Note: Edited a few hours later to include comments on tapering.
On July 10, I had my first opportunity to run 160 kilometers (100 miles) in 2020. Unfortunately, I dropped at 90km in a depressed state of self-pity and some physical anguish. My route is available here at Strava. This post discusses what I think went wrong. I hope to avoid this situation in the future. Let’s begin with a line up of suspects.
Here is a list of what may be the main suspects resulting in my failure.
- Speedy start. I began way too fast. Strava shows that my first 12 kilometers were all under six minutes, including two under five minutes.
- Mountains. Too much elevation on the course for me. When I withdrew, I had already completed 2,700 meters.
- Weather. Drab and dreary day. Too warm for a jacket, too cold for only a T-shirt and shorts.
- Trails. The route was okay for the first five or six hours, but then it got wet. At times, the trail was a stream, which led to wet feet for hours.
- Physical preparation. Originally I was training for UTMB 170km in France that has 10,000+ meters of climbing, so by July 2020, I had accumulated considerably more kilometers per month since January than I ever have before. I also have been lifting heavy weights (squats, thrusters and more) in preparation for long and grueling climbs in the Alps. Unfortunately, UTMB was cancelled in 2020. As for the NUTS Pallas, I thought the event would be easier than the four previous 100 milers I had completed, thanks to my physical training for UTMB. Perhaps I overtrained?
- Foot care. My toes and forefeet were in great shape during the whole 90km, but at some point I did develop one painful blister on the outside of my right heel.
- Gear. I wore Hoka Speedgoat 4s that already had over 400 km on them. I was planning to change to a newer pair at the second drop bag (100 ish km). My race vest (Ultimate Direction) is old. I used hiking poles on the ascents.
- Mental preparation. Before the race, I said to at least two people “Respect the distance” so I thought I was ready to follow my own advice. I did not practice any deliberate mental training.
- Tapering. Thanks to my friend Eric Young for asking about my tapering. My milage before June was about 160km average per week. Sometimes more. Let’s consider what happened six weeks out from the race. Here is my milage in late May/June: Six weeks (before race) = 163km, five weeks = 138km, four weeks = 190km, three weeks = 201km, two weeks = 88km, one week before = 60km, week of the race = 0km (but a few short bike rides) before the event, which began on a Friday. More commentary about tapering below in the next section.
- Speedy start. Yes, this is likely the number one reason for my failure later in the race. Why? Because I have been training at slower paces for the UTMB race. Here is some more background: A few years ago I tried to increase my weekly running milage to around 100 kilometers. For the first few months this was difficult and I had to avoid speed sessions and other physically taxing training. After my body became used to the increased running volume, I was able to slowly add more speed training, hill repeats, and other harder workouts. In January 2020, I thought I would increase to an average of 150+ km per week, which meant dropping most speed work and other difficult workouts until my body adjusted. Unfortunately, my body has not quite adjusted to the increased load, so I haven’t been doing speed work for many months (at least not consistently). Part of this lack of speed training is that Covid-19 resulted in the discontinuation of Turku Juoksee on Tuesdays at which I would normally get at least one nice speed workout per week. But mostly, increased slow milage caused me to neglect speed and intensity. So yes, running so quickly at the beginning of this particular race most likely exceedingly stressed my body (especially the legs). My body was probably thinking “What are you doing, you idiot? You haven’t been training like this at all!” I believe this is what resulted in my IT band tightening later on.
- Mountains. Was the elevation too much for me? I can confidently say that this is a big fat NO, because I got over 10,000 meters each month from March – June 2020. Climbing was not a major challenge. In fact, I felt like I could run uphill, but I mostly did not. The only questionable issue related to elevation gain is whether I did too much resulting in fatigue? I don’t think so, but it is a possibility.
- Weather. This is also a massive NO – the weather could not have been better. The temperature was around 15 C (59 F), which is perfect. No direct sunshine. No rain. The whole week before the event, weather forecasts called for heavy rain during the event, but it never materialized.
