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

Monday, June 21, 2010

A Sprinter at an Ultramarathon #1

I'm planning a long break from blogging, so I thought I'd write what people have been asking me to write first: a how-to guide for running 100 miles or more when you're not exactly a natural at it. I remember when Florence Griffith-Joyner, having set the world record at 100 meters, announced she was going to take on the marathon; first, she ran a 5K in 17 minutes or so and couldn't believe how difficult it was. She gave up her plan (and tragically died not long after that), but she probably could've run a marathon in 3:15 and maybe, with years of training, could've broken 3:00, but she would never have been world-class at the marathon. She just wasn't built for it.

Similarly, I'm not built to run 100 miles, but that gives me perspective. The people who do well at 100 miles necessarily are designed to do it well and they don't have much to teach those who aren't good at it. Their hands don't swell until they can't hold anything. They don't vomit every 10 miles. Their shoes and shorts don't fill with blood. They rarely run off cliffs or into trees.

That's more my field of expertise.

The first question that one has to be able to answer is: Can I finish? That question is incredibly hard to answer, but if one can finish a marathon comfortably, one can finish 50 miles uncomfortably (with some planning). One hundred miles is a different animal; one has to consider things like lighting and nutrition and treating minor injuries in the middle of nowhere.

Runners fall into two broad types: those who do better the longer the race and those who do worse. You probably know which you are. If you've finished a marathon at almost the same pace you ran a half-marathon and feel like you could do more, you're probably a born ultrarunner (and don't need my help). If you're dying half-way through a marathon, chances are 100 miles is out of the question. In between those extremes, it's a little tougher to say.

There are a number of different sources one can use to compare race results at various distances up to marathon length, but few for going beyond that. The fact that ultras are usually run on trails (and difficult trails at that) make it even more difficult to compare races. If one's thinking about doing 100 miles on a trail, it's important to do races of increasing length leading up to it; unfortunately, there's not much between 50 and 100 miles (the 100K just never caught on), though there are 12 and 24 hour races (on roads or tracks, usually) that can fill the gap.

Here's a comparison I like to use:
[This refuses to print as a chart]

Marathon, 50 Mile road, 50 Mile trail, 100 Mile road, 100 Mile trail, 24 hours

2:30, 5:30, 6:30-8:00, 12:40, 16:00-18:00, 169 miles
3:00, 6:30, 8:00-9:30, 15:15, 19:00-22:00, 145
3:30, 7:30, 9:30-11:00, 17:45, 22:00-25:30, 128
4:00, 8:45, 10:30-12:30, 20:15, 25:15-29:00, 115
4:30, 9:50, 12:00-14:00, 22:50, 28:30-33:00, 104
5:00, 11:00, 13:30-15:30, 25:20, 31:30-36:30, 95
5:30, 12:00, 14:45-17:00, 28:00, 34:45-40:00, 88
6:00, 13:00, 16:00-18:45, 30:30, 38:00-44:00, 82

This is only approximate; for one thing, there are a hundred 2:30 marathoners in the U.S., but none have done 169 miles in one day. It's a useful chart, though, if one wonders if one can finish a given race by the cut-off time. As one trains for the longer races, one can see whether one's moving up or down in the chart - moving down suggests 100 miles may not be for you (though you can still finish; many, including me, have proven that).

Trail races seem to be about exceptions. The chart I gave doesn't work for some 100 mile races, but works well for those with 15000-25000 feet of elevation climb, which is common. Very mountainous races like Hardrock or very flat ones like Rocky Raccoon fall outside the range. Leadville is all about altitude, going from 9500-13000 feet. Those held in extreme weather take longer.

The local favorite here in Minnesota, the Superior Sawtooth 100, is an exception as well, though those who haven't tried it rarely understand why that is. The terrain is very difficult and unrelenting, but not much worse than many others. The real problem, I think, is that there are few aid stations; at the marathon mark, one has passed only two aid stations (and one is remote and doesn't allow crews or drop bags). There's a 9 mile stretch without aid after the 100K mark at Superior that is extremely rugged and it's the sticking point for most racers. I expect that most people who read this are looking at running the Superior 100; to find a predicted time there, drop down one row in the 100 mile trail column - if you want to beat the 38 hour cut-off there, a 4:45 marathon looks to be the starting point.


RBR said...

Although I do have my sights loosely on a 50 miler in the distance future and your cheery little chart tells me me that I will not make any cut off anyway, what makes me saddest is that you are taking a blog hiatus.

I truly hope it is a rejuvenating, 'do something good for SQ' hiatus and you can come back and regale us with your adventures once again.

Take care of you and you know how to reach me.

nwgdc said...

Another great post! Why the upcoming break?

I still have dreams of a 100 at some point...but I feel like I need to do a ton better at the marathon/50K before even going to the 50 mile event. 100 miles? Yikes.

nwgdc said...

I agree with RBR, take care of yourself and come back!

Glaven Q. Heisenberg said...

ZOMG - a sentence in which the subject is "I, SteveQ" and the word "break" appears ... and there's no mention of a bone?

I knew this was theoretically possible, but so is teaching a monkey to play the piano. Like the monkey-piano hypothetical, I never thought I'd see such a thing as that there SteveQ-break-no-bone sentence.

Enjoy your hiatus! Break a leg!

But not literally.

sea legs girl said...

Hi again. Well, first, when you say "break from blogging" I imagine and hope that will be 3-4 days. But, take what you need, of course.

2. I really always learn something from your blog. I didn't know much about Flo-Jo's death and I looked it up and am still sitting here wondering if it was doping-related or was it the unlucky "cavernous angioma" doing her in at that moment. But I also didn't know about her attempts to run longer distances, which is quite interesting. Though I bet she could have gotten better than you suggest. I'm an eternal optimist.

3. My eyes are just drawn to charts and I have to reassure RBR that your equivalence chart is off. There ain't no way I can run a 3 hour marathon or 19 hour 100 miler, which is what all of my 50 mile runs predict. RBR, I don't really know you, but if you have a blog with "run" twice in the title, I gotta believe you can finish a 50 miler under the time limit!

Don said...

Huh. That post convinces me: I am NOT a natural ultrarunner. I'm opposed to vomiting and bloody shorts. Give me a nice easy marathon any day.

Xenia said...

Your shorts fill with blood? I didn't know you menstruated. Welcome to the Red Tent.

Enjoy your hiatus. I hope it is enjoyable and that you come back refreshed and happy and potentially wearing a maxi pad. :)

Take care.

SteveQ said...

Okay, the bloody shorts thing happened once. No... twice. No matter what lubrication you use or how much, swelling and rain can wreak havoc, even when wearing compression shorts.

I've never vomited in a race, however, common as that seems to be.

Glaven Q. Heisenberg said...

Of course it only happened twice!

Farmer Brown keeps you pregnant so you'll keep producing milk.

Personally, I think he just likes having sex with you and uses the milk-production thing as a cover story.