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Sunday, April 18, 2010

Ultramarathons for the Lazy Runner: Chapter Eight - Race Strategy

How do you plan for a race measured in hours?  I will sometimes overhear runners discussing 5K strategy.  It usually involves running at a specified intensity for various intervals with the goal of finishing as quickly as possible.  Personally, I've always used a "run as fast as you can" strategy... which may explain why I suck at 5Ks.  Anyway, I digress.

Needless to say, ultramarathons require a different strategy than the faster, shorter races.  Even a typical marathon strategy won't necessarily be effective.  Important note- I'm assuming you are not planning on winning the ultra you're planning; your goal is to finish.  Lazy runners don't plan to win.  :-)

Before we delve into detail, there are a few universal differences between ultras and sub-ultras.  The longer the ultra, the greater this difference. 
  1. Walking is acceptable.  Only the elites will run the entire time.
  2. Eating during the run is more or less required.
  3. Ultras are about surviving... you always have to assess the cumulative effects of your decisions.  A bad decision early in a race will haunt you throughout.
Okay, now we tackle strategy.   

The first thing to consider: the distance.  Generally speaking, longer races require more walking.  In a 50 mile race, you may walk a total of 10 miles.  In a 100 mile race, you may walk 40-50 miles.

The second consideration: cutoff times.  Most races will set an absolute time before everyone packs up and goes home.  Most races will require you to meet certain time checkpoints.  If you fall behind these checkpoint, you will be removed from the race.

The third consideration: terrain.  A flat course will require a much different strategy than a mountainous course.  When assessing terrain, it is also useful to note the different obstacles you will encounter.  Will the course consist of asphalt?  Dirt trails?  Sand?  Lots of rocks and/or roots (technical trail?)  Stairs?  Steep hills?  It is easier to run faster on certain surfaces; this will play a role in planning.

The fourth major consideration: fitness. The greater your fitness level, the faster and longer you will be able to run.  Personally, I usually overestimate my fitness level.  I am slowly learning how my body will react to long distances, which results in a better plan. 

The fifth consideration is aid stations.  The time does not stop while you're gorging yourself on M&Ms and salted potatoes.  The time spent in aid stations will affect your overall finish time.  As such, it is necessary to factor this into planning.  I like to plan on a five minute stop at each aid station.  I tell my crew to keep the stops under one minute.  Depending on how much primping I need, my time usually falls between those two times.

The sixth consideration- slowing as the race progresses.  Remember, you're a lazy runner.  You won't be running negative splits in an ultra.  Assume your second half pace will be significantly slower than the first half pace.

The last major consideration: weather.  Some conditions, such as heavy rain (and subsequent mud), snow, high heat, oppressive humidity, or strong winds can slow you down.  It is important to estimate the climate and local weather before developing a race strategy.

Now that you have done the requisite research, you will be prepared to map out a strategy.  How exactly you devise that plan will depend on your organizational habits.  I like to estimate a variety of finish times with the elapsed time I would expect to reach each aid station.  It takes some work, but it gives me an easy-to-follow spreadsheet that I can use during the race to determine if I am going too slow or too fast.  

Warning- make sure your crew understands your chart.  Luckily, my 100 mile finish was helped significantly by Michael Helton's ability to interpret my laminated posterboard filled with mileage numbers and times.  Michael deciphered this between rushing from one aid station to the next.  It would have been wise to explain my system before the race started. 

I found it is easier if I don't plan walk breaks.  In my first 100 mile attempt, had planned every single walk break throughout the race.  Not only was it incredibly time-consuming, it was impossible to follow once the race started.  It served as a major distraction.   Some runners will use a specific time ratio to determine walking breaks. I have experimented with this idea extensively and was never able to find a good solution that worked well.  Now I use more of a Zen-like approach and walk when I feel like it.

The race strategy you map out will go a long way towards preventing the unexpected.  Still, the more potential problems you can anticipate, the greater the likelihood of finishing.  


  1. i feel the same way about walking, and have only followed the strategy of 'walk when it's the pre-determined time' once, and it was a flop. it was mentally exhausting trying to remember when it was time, stressful if i hadn't checked my watch and missed a scheduled break and if i didn't feel quite ready to run when it was "time" to start running, it made me really depressed. everyone should experiment to find what worked for them, but that level of discipline did not work for me at all!

  2. reading and filing all this away! Thanks!

  3. care to divulge your strategy for pending first timed ultra?

  4. Strategy for pending first timed ultra = Run, eat, repeat.

    This was originally a goal race for me, but has since evolved into a really long training run (likely at least 2X my longest training run.) This is an entirely new territory for me... I haven't run more than a 25k road race in years. Road are *not* my friend... so this will be a very interesting experiment.

    My goal- work up a good "ultra hurt"; maybe hit a few walls... work on my anti-chafing strategy. I have a mileage goal, but I'd prefer to keep that to myself (fear of failure.) I'm also considering testing my theory of using beer as a mid-run carb-loading drink... we'll see. :-)

  5. What about crying? Do you have to save it for the aid stations or can you let it flow throughout?

  6. My suggestion: brew your own. There's not a whole lot of nutrition in most "store-bought" beers, but if you brew it with a little medicinal quality (see the book Sacred & Herbal Healing Beers) you will heal what Ales You!

  7. that's funny jason. i also plan on having an emergency 6 pack at northcoast 24. it's good and bad - may take the edge off the pain, but may make me sleepy... i'll have it just in case though.
    and don't worry about the road - you can run in the grass the whole way if you want to. the only time you'll be forced onto the path is crossing the timing mat, in front of the AS and over the footbridge... won't be too bad. would rather see you protecting your feet in the grass than getting blisters and resorting to shoes