If everything goes according to plan, the run should be about 67-68 miles. It's a run that defies conventional wisdom... but is should be a fun adventure.
This long run will give me the opportunity to test some ideas I've been playing with in preparation for Burning River at the end of this month. I'll be testing the feasibility of carrying two handheld water bottles instead of a waist back or hydration pack. The probable heat of Burning River will necessitate more than a single handheld.
I will also test the fitness of my feet. This entire trail is crushed limestone. If my bare feet can survive this challenge, the varied terrain at Burning River should be easy. As a precaution for this run, I will be carrying my huaraches.
Lastly, I will be testing fuel. I have been toying with a mostly-vegan diet. I made a few faux chicken, black bean, chia, and avocado wraps. They should provide a palatable energy source for the later stages of this run.
I've spent a good deal of time reading information on the Crossfit Endurance (CFE) philosophy. The idea is simple- long, slow runs are more or less useless in regards to fitness. As such, the longest prescribed run in the CFE program is 13.1 miles. I religiously followed the plan in 2008, which resulted in a DNF at Burning River that same year.
I mostly agree with the idea that long, slow runs are terrible in regards to developing general fitness. A high weekly mileage is not necessary and will unnecessarily increase the risk of injury. A well-planned weight training routine based on high intensity interval training, high quality speed work, and ample rest and recovery time will result in the best possible fitness.
HOWEVER, the long, slow run does have value. First, it develops physiological adaptations that simply are not possible on shorter runs. Every physiological process in the body will undergo extreme stress in any run over the marathon distance, and this stress increases dramatically as you approach and exceed the 100 mile mark.
Second, running very long distances involves incredible peaks and valleys of a variety of things... moods, motivation, fatigue, sleepiness, pain, etc. Short runs cannot emulate this experience. Learning to predict, interpret, react to, and survive these peaks and valleys is critical.
Third, having traversed a given mileage threshold brings immediate confidence at that distance. This rule holds true for any distance, but long ultras bring an aura of impossibility. Until you conquer a given distance, the unknown element can be a major regulator on performance.
Based on this premise, how should one train? We're all individuals, so it is up to each of us to experiment and find our own ideal routines. For me, short, intense weight training mixed with two or three weekly runs will get me to the finish line.
Today's run is a major test. It will give me an opportunity to assess my readiness for Burning River. The length of this run may defy conventional wisdom, but it will also give me a major confidence boost. Of course, that assumes we finish. :-)