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Hal Koerner’s Training Advice for 50Ks and Beyond

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An exclusive excerpt from Hal Koerner’s Field Guide to Ultrarunning on running the right pace, hill technique, incorporating tempo runs, tapering and 8 weeks of Hal’s recommended 16-Week 50K Training Plan

Just as a journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step, your ultra race begins with solid training. To do it right, you’ll want to be sure that you approach your training plan with attention to the pace of each session and to integrate runs that allow you to focus on ascending and descending technique so that you feel strong and confident going into the hills. You’ll need to know when and how to use speed work, when to ease off, when to go long and how long to go, and when and how to cross train or hit the weight room. Whether or not you need a coach is a personal decision. Regardless, you’ll need to know how to integrate tempo runs, rest days, core training, how to mix in road and trail runs and the appropriate mileage progressions, how to stretch, and how to use prep races to peak for your A race. Training for an ultra is a rather involved recipe, but you are the chef, and hopefully a gourmet one at that.

PACE

Pacing is important in running any distance, but in ultra races it is a different animal altogether. Let’s get that clear right from the start. Road marathon courses allow you to figure your splits, with a relatively predictable terrain across a relatively short time frame. Even trail marathons, which can certainly involve climbing and other terrestrial unpredictability, are held across a relatively manageable time frame and distance, allowing more margin for error in a pacing strategy.

To adopt that same pacing strategy as you would for shorter distances and attempt to apply it to the ultra is to set yourself up for disappointment or failure. It is just unrealistic. The majority of 50- or 100-mile courses range up, down, and across wilderness trails and are similar to one another only in their sheer variety. As has often been said of the trail, no two steps are alike. Put it this way: A finishing time in a 100-miler can range anywhere from 13 hours to 3 days.

So if pacing an ultra is not mainly about numbers or splits, what is it about? Pacing in an ultra is about leaving enough in the bank to last you to the end. There is a golden rule of ultra pacing, or at least an old adage: If you think you are starting the race slow, then slow down even more. Adrenaline at the beginning of a race will hype you up, other people around you will hype you up, and you are likely to go out too fast. Crew and family members will build you up at an aid station and release you back into the wild, but that energy rush will fade a few miles later as your pace and energy plummet. You may still feel great at the halfway point, but remember you may have another 12 hours or so to go, depending on the distance you are racing. A big part of completing a successful ultra is learning to discipline yourself to start steady and stick to your plan. That is pacing. Believe me, no matter how slow your pace is, you won’t finish a 50- or 100-miler with energy in reserve. And no one will accuse you of not pushing hard enough!

This is a good time to rethink pacing. Understand that it is not so much about cadence but, rather, about understanding your body. It is about recognizing your breathing patterns, feeling your body out, and trying to maintain a certain level of comfort across the miles. It is not about numbers alone but about keeping a realistic expectation of what you can do. Staying strong, staying well, staying even, such that at any given moment you have another gear or something in reserve for the long haul: These are the foci during a race.

In an ultra, pacing is certainly a mental game, too. There are going to be more footsteps than you have ever encountered, and it will seem like they will never end. If you can adjust your mental outlook to accept that, you will be in the right headspace. When things got tough, I used to remind myself that I was just so happy not to be sitting in a classroom all day (during my days at college) or behind the wall of a cubicle in a stuffy office (a former job).

Practically speaking, through training, you will learn what is a comfortable pace, and discovering that should be among your central goals in training. Comfortable is a good thing. Comfortable preserves your endurance—both physically and mentally—thus allowing you to focus on other key elements that contribute mightily to your success: breathing, hydrating, and nutrition.

The practice of negative splitting does have its place in competitive ultrarunning. Some of the best ultrarunning performances for folks I know came when the runner managed a negative split, running the second half of the race faster than the first half. The practice of negative splitting is something that you can incorporate into your training. Instead of doing a 30-mile long run where you drag yourself home the last 6 miles, hold back a little during the first half of the run and pace yourself carefully so that you are able to charge those final 6 miles, running them as the fastest part of the whole run. You may even throw in a progression run up to 20 miles where you steadily step up your pace in 5-mile increments. You not only will realize physiological benefits from this practice but also will gain a tremendous psychological advantage, knowing you are capable of pushing hard, even after putting so many miles on your legs.

TRAIL TECHNIQUE

To best train for an ultra, you should endeavor to get out one to two times a week for “specificity training,” by which I mean you are out in conditions that are as similar as possible to what you will face on race day. If you will be doing an ultra on the trails (and most do take place on trails), then specificity training means running on trails rather than roads, and on hills or unpredictable terrain rather than flat pavement.

