"There's only one hard and fast rule in running: sometimes you have to run one hard and fast."

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Luck, talent, experience, then training

Tracy recently asked the question of what makes a great female ultramarathoner. The cheap answer: a great male ultramarathoner and a scalpel. It got me thinking though; I talk a lot about training, because it's something that can be controlled, but training is (unfortunately) not everything.


There's nothing more important than luck. Most people hate that fact or deny it. "Luck is where preparation meets opportunity" is a crock; luck is having the opportunity. At Voyageur, some people got stung by bees, some didn't (I was unlucky) and some of those stung had to quit due to severe reactions. The same thing happened at the Sawtooth 100 last year. There were some who were allergic who didn't get stung and were fine. It's a matter of luck. If you say they should've been prepared by carrying epi-pens, they don't make one magically well in an instant.

Ask Helen Lavin why she won Afton and she'll say it was because Eve Rembleski didn't run. That, too, is luck, though both of them are capable of winning. I won a race once because I went out way too fast and happened to be the only one who beat the train to the crossing.

I have problems in ultras with hand swelling. I know some people who have found ways to lessen their problems with hand swelling, but nothing works for me, except not running more than 7 hours. There is not one - not a single one - of the top ultrarunners who have ever had this problem. It's probably genetic, it's a matter of luck. And if you think it's a minor problem, at Leadville, I couldn't work a zipper to get to my food - it became serious.


Talent almost always beats training. It's the 'almost' that makes racing interesting. I ran a race once where a guy saw that a race was starting in front of his house, so he put on his running clothes and signed up. He won. It was Denny Fee, who held the state high school record for 2 miles for more than a generation and he hadn't done any training at all. I had a class with his sister and asked her what he was doing. "He cuts the grass once in a while. That's about it." I ran 33:41 for the 10K that day, he ran 32-something.

Talent is pretty specific. Helen's been beating me by hours in ultras this year. Earlier this year, she ran a 5K on asphalt in 19:07 on my home course. This morning, knowing I was going to write this, I ran the same course. 18:48. I've done it in under 16, but not recently.

Runners tend to have success for a few years on minimal training, if they're talented, but if you ask them the "secret" to their success, they won't know what it is. Not that they won't tell you what they think it is, mind you. Typical is my own marathon story:

I ran a 3:20 marathon at the age of 16. I ran 3:05 at 18, 2:52 at 19, 2:42 at 20. The next year, I was training phenomenally, racing well (easy 10K's in 33, 1/2 marathons in 1:10-1:15) and thought I had everything in place to run a 2:30 marathon. I hit the half-way mark in 1:14 and was cruising - until I crashed and finished in 2:43. My next attempt was 2:45 - but I blamed the rain. It wasn't until I was about 35 that I really knew what I needed to do to break 2:30, but by then I was slowing with age. (Aging sucks.)

People tend to have success, then plateau, then try something new and have greater success - and then think that that's the secret, that that one thing is all that's needed - and wonder why their racing falls apart after that.

If you want to know why someone succeeds, don't ask them - ask those who know them. Why is Helen winning races? She's talented, she's mentally tough and she works hard. Why does Julie Berg do so well in 100 milers? She's fairly talented, mentally tough and she trains really, really, really hard. Julie's never going to beat Helen, though; training doesn't beat talent.

And yet, though almost everyone would say I have more raw talent than Julie, Julie beats me regularly in ultras.


Things go wrong in races and you learn how to deal with those things or you quit. If you have problems with blisters, you either find a solution or you just learn to run in pain (and your feet toughen, minimizing the problem). I haven't solved the problem of sore back and legs from long steep hills - working on it, though - but I have learned how to stagger for 20 hours after it happens, so I can finish 100 milers, though I won't ever win one.

The more experience, the less chance. I stated luck as being all-important, but no one is unlucky all the time. There's always another race.

Some people win their first 100; they have almost nothing to teach others about how to run them. Others take many many tries, learning a little each time, most of which can't be expressed in words. Second-hand experience is not worth much.

This year, I'm trying to run a series of races I though impossible two years ago (and three years ago, if I thought about it, would've thought anyone could do, knowing as little as I did at the time). Each race has made the next one a little more likely and I'm hoping that that's going to be enough. Of course, I'm also doing some training...


Runningdoctor said...

Steve, I have thinking a lot about the importance of slow vs. fast twitch fibers. You have occasionally written things like "I suck at ultras because I am all fast-twitch muscles".

Something happens once you get into the ultra distances. I remember my first ultra, the snowy Chippewa last year, when I was convinced I would win at the turn-around. I think the winner, Joe Ziegenfuss, beat me by an hour.

I have since looked at his times and come to the conclusion that I am faster at the shorter races than him. Yet, recently at Voyageur, he beat me by over two hours.

I am plotting revenge in my lair, by the way (next year at Chippewa I am going for the win; there, I said it).

But there is probably no denying that something is up, when somewhat fast guys like us cramp up like babies once we hit 40 miles. It's gotta be something like muscle fiber composition.

Conversely, how many of the top ultra-marathoners in the Midwest have run 5Ks in 15 minutes, like you have? I bet not too many.

phillip said...

Your comment:
"Aging sucks" when it comes to going fast (or faster, for that matter.)

But . . . the alternative REALLY slows you down, guaranteeing a last place trophy.

Beth said...

This is a great article. You should think about submitting it somewhere. I'm going to have my 14 year old son/runner read it. Thanks for the insight.

SteveQ said...

Thanks, Beth, but I wonder how much a 14-year-old will get out of it. You reminded me, though, of my sister cheering her son at a baseball game, saying "You're as good as anyone out there." Joe responded, "Mom! That's Joe Mauer! He could be playing professionally right now." At 14, he knew he was not another Joe Mauer.

SteveQ said...

Rasmus, it's possible to make some fast twitch fibers work like slow twitch, but not all (type Ia vs. type Ib, as I recall), but another factor is that some people are able to burn fat more efficiently at a faster pace, and while this is trainable to an extent, it's still easier for some than others.

No matter what you do, you can't extend glycogen reserves much beyond 5-6 hours. That's your 40 mile barrier. Those who don't fall apart there weren't really burning glycogen in the first place.

Wynn Davis has said of Joe Ziegenfuss, "He only has one speed." He has a knack for knowing what time he can manage for a race and running that speed the whole way. Helen Lavin is similar that way. If a race were between me and Joe, I'd make sure he was ahead of me and outkick him - but that's hard to do with dead legs!