I’m getting quite a few questions about my training for Western States… mostly from the people that were aware of my lackadaisical approach I took. The race performance did not seem even remotely possible given my apparent training regimen. Some (Shacky) even accused me of sandbagging.
For my three previous 100 milers, I took various approaches.
- For the first Burning River attempt in ’08, I followed Crossfit and Crossfit Endurance religiously. I meticulously planned every detail of the race and brought a ton of gear. I DNFed at mile 64 or so.
- For Hallucination in ’09, I used some elements of Crossfit and Crossfit Endurance, but also started using more functional fitness exercises, hill repeats, and long runs. I dialed back my obsessive planning a bit and managed to finish somewhere around 29:10.
- For the second Burning River attempt last year, I did more varied functional fitness stuff based on Pete Kemme’s work. I continued hill repeats and long runs, but added more adventure (like the 68 mile Kal-Haven run with Mark Robillard and Jesse Scott.) The result was a significant time improvement to 27:48.
I slowly improved to the point where I was confident I could finish 100 milers, but I was still a back-of-the-pack ultrarunner. After a strong finish at Burning River last year, I decided to try pushing myself from the start of races. That was a horrible strategy as it resulted in a bad trail marathon (Fallsburg), a DNF at mile 25 of a 50 miler (North Country Trail), and an uninspiring 50k (HUFF.)
When I was selected in the Western States lottery, I immediately started dreaming of the silver belt buckle awarded to sub-24 hour finishers. I knew I needed a different approach. I needed something that would capitalize on my strengths and accommodate my weaknesses.
I also knew motivation would be an issue. I hate running in cold weather. The timing of Western States would require me to begin training in January.
“The Plan” is a bit of a misnomer… I didn’t have a plan. I made up a detailed day-to-day plan, followed it for two days, then lost it. At that point I decided to abandon the traditional methods of ultramarathon training. Starting at the beginning of January I did what I wanted when I felt like it. I didn’t force workouts or runs. If I was in the mood, I did it. If I wasn’t, I did something else. This “decision” was actually more like an identity crisis, which I wrote about here a few weeks ago.
I’ll be honest, it was scary and felt VERY strange. I was barely running or crosstraining. I haven’t kept a log and stopped running with my Garmin, so I can only estimate my numbers. According to my best estimates, I averaged around 20 miles per week. From January through March, that mileage was entirely made up of long runs every other week or so. I did about 10 crosstraining workouts in March and early April. I did about the same number of hill repeat sessions. I ran three races, a 15k (Kent City Ridge Run), a 20 mile flu-laden 12 hour (Mind the Ducks), and a 50 miler at sea level (Pineland Farms.) I did pack in one week of hard-core running when we traveled to Boulder (~35 miles of mountain running and a 5k)… a week before Western States. According to the traditional ultra training philosophies, I was severely under-trained.
The Philosophy Going Into Western States
I knew I was under-trained compared to my other two 100 mile finishes. However, I had the opportunity to test most of the aspects of the conditions I’d face at Western States. I had a long run that felt great (Pineland Farms), I had run in heat, altitude, and sustained climbs and descents (in Boulder), I knew I had an experienced crew led by Shelly and a borderline elite pacer in Jeremiah Cataldo, and I knew my body well enough to nail caloric intake and hydration. I knew my gear inside and out. Based on all of this, I was very confident about my ability to finish. I even went as far as to discuss the possibility of a sub-24 scenario with Jeremiah.
As far as my approach to the race, I was going to have fun. Western States is more than a race, it’s an experience. It’s a beautiful course with some excellent challenging trails, tons of history, and the opportunity to meet a ton of cool runners. I even decided to carry a camera. Documenting the experience was more valuable than the weight it added. If I finished, I’d be happy. I expected to finish, but would have been okay with DNFing. If I felt good, I might try to push for the silver buckle. It wasn’t my primary goal, though. I didn’t care about the outcome, I cared about the journey.
It was interesting to hear people’s reactions when I told them about my training for Western States. It was much like barefoot running… it was so unorthodox, most completely disregarded it. In a results-oriented world, doing anything else is considered borderline insanity. People had a hard time grasping the idea that self-knowledge gained through experimentation and experience trumps an impressive training log.
I’ll talk about the specifics I experienced during the race, but I made most of the right decisions throughout. I stayed on top of calories in and hydration. I wore the right shoes and clothes. I chose the right gear. Jeremiah and Shelly did a masterful job of pacing. My training was dead-on specific to train for 100 milers in the mountains.
The absolute best part of the race- I had fun the entire time. At different points in the run other runners would comment how they couldn’t wait for the race to end. I never got to that point. I was in running nirvana having the time of my life.
I focused on the experience. The end results took care of themselves. I’m obviously happy about earning the buckle, but I would have been just as happy had I DNFed. I would still have been able to spend several days with good friends in a beautiful location while participating in the world’s greatest ultra (based on my experiences.) No material prize can top those memories.
My new running philosophy is simple- make it fun. The more lackadaisical approach I take to running, the better I do. Give it a shot. Stop taking running so seriously. Stop tracking your workouts (and posting them on Facebook.) Stop obsessively working out every single detail of every run. Ditch the Garmin. Run for the pure love of movement. I think you’ll be surprised.