White River 50: Advice to a novice

March 11, 2011

A stalwart of the Pacific Northwest running and writing community is moving up from marathons to tackle the White River 50 this summer. He asked for my advice; here’s what I told him.

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One could divide preparation for White River-like races into the following categories: (A) mileage, (B) nutrition, (C) clothing, (D) trails/downhills, and (E) psychology.

(A) MILEAGE: You want to increase this if possible, though not to the point where you greatly increase your risk of injury. Some people train for ultras like marathons except that they increase the length of their longest runs and deemphasize speedwork; some people like back-to-back long runs (e.g., 20 miles on Saturday and another 20 on Sunday) to practice running a long way while tired (e.g., on Sunday); and some people don’t ever do more than a single 20-mile run in a weekend, but get in a whole lot of shorter runs during the week. There are plenty of examples of people who have succeeded with each approach. Mine is most like the first one. I find that simulating the race with some good long runs of at least half the race distance, done near race pace, is good for my confidence — or if holding race pace for that long is really difficult or impossible, that’s useful feedback that I may need to modify my goal.

(B) NUTRITION: You know what you need — fluids, salt, and calories — and it’s mainly a matter of figuring out which types of foods and drinks you tolerate best, and then sticking to some sort of plan/schedule during the race. I like to drink a fair amount of Gatorade, since that gets me some of each needed ingredient (fluids, salt, calories), and supplement that with water (to relieve the overly sweet monotony of the taste of Gatorade), gels, electrolyte pills, etc.

(C) CLOTHING: This isn’t a huge deal, but you may experience more dramatic changes in temperature and weather during ultramarathons than you get during shorter races. If you don’t have someone crewing for you, make sure to use drop bags for just-in-case clothing.

(D) TRAILS/DOWNHILLS: Running on trails is a skill distinct from road running. Some people pick it up naturally, but others, like me, are tentative and clumsy and have to practice to become competent. Going for runs on trails is a step in the right direction, but it’s even better to go with an experienced, form-savvy trail runner who can coach you on being efficient. Downhill running is particularly hard for some roadies like me; I run very cautiously, which is a double whammy because, in “braking,” I lose ground to other runners AND incur extra muscle damage due to eccentric contractions. Again, practice combined with feedback from veterans will help. Also, you can partially immunize your quads against muscle damage by starting with short segments of downhill running and slowly extending them. Just be sure to avoid downhills in the final two to three weeks before the race.

(E) PSYCHOLOGY: It’s good to go into the race with a strong sense of why you’re doing it and, ideally, multiple goals varying in their ambitiousness. I don’t think this will be much of a problem for you. I only bring it up because you may hit a point when you feel pretty bad and still have what seems like a ludicrous distance still to go — say, 30 miles — and, at these moments, it’s good to be able to recall with clarity why you’re out there and why it makes sense to continue. You’ll feel better eventually!

One comment

  1. If you mentor the students in your lab the way you offer advice to would-be ultramarathoners, they should do well. I always appreciate the clarity of your analysis and your easy-to-follow narrative, even though I'm not a runner, just a family enthusiast!

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