Ascending

Ascending: It seems like you either love it or hate it. Or maybe it is that many runners have a love-hate relationship with it. My favorite thing about the ascent is getting to the top and seeing the view. That is always a great motivator that helps me through the moments when climbing gets really tough.

Mastering ascending is all about form. When you are going uphill, avoid hunching. Hold your head up and your shoulders back; this helps free up your breathing by keeping your chest open and making the necessary room for your lungs to expand. Also, with your head up, you are able to look where you are going, which is key on a trail where there may be bikers, other runners, tree branches, and numerous potential hazards.

Some studies have shown that the “sweet spot” for your gaze while running  is about 5 yards in front of you. Focusing on that distance allows you to see what is unfolding ahead of you but also allows your brain to pick up its immediate environment peripherally. You can adjust your gaze, depending on the technical nature of the footing, but avoid the temptation to look directly down at your feet; that view can be dizzying, with things moving too fast, and closes off what’s ahead or to the side.

Another important aspect to mastering ascending is tied to your footsteps themselves. Having a higher cadence, which means taking smaller, quicker steps, works well on the ascent.

Finally, stay relaxed. Tensing up your muscles and holding your breath won’t get you up the hill faster and more likely will make the climb harder. Periodically check in with your breathing and notice any tension in your muscles. As the trail gets more technical, continue to work to find a balance between being focused and staying relaxed. Some accomplished trail and mountain runners gauge their steps per breath and adjust the ratio according to the grade and the trickiness of the footing.

Physiology of Running Uphill

You will target muscle groups differently on the uphill, depending on how you run and your exertion level. Speaking for myself, my power comes from my calves and from pushing off through my glutes. Other runners may pull from their abdominal muscles and hip flexors. I try to maximize my power by working through the bigger muscle groups. I also rely on different muscle groups as the trail steepens or changes, allowing for some selective recovery.

For example, if I’m attacking a trail in a more upright position, working through my calves, and then come upon a steeper section, I will switch to a power hike, with my hands on my knees, utilizing my quads more. This allows for the different muscle groups to recover rather than overtaxing just one area. This is similar to a mountain biker who shifts gears, sometimes cranking hard while standing on the pedals, other times spinning in a seated position.

Power Hiking

Power hiking is a useful tool for ascending. It is particularly great for when terrain is uneven and you don’t have the ability to maintain an efficient high cadence and still move through rocks easily. It is also useful when a trail is too steep and you need to put your entire foot down for traction, or you are breathing so hard that running becomes less efficient than hiking. The beauty of power hiking is that it keeps you moving; furthermore, it is a strong way to move across mountains.

I admit that I didn’t always feel this way about power hiking. I once thought you should run everything. Growing up, I was a great admirer of ultra legend Eric Clifton. He held virtually every 100-mile record for years and was a guy who didn’t believe in walking or hiking during a race. I took the same stance for a long while, adhering to the philosophy that changing your form from running to walking to running took more energy, so it was better to just keep on running no matter what. My thoughts on this have evolved, however, and I definitely include power hiking as a tool in the belt. When making that extra effort to run on a climb is more draining than useful, then hiking all or part of that section is a strong choice.

Training for Ascending

Two words: hill work! And to the best of your ability, try to tailor that hill work to the course you are training for and what you will actually be doing. Hill work is great, but not all hill work is created equal. If you know that in the middle of a race you will have a 5-mile climb, and you’ve been doing 10- to 20-minute climbs in your training, that’s not going to be enough to prepare you. Find someplace where you can practice a similar distance uphill. Yes, this means your entire run of the day may be focused completely on the uphill. That’s not as fun as going out for a 5-mile easy trail run, but believe me, the work will pay off in your race.

If you’re training hard on your uphill, ease up on the downhill, and vice versa. Choose one or the other to run hard, not both. I have a friend who trains for the ascents by going to a ski resort to practice those tough uphill climbs. He runs up a slope, takes the lift back down, runs uphill again, and then repeats. The focus is squarely on uphill training, and he takes it as easy as possible on the way down.

If you live in a place without hills, and you know you have three long climbs in your race that will take you a few hours each, a treadmill may be your only option. No one likes that idea, but time on the treadmill will be well spent. It will get your muscle groups ready, even if not in the same way that trail running can fine-tune them; however, you will be actively shaping and preparing your muscles for what is to come. Other options include stairs, stadiums, and overpasses.