- Trails. The trails were excellent for the first 30 km but then got a bit wet and later even more. Yes, sometimes we were running in streams. The wetness was annoying and did cause some discomfort, but I knew I had a choice of socks waiting in my second drop bag around kilometer 100 or so. I had fresh normal socks and even a pair of waterproof sealskinz if desired. Too bad I never made it to the second drop bag.
- Physical preparation. It is possible that I overtrained, though I did/do not feel like it. But maybe my body was hiding the accumulated stress from me. Honestly, all the weightlifting should have made me stronger. I did, however, have some physical discomfort – my IT band did tighten up during the last 15 km of my journey, which provided ammunition to my weakening brain – ‘oh see, you actually are in pain, so you should stop’. It was the kind of pain that is worthy of attention, but I feel I could have pushed through if I were mentally stronger.
- Foot care. As I wrote above, my toes and forefeet were excellent. The blister on my heel did not stop me or make me quit. I would have treated it at the second drop bag.
- Gear. Race vest was excellent. It was smart to bring poles. The only question mark I have is about my shoes. Perhaps I should have worn shoes with fewer kilometers on them? It’s possible, but unlikely a game changer. I was really looking forward to new socks and shoes at the second drop bag.
- Mental preparation. I didn’t really do this because I don’t really know how. I’m hoping to work on this in the future. I am familiar with ‘hitting the wall’ and overcoming it. In fact, this usually happens more than once during 100 miles. I did feel rather horrible physically (stomach) and mentally a bit low from kilometers 35-45, and honestly my brain thought about quitting at the first drop bag (55km), but I eventually overcame the physical and mental discomfort. I soon knew that I would not drop out at 55km. I had successfully scaled the first wall and was confident I could scale another. Spoiler: I was wrong. And this is where I think I need some training mantras or other mental tips for overcoming brain fatigue. I recently read a book by Alex Hutchinson ( 2018) called Endure: Mind Body, and the Curious Elastic Limits of Human Performance in which he offers some sage advice that I hope to ponder in depth. This advice is posted below this list in ORANGE.
- Tapering. I have tried to learn about tapering over the years. When I was a newer runner, I found that a good taper for a 10km race was three days of no running. These days I would not taper a full three days for a 10km, but I would decrease intensity for sure. As I began to run ultras, I found that most people taper for about two weeks. At three weeks before an event, many people do their last high milage. At two weeks out, the milage is cut in half. At one week out, the milage is cut in half again. Week of the race includes very little running. This is what I did for this race. Maybe I should have kept the milage up? My body was adjusting to increase, so it must have thought something was wrong when I chopped off the mileage. Of course another option is that I didn’t taper enough. This is one area that I actually could use more information / advice about. I’m really not sure how to taper appropriately for a long ultra.
If I could go back in time to alter the course of my own running career, after a decade of writing about the latest research in endurance training, the single biggest piece of advice I would give to my doubt-filled younger self would be to pursue motivational self-talk training—with diligence and no snickering. Alex Hutchinson, 2018
In the end, I think suspects 1 and 8 are guilty, or the most guilty. I started too fast. Although I made it through the first proverbial wall of darkness, the second was too lengthy and I never emerged on the other side. Part of me regrets not continuing to the finish line – even walking slowly (runners were passing me left and right by the end of my journey). Another part of me, mentally speaking, was so frustrated with my physical state that it seemed pointless to crawl to the end (‘but I didn’t train or plan to walk!’). Perhaps the most disappointing feeling of all is that I feel like dropping out – unless justified – disrespects the runners behind me, who would struggle on to the end, even taking the entire 36 hours. In my self pity I withdrew after 13 hours and soon found food and a warm shower. I am still haunted by this a week later.
Even though I did run faster than I should have at the beginning, a large part of me thinks that I should have been able to recover on the move. With my training, I should have been able to slow down and then later speed up again. But something went wrong. I never overcame the second wall. I hope I can learn from this. If you have thoughts to help me, please feel free to share.