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On June 24, at mile 93 of the Western States 100, trail-running phenom Clare Gallagher, 25, of Boulder, Colorado, was having one of the best races of her life when disaster struck. A baker’s cyst behind her knee reached a tipping point, forcing her to slow to a walk. Within five minutes, that walk became a crawl. One of her crew members described her side-stepping trying to move forward, as her knee made even that impossible. She went from podium position to a DNF in the matter of a few steps.
A week later, the reality had sunk in. The initial side-stepping denial turned to anger, then some bargaining and depression. But, after a week of grief, Gallagher was ready for the next challenge. As she said in a phone conversation on July 1, “I can’t go back in time.” It was time to go forward.
Next up was UTMB CCC, a 100K race around the Mont Blanc massif in France, Switzerland and Italy. The race was set for September 1. With it would come a shot at redemption.
For two months, Gallagher went back to the basics with her training. She ran less mileage, to fully recover from Western States, and prioritized fast workouts that would improve her speed.
This past weekend, that 5K fitness propelled her through the Alps for a win and course record at CCC. Here are three lessons from her two months of training.
1. It’s not all about the miles. Zoom out your training perspective.
The brain is not designed to think about the contours of training over many months and years. The default setting is to think about yesterday and the last few weeks. In reality, a week or even a training cycle does not tell the story. Instead, training is like a massive wall—each day is a brick or two, and it takes months and years of building to make something special.
In April and May 2017, training for Western States, Gallagher averaged 81.5 miles per week. With that endurance carrying over, plus 93 miles of Western States in her legs, she backed off the weekly miles during her build to CCC. The reduction in miles let her be fully recovered for workouts, which let her go faster and improve her speed even more. Her weekly training volume and weekly long-runs looked like this:
Week 1: 0 miles
Week 2: 23 miles (13-mile long run/hike)
Week 3: 39 miles (9-mile long run)
Week 4: 69 miles (16-mile long run/hike)
Week 5: 62 miles (15-mile long run)
Week 6: 67 miles (14-mile long run—race in Colorado)
Week 7: 72 miles (27-mile long run on flat ground)
Week 8: 80 miles (19-mile long run—race in Latvia)
Week 9: 58 miles (10-mile long run)
Week 10: CCC! (17 miles in the prior five days)
Over the course of July and August, she averaged 56 miles per week and had just two runs longer than 16 miles. If she kept pushing the mileage and vert, she likely would have been less strong on race day because her workouts would have been lower quality (and she may not have been as rested at the start line).
For your own training, remember that you aren’t just the most recent few bricks, but all the bricks stretching back over years. Expanding your time horizon—looking at past training and future goals—will make you healthier and stronger over time.
2. Workouts can supercharge fitness. Focus on quality over quantity of hard efforts.
Focused workouts work in conjunction with low-level aerobic stress to make a runner faster over time. It’s not just about the miles, but about what you do with them.
While Gallagher had fewer miles and less vertical gain than many of her competitors leading into CCC, she channeled that energy into monstrous workout efforts. Here was her progression of key weekly workouts:
Week 1: 0 miles
Week 2: no workout
Week 3: (running economy focus)
- 10 x 30 seconds fast/2-minutes easy during a 10-mile run.
- 8 x 30 seconds fast/1-minute easy during 8-mile run.
Week 4: (running economy/VO2 max focus)
Three-miles of easy warm up plus 4 x 20 second hill strides (6-percent grade) with 2 minute easy recovery, 3 x 3 minute hills moderate/hard (run down easy recovery). After the hills, recover for 5 minutes of easy running, then do 5 x 2 minutes fast/4 min easy on flat or slightly down. Finish with 3 miles of super easy cool down.
Week 5: (running economy/VO2 max focus)
Three miles of easy warm up, 6 x 1 minute steep hills (12-16-percent gradient) with run down recovery, five minutes easy, 6 x 1 minute fast on flat ground/3 minutes easy between, three miles of easy cool down.
Week 6: (overload week—VO2 max/hill Lactate Threshold focus)
- Workout 1: Three miles of easy warm up, followed by 8 x 2 minutes fast/3-4 minutes easy on slight down, 3 miles easy.
- Workout 2: Three miles of easy warm up, 5 x 3 minute hills moderate/hard (jog down recovery), 5 minutes easy, 8 x 30 seconds fast on slight down/3 minutes easy between, 3 miles of easy cool down.
- 25K race in Colorado as a tempo effort.
Week 7: (hill Lactate Threshold focus)
Two miles of easy warm up, 40-minute hill climb moderate/hard, focused on efficient climbing, followed by 6 x 30 seconds fast/2 min easy on slight uphill, plus short cool down.
Week 8: (Lactate Threshold focus)
- Three miles of easy warm up, 3 x 2 minute hills hard (run down recovery), five minutes easy, 20 minutes moderate on rolling terrain, 5 minutes easy, 3 x 2 minutes fast/4 minutes easy recovery, three miles easy cool down.
- 30K race in Latvia as tempo effort
Week 9: (taper and sharpen)
10 miles easy on steep trails with 6 x 2 minute hills hard with full recovery
Week 10: CCC! (4 x 20 second hills day before race)
The workouts progressed from running economy staples (10 x 30 seconds fast) to improving how fast she runs at VO2 max efforts (1-3 minutes fast) to hill climbing and tempo (hill efforts and race efforts). These workouts gave her the confidence to attack the CCC course. In a post-race tweet, she said, “Fast fast fast hills did it.”
For your own training, while this amount of workouts is likely too much, be sure to do one hard day each week. Most trail runners would benefit from short intervals focused on quality effort (like 10 x 1 minutes fast with 1-2 minutes easy recovery in between, or 5 x 3 minute hills with run down recovery), rather than long-grind sessions. If you improve your performance ceiling through faster workouts once or twice per week, all of your running will get faster.
3. Failure is an opportunity. Learn from tough experiences.
The main lesson from Gallagher’s performance at CCC is that perspective on inevitable failures may be the most important trait of top athletes, and that smiling through the stuff life throws at you can change everything. At Western States, Gallagher faced heartbreak just as she was having one of the races of her life. It was an athlete’s nightmare, to have dreams dashed just as they were being fulfilled.
Only, because of the way she approached failure, they weren’t dashed. Clare’s dreams didn’t have a finish line, and they weren’t determined by finish lines.
We talked a couple weeks later, friend-to-friend rather than coach-to-athlete, and she made it clear: No matter what, she will keep dreaming, she will keep believing and she will work her butt off.
But most importantly, she will keep smiling.
David Roche runs for HOKA One One and NATHAN, and works with runners of all abilities through his coaching service, Some Work, All Play.