Expert Tip

Avoid eating on the uphill unless you are walking or hiking that section. If your ascent will last more than an hour, you will certainly need to fuel during that time, so practice what and how you will eat during your training.

Technique Tips for the Ascent

  • Posture: Keep your back upright and your gaze directed approximately 5 yards ahead. Keep your head up, even if you must bend forward on the steep grades to put your hands on your knees. Keeping your back straight and your head up allows for better breathing.
  • Hips/glutes: Move your hips forward as if someone is out in front of you, pulling you in with a rope attached to your belt. This keeps your glutes working and allows for better breathing.
  • Arms: Don’t forget arm motion! Being strong in the upper body, with arms pumping back and forth with a greater swing and range of motion, helps tremendously with momentum.
  • Foot landing: You can get more power through the glutes on your power hike if you land on your entire foot. For speed, it is best to stay on your forefoot or midfoot.
  • Relax.

Descending

Descending can be great fun; for many runners, it is their favorite part. An aggressive descent can make up a lot of time in a race, especially if you really step on the gas and push it. As for myself, I feel most alive when I’m running downhill fast. It’s an incredible feeling, a beautiful dance. But you need to practice to get it right because it’s a lot harder to master a good downhill than a good uphill.

The number one thing to bear in mind—and perhaps the hardest to master—is to allow gravity to do most of the work for you, at points even all of the work. This sounds easier than it is. It is difficult to master due mostly to twin inherent fears most humans have of falling and of going too fast. Becoming confident with fast descents takes training. But trust me, it is something that will evolve and improve over time if you work at it.

Although I love the descent, to be honest, I’m still not a great downhill technical runner. But, that said, I won the Hardrock 100 in 2012, which is widely considered one of the most technical ultras in the world. I know my descents can be my weakness, and so I practice to make sure they don’t hold me back.

Training for Descending

Runners often end up slowing down, leaning back, and braking on descents, creating more work for their bodies. Staying relaxed is key. Again, as with ascents, set your gaze 5 to 10 yards ahead, and even farther when the footing is smooth or after you gain enough confidence. The moment you start braking is usually the moment you start looking too closely at your feet; suddenly you cannot see what is ahead or around you, and this prompts an instinct to slow down. To avoid this, keep that optimal gaze out in front of you and try to let your weight carry you down the trail.

As with skiing, white-water kayaking, and mountain biking, the ability to move quickly down a grade is about finding a line through the rocks and terrain. You see ahead of where you are, and that allows you to set up, preparing your body with gyroscopic anticipation, adjusting your weight for the next several steps.

As I go down, I am constantly searching for the best place to land my foot. I am gauging whether a rock will move or if it is a safe plane, or I am seeking a flat area between the rocks. If you are keeping a fast pace and are light on your feet, the rocks won’t move when you land on them because you are not putting much force on each step. It is only when I begin to brake and plant my feet that the rocks start to move and cause instability.

Expert Tip

Practice with short downhill sprints. Choose a steep downhill section to focus on. Run 2 minutes downhill, hard, then stop and recuperate. Repeat.

Technique Tips for the Descent

  • Landing on your midfoot or forefoot is ideal for a quick cadence and leg turnover. You can slow your pace by taking more rapid steps, a kind of double step, if you will. More contact with the ground, even when quick and light, serves to control your downhill speed with little impact.
  • Landing on your full foot means a lot of surface area on the ground strike, which is yet another gear for you, like a downshift that slows you down. This can be a very good thing, for example, when footing is sketchy or when you feel fatigued. It’s reassuring to know you can go back on your full foot and slow down quickly when you need to. Practice this to gain confidence.
  • If the terrain is technical and rocky, try rotating your foot laterally, or outward, into something like a duck stance. This increases stability and can prevent an injured ankle. When you roll your ankle, you usually roll it laterally. Opening up your stance makes that less likely.
  • Maintain breathing and concentrate on staying relaxed. In particularly gnarly sections, I often find myself tensing up and not breathing. This means less oxygen to the brain and, for me, often a consequent fall. Remember to breathe!
  • If wind or speed makes your eyes water, as they do mine, particularly at altitude, wear a visor and/or sunglasses to help block air as you speed along.
  • Spread your arms wide and hold them out to maintain balance—think of an airplane. Holding your arms in this way also helps you feel the flow and rhythm as the trail kicks you one way or another. You’ll need to make sudden lateral moves to keep your balance, and wider elbows will help you maintain your center of gravity.
  • Look where you want to go; your body will follow.

