I usually say that I can’t tell you how to get someplace until you tell me where you want to go. The same is true for my ultra training. Until I had experienced my first 100-miler this past summer I didn’t really have a clear vision where ultimately I wanted to go with ultra running. Was it a “one and done” experience? (def not) Did I want to try an even higher mileage race? (maybe, but I like the 100) Or did I want to chase that elusive white whale of the ultra community – finishing the “Grand Slam” of Ultras? (now you’re talking!)
So now that I know where I want to go – finishing the Grand Slam – it sure makes it a whole lot easier to figure out what I need to do to get it done. Before I go into any of the dirty details around my specific training plans, let me give you the quick recap of what I learned during the Vermont 100 and how that initial ultra experience is shaping my training.
First, during Vermont I realized that I’m not as fit as I could be – or should be – to attempt something as ambitious as the Grand Slam. I probably weigh a little too much. I wouldn’t consider myself heavy (I’m now 5’11 and 160), but I can’t tell you with any confident whether I’m at my optimal racing weight. Should I be lighter, or heavier? Probably like you, I never really thought about it before. And when it comes to nutrition, I’m definitely unsure if I’m eating the right things at the right times. Overall I’m already a *pretty* healthy eater, but I never gave too much thought as to what foods I really needed to be at my best performance (do cupcakes count?). And most importantly, I’m pretty sure that my body isn’t working as optimally as it could be. Sure, I can complete a 50-miler without too much struggle, but during my training cycles I felt like I was perpetually achy and on the edge of injury. That can’t be right.
Second, I learned that I should be getting more specificity in my training. Although I read a lot about different ultra training plans, I ended up training for ultra distances the same way I would train for a marathon – by just grinding out the miles. Volume, I assumed, was the key. More is more. During Vermont, however, I got a quick lesson in being underprepared – especially when it came to hills, trails, and night running. If I have any chance of surviving a race series that includes four mountainous courses, three at high altitude – I’m definitely going to need to train smarter. And more specifically.
Finally, I was pretty sure that my gear wasn’t doing me any favors out there. During VT my handheld bottle ran dry a few times. When it started to pour I didn’t have a poncho or rainjacket ready. I could barely navigate with my headlamp, it was so dim. And I’m pretty sure my shoes were a bit too small (lost toenails, anyone?). If I’m going to minimize the chance that some random, unforeseen situation might sideline me during a Grand Slam attempt, I need to make sure I’ve got the right tools for the job.
In addition to my eye-opening ultra initiation, I also zeroed in on a few key training goals I need to be ready for a GS attempt:
Get Faster. Okay, okay, I can feel your collective eye roll on this one. Trust me – I’m not trying to get faster just to see how high I can place in my age group rankings. I love how mindful ultra distance running can be, and I’d be doing triathlons if I cared at all about transition splits and finish times. However, speed is a nice, objective measure of how efficiently your body is working – essentially how quickly you can carry a set amount of body weight over a set distance. So, how can I get faster? First, by weighing less (see above). Carrying an unneeded ten pounds over ultra distances is just a waste of calories. Second, by training my cells to turn fuel and oxygen into energy more efficiently. If my body’s energy generation system (heart, lungs, cells and muscles) is working as effectively as my genetics will allow, I’ll be in a good place.
Some tactics to get there: diet quality, heart-rate training, 80/20 training
Get in the (Mind) Game. Although I’m pretty good about being able to tough out even the most difficult situations – especially when it comes to competition – I tend to slack off a bit in training. One especially late night at work or a bit of rainy weather on a scheduled long run day and suddenly I’m either too tired or too unmotivated to get my training done. The message from that voice in my head: wouldn’t we be happier laying on the couch watching Game of Thrones instead of running for two hours? I need to figure out how to get my mind right for sticking to my training. Being rested and happy are certainly a good foundation.
Some tactics to get there: meditation, sleep
Maintain Health. So far I’ve been extremely lucky in my ultra training that I haven’t had any major injury set backs – especially given my abhorrent level of planning, care, and maintenance of my body. However, Vermont was a wake up call for me – I’ve never felt as beat up after a race as I did in the weeks following my first 100. Looking back, I’m surprised it wasn’t worse – I never warm up before or cool down after training. I never worried about maintaining the correct form or gait before. I never gave any thought to hard and easy days – they’re all just “days”, right? Since a Grand Slam summer consists of a brutal number of miles in a comically short time frame, it’s probably a good idea to keep my one little body just a little better tuned up.
Some tactics to get there: form drills, strength training, yoga, massage
So that’s it. I’ve got an big, crazy ambitious goal (completing the Grand Slam of Ultra Running). I’ve got a pretty good idea of where I’m starting from (not bad, but lots of upside). And I have a few key planks of ways I think I can get better (Faster, Mental, Maintain). Now it’s time to start mapping out the specifics…