INTENSITY TRAINING

Hill Training/Strength Work

Many ultra events include hills and substantial inclines, so you will need to prepare for those climbs. You will build a tremendous and much-needed amount of strength from hill training. Hill work will also prepare you for what it feels like to negotiate repeat hill challenges. Doing hill reps and building up those big muscle groups in your legs will correspond directly to efficiency on race day. Hill training in these plans means 2 to 3 minutes of uphill running at an all-out effort, and then repeating this a specified number of times, perhaps 3 to 12 times depending on the workout. While this may sound like speed work, the hill will slow you down and make you work for it, so I consider hill training repeats strength work, as opposed to speed work.

Practically speaking, you can loop your strength work into an easy day, for example, running easy to a designated point, doing 6 hill repeats, and returning easy. You can also locate stairs or a hill on your route that is a quarter-mile stretch of uphill and make that a repeat within your run. That way, you allow yourself a solid warm-up and then a pleasant cooldown afterward. Of course, on inclement days or if you can’t find convenient hills or stairs, a treadmill is another option.

Speed Work

Why even bother with speed training for an ultra? That’s a valid question. After all, the pace at which you will likely run your ultra is likely not what you would consider “speedy,“ at least when compared with a 10K, half-marathon, or even marathon pace. But take it from me: Speed work is very much worth your time and effort, and it provides benefits for more than just your pace on race day. Speed work, done consistently and appropriately, builds running efficiency and leg turnover, makes you fitter and stronger, and prepares you for moments in your ultra when you will be called upon to run harder, whether due to adrenaline or to a need to pass somebody on singletrack or to shake off a runner behind you who is throwing you off your game.

Speed work in the training plans in this book involves spending a relatively short but dedicated time running at your hardest effort. I find that fartleks—the Swedish word for “speed play,” in which you use variations of fast running for long periods in lieu of structured intervals—on an easy or even downhill grade work well because they best replicate conditions in an ultra. You can do speed work on a track if that is what you are used to; however, I find that training for speed on a dirt road or trail replicates ultra conditions and unstable ground in a way a track does not.

Attacking these speed workouts at a hard effort will not only build your strength but also train your body to switch up gears and incorporate different muscle fibers, something that your ultra will call on you to do somewhere along the way. In the plans in this book, you will see speed work mixed in with tempo runs and long runs.

Expert Tip

Speed workouts are great to do with others. You are going to be asking yourself to push harder,  and let’s face it, for most of us, it’s tough to pull out a best-effort pace by yourself. Training with others removes some of the dread that can accompany speed work and also ups the accountability.

Tempo Runs

A tempo run is a steady effort for a specific time and distance, with a pace likely just below your 10K pace. It should feel like a strong but not all-out effort. Tempos are a key component of training and go a long way toward building speed and strength. They are especially useful in training for an ultra because tempo runs, like ultras themselves, require you to test yourself over a longer distance and time. They will increase your ability to push yourself over a longer time at a steady, consistent effort. They take a lot out of you, so they will appear only about once every 7 to 10 days in the training plans; a tempo run is almost like being in a race, which means you will need time to recover afterward.

I enjoy doing my tempo runs with runners who are of equal ability or even faster than I am—training partners who are capable of pushing me more than I would push myself. Tempo runs also work well with a group, where runners alternate taking the lead and making sure everyone is maintaining an overall effort for the designated amount of time. This is especially important for trail tempo runs. It is easy to lose sight of pace while you are on the trail, with the climbing, descending, and uneven terrain, so it is nice to have others to help you stay on that tough pace.

EASY RUNS

Easy runs are the key to building your core and foundation, and your training plan will include a lot of them. In fact, the majority of the runs in the plans are easy runs. Easy runs are done at a comfortable pace that allows you to carry on a conversation with ease, at an approximately 60 to 70 percent exertion level. It’s not a time to worry about pace, to check your watch frequently, or to push yourself; in fact, it’s a good time to put all of that aside.

Rather, during an easy run you have the time and space to listen to your body and feel out how it is bouncing back from your prior week’s training or racing. These runs are by nature more relaxed and more fun, giving you time to socialize if you wish or to be alone and reflective or to think about nothing at all. And while easy runs can be very routine, in the best sort of comfortable way, that doesn’t mean you have to do the same run over and over: Easy runs give you the flexibility to decide where to run, on what terrain, and for what mileage. They are a great time to run with different running partners, perhaps someone who doesn’t necessarily push you as in a tempo run or a long run, but someone you simply enjoy getting outside with.

Too, while you may feel that easy runs are simply junk miles or a waste of time that takes away from “real” training, in reality they are anything but a waste. You are adding to your foundation, not to mention building strength and muscle memory. In addition, these runs keep you in a routine and, when preceded by a hard tempo or speed workout or race, remind you what “easy” feels like.

LONG RUNS

Many people get into ultras specifically for the long run; these are the folks who crave mileage and may already spend one or both weekend days out running long whether they are training or not.

A long run is by definition, well, long. Specifically, it may make up about 30 percent of your weekly mileage. Or, if you are doing back-to-back long runs, these could total about 50 percent of your weekly mileage.

What’s especially useful about the long run is that it requires a significant effort and a lot of time on your feet, but it is not the race; thus, you have the luxury of being able to practice for your race, experimenting with nutrition and seeing how your body reacts to long miles and hours on your feet. Physiological benefits aside, the long run will give you confidence that you can handle what is to come.

Whether you go with a group or prefer some uninterrupted solo time is an individual decision. Approach the long run in the way that will allow you to get through it best. After all, it should be enjoyable—anything you do for 4 to 5 hours electively should be fun!

How long is long?

While you need time on your feet and miles on your legs to prepare for an ultra, in deciding on your mileage, the sky it not the limit. At some point, if you run too far, you reach a point of diminishing returns, where you are simply getting overtired and not productive. In a marathon, 18- to 20-mile long runs are appropriate. For ultra training, the longest long run should be about 60 to 70 percent of the distance you will race. However, a training run of that magnitude for, say, a 100-miler is a lot to bite off. As the training week progresses, you can do back-to-backs, logging two long runs in a row.

These “BTBs,” as we call them, are as much about time on the feet and time being out there as they are about mileage. You will learn what it takes to muster mental as well as physical energy when you think you have none left. You will also experience the caloric demands of hours of exercise and figure out how to eat and drink on the run when that might be the furthest thing from your mind. These runs will build massive amounts of confidence and a physical strength that is unparalleled.

MILEAGE—QUANTITY VS. QUALITY

In a perfect world, you would have both quantity and quality. But when it comes to training for an ultra, quantity has the edge over quality. There, I said it. Time on your feet is crucial. The miles do not all have to be pretty, but you must be out running for an extended time to replicate and prepare for the massive challenge your event will entail. Can you get away with doing fewer miles? Maybe, but chances are high you will pay for it in the end with fatigue, possible injury, and a slimmer chance of performing consistently well in your race.

One of the best ways to combine quantity and quality is by adding a prep race to your training schedule. A race event forces you to get on your game and push yourself during the miles rather than slogging along unmotivated and unfocused.

PREPARATORY RACES

Injecting supplemental races in your calendar as part of the buildup to your goal race is a good idea for several reasons. One, these are in a sense supported training runs, where you have aid stations to supply you with food and drink, and therefore you can go farther and push yourself longer than you might be able to if you are going it alone. Two, a race will familiarize you with the feeling of running on different trails than you’re used to. That not only is good practice for your upcoming race but also can be quite rejuvenating.

During a preparatory race, you can also practice what you are going to do on race day—what you will wear, what you’ll put in your drop bag, what you will eat—all without the pressure of it being the real thing. Prep races may also help you to deal with pre-race nerves so that you are calmer going into your goal event. Finally, a race adds a fun, competitive aspect to training that you won’t get doing the miles by yourself.

TAPER

Rest and recovery prior to your race are pivotal. Tapering is the final period in your training program, when you strategically ease off of training for the purpose of being primed and ready for race day. By this point in your program you’ve put in the hard work, faced many challenges, and called on your body in different ways. Now is the time to wean off that heavy training, getting more precise with your last workouts, which will be of a shorter duration, and becoming mentally and physically poised for your event. It’s easy to lose confidence when you stop training, but remind yourself that you are not losing anything during this period; rather, physically you are being restored so that you will be able to peak on race day.

Your taper period is the time for banking calories and sleep. While many runners dread tapering and the associated slothful feeling that comes with reduced activity, try to see past that and remind yourself that it is a key element of your training, just as important as the speed sessions and long runs you logged to get to this point. You may find that you have a case of the “taper tantrums,” with muscle tweaks, spasms, and slight annoyances cropping up in those last couple of weeks, but rest assured they are usually temporary annoyances that will fade away come race morning. While you may wish to do low- or no-impact crosstraining such as swimming or Nordic skiing during your taper, it is also an excellent time to see a massage therapist for some treatment, being careful that the therapist doesn’t go too deep.

WEIGHT TRAINING/CORE WORK

As runners, we mostly just want to run. However, the ultrarunner has much to gain from weight training and core work. Being in good condition throughout the body is important in an endurance event; it’s definitely not just about your feet. Good, strong posture—which comes from a strong core—will help take some of the strain and fatigue out of being on your feet for hours or even days. You also need good arm and core strength if you intend to carry a heavy pack or poles. Selective weight training, consisting of low weight and high reps, helps build the strength you need out on the course, without adding bulk. Targeted core work, specifically ab work, will go a long way toward preventing injuries and supporting a strong, healthy posture. And because trails are uneven, technical, and often rocky, your core is key to keeping you upright and balanced when the footing gets tough.

I include some weight training and core exercises, such as crunches and hanging leg raises, in my training week. Hanging leg raises in particular are a favorite because they work both the hip flexors and the lower abs. They can also work your lower obliques, depending on how you perform the crunch. The Roman chair sit-up is another great exercise that specifically targets the hip flexors, a group of muscles that you are asking to lift a heavy weight over and over again for hours during an ultra. But the beauty of crunches is that they can be done with no equipment and just about anywhere. While I do go to a gym a few times a week, I also try for 100 to 200 crunches and sit-ups every day, just on my own at home.

Weight work is also great for ultrarunners. To avoid upper-body bulk, I generally take a less-is-more approach, with lower weight and higher reps. To increase the difficulty, I will add reps instead of more weight.

As for the lower body, you can gain power through your glutes by doing high reps of squats while holding a bar or dumbbells. I don’t normally focus much weight work on the lower body, but I do include some eccentric quad training on the leg extension machine at the gym. After picking a reasonably resistant weight, I hold the extension to muscle failure. I suggest starting with a weight that allows you to maintain the extension for 45 seconds and increase weight from there. Eccentric muscle action occurs as a braking or oppositional response to concentric (shortening) action. The muscle is elongated, which helps protect joint structure. I am particularly diligent about this type of lower-body work if an upcoming race includes steep downhills, such as at the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run. Know your course, and change up your weight and strength training depending on what your race has in store for you.

ROAD AND TRAIL—MIXING IT UP

Typically, we train on what we like. That is human nature. For many—even most—ultrarunners, we seek out trails, not road. And so when you enter a trail race, you may do so thinking you’ll run trail. But in my Pine to Palm race, for example, 40 percent of the distance is run on dirt roads. This catches some runners by surprise. I understand that—most ultrarunners adore singletrack; it is entertaining and challenging in a way a road usually is not. It is also easier on the legs.

In a race, if you come to an unexpected road, this can make the event seem harder, reduce your confidence, and even zap your motivation, precisely at a time, often deep in the race, when you need those things the most.  The impact can seem even harsher, depending on where you hit a road section during your event. If, for example, you are at mile 30 and already feeling pretty beat up, those feelings can be magnified both mentally and physically on a tough, unforgiving stretch of pavement.

One of my first ultras was the Washington State University 100K. The first half of the event was entirely on paved road, followed by some uphill time on gravel and then the final miles back on a paved road. I had trained a bit on pavement, but not to that magnitude. Not only was it hard on my legs, but there was a dangerous allure to the flatness of it, one that caused me to go off my pace, pushing too hard. The pounding of running for an ultra is hard enough, but it is made that much harder on road. By mile 30, I’d blown up; I had never run a marathon, but I would have equated it to hitting a wall and feeling unable to take another step. Once we started uphill on that gravel road, I was reduced to walking, despite much prodding from my pacers and crew. I simply was not prepared for how big a shock the flat, rock-hard road would be to my body. I had run roads to get to trails during training, but that exposure was limited to a mile or two. What I discovered the hard way was that after hours of running, road really hurts! Everything that was sore was multiplied many times over.

The point is that you need to have some level of hardening to make it through. The Leadville Trail 100, for example, has some significant flat sections, some on pavement, and even the best athletes can be waylaid by them. So if you know there will be some road in your event, make sure you are adding in enough road training. For example, run on trail for 2 hours and then finish with a 5-mile stretch on pavement. Or maybe start with a 5-mile warm-up on the road prior to the trail run. Or make one of your tempo runs a road run. These training strategies will help you combat being affected by some of the less pleasurable aspects of running on the road.

ULTRA TRAINING PLAN—50K (1st 8 weeks of the 16-week program)