I’m going to share my race day plan with you because I’m not in danger of winning the Rugged Red this year. I want to articulate what I’ve translated from mountain bike racing to trail races and also to list some of the lessons I’ve learned devoid of knobby tires.
First, let’s go back to some of the more relevant things I have brought with me from my early days running cross country and latter days on the bike.
I had a great cross country coach way back in the fall of 1988. He taught us the importance of pacing, of kick, and keeping your head up. He also described a tactic for overtaking other runners which served me well in my strongest races as a freshman runner and later during bike races. I’ll get to that shortly.
Participating in five mountain bike races has taught me a lot about duking it out with hundreds or thousands of other trail users all at the same time. It’s an art and it’s a battle. You don’t have to go at it aggro and full of male-adolescent rage, but being assertive and decisive is important when there is limited real estate in which to move and to pass or be passed.
Pacing is one of those things that are sort of easy to describe but much harder to implement and master: run at the fastest speed that you can maintain for the distance you intend to run. It’s not really so simple, but actually it is. What’s hard for some people is that good pacing takes work. You have to run and be aware of your speed and effort over varying distances and in different internal and external conditions. You have to know yourself, you have to be aware of your energy levels, and you have to be able to adjust your output to different distances and terrain. It just takes practice.
Trail running and mountain biking differ from road efforts in that not all miles are equitable, and not all courses demand the same efforts at the same milepoints. It makes sense to train on the actual course you’ll be running or riding unless you have enough experience to adjust your pace on the fly. I’d guess that ability separates average/good runners from truly great runners. I think on the bike you can kind of fake it through mechanical advantage/gearing, and due to the ability to recover more completely on long downhills or in the flats.
“Kick” was something I was skeptical of when my coach first explained it. But I gave him the benefit of the doubt and in the first meet I tried it was shocked that I could go so hard at the end of the race. In Leadville last year from the aid station at Carter Summit to the finish I was kicking. I went harder in those last miles than I did at any other point along the way. I went so hard I thought I was going to die from my efforts later that night. I’ve seen kick win races. I’ve seen people kick who were coming in dead last. I think it’s a spiritual phenomenon to some degree. I have run a hard race, and I am going to finish strong.
Biomechanics plays a huge role in speed and stamina. Keeping your head up keeps your airways open and doesn’t allow your mind to slow down as easily. It’s much easier to watch your feet while running than in cycling, and it’s something I’ve had to focus on as I’ve gotten back into running. Looking at your feet is similar to getting stuck on a slower rider’s wheel. I learned early on during my first Leadville 100 that you can’t sit back and let someone else lead down the trail. If you’re not riding at your own pace then pass. Much like keeping your head up, this also translates to running. On a trail it’s not always obvious that you can pass, but you have to look for opportunities and take them if you can run or ride at a faster pace than the person in front of you.
What my cross country coach told that stuck with me was to fix your eyes on the spine of the runner in front of you right between their shoulder blades, and to run until you overtake them. Then pick out the next runner ahead and do the same. If there are no runners ahead of you then pick out a stationary object far ahead and keep your eyes fixed on it until you’re close enough to need to shift your focus to something else. Repeat.
The benefits are:
1) It keeps your head up, and
2) Chasing a moving runner tricks your brain into going faster
This tactic has worked well for me over the years. It’s really the only way I can keep my head up while running. I employed it in a hilly JV race in southwestern Ohio and came in six overall. The course was notoriously hilly and everyone else was freaking out because of it. I also tricked my brain by telling myself I had it in my blood to outrun those buckeyes on hills because I was from Kentucky. I knew it was bogus but the mental acrobatics worked. I outran other guys who should have left me in their dust. I passed most people on hills and just never gave up an inch once I was back on easier ground.
My general personal strategy is somewhat contrived and complex. I’m going to share it mainly to see if it sounds stupid to me when I read it back on the computer screen.
First I drew out a profile of the course and listed landmarks on the milepoint axis. On the four major climbs I noted the total elevation gain. Then I averaged my pace on every trail run I’ve had since the beginning of the summer. My fastest pace was 11:05/mi on a 9.5 mile run and my slowest was 14:05/mi on a 7 mile run. The average came out to 12:52/mi which hurt my feelings. I’ve been hoping to finish in two and a half hours or less, but based on my normal pace I’m not sure if I can do this.
So I created a split table indicating a 10, 11, 12, 13, 14 and 18 minute pace (18 for the cutoff pace) for well-known landmarks along the course. I realized that based on a 20 minute fueling interval I should eat 100 calories at each major trail junction. That would have me fueling 300 calories an hour at a 12:00/mi pace. If I could maintain that I’d have a 2:37 finish time. With a good hard kick at the end I might shave off enough to get in under my goal. If I’m off my goal pace the 20 minute interval goes out the window, but I’ll have a good idea how to adjust based on my split table. If I’m feeling strong at the swinging bridge I should be able to skip two of the three remaining fuel points and just go for broke. If I’m not then I’ll stick to the plan.
My plan works well because it mirrors my fueling strategy from some of my more successful bike and running efforts this past year. One tactic I’ve employed is to try and fuel heavy early and “coast” in to the finish. What I found was my tendency is to ignore eating until I feel my energy waning and by then it’s too late. I figured if I switched it then I’d have plenty of energy early when I was focusing on pace and could afford to forget about eating later when I needed to up the pace. So far this has worked very well for me. It also eliminates the problem of not being able to stomach anything later in the effort.
This is also reinforced because the hardest climbing comes early in this course. By mile five runners will have completed a 400’ climb and a 350’ climb—both less than a mile long. The third climb is not as severe and comes after six miles of easier terrain. Those six miles are where I intend to jack up my average pace. I’ve ran that section three times this summer and am confident in my ability to go like the wind once I get there.
I had hoped for cooler weather but that doesn’t seem to be in the cards. The upside is that I’ve been training in absolutely deplorable conditions. I’ve ran in heat and humidity, rain, swarms of flesh-eating horse flies, through mud and deep creek crossings, and with Jeaphe in tow.
The mental game is key. I know I'll finish. I know I'll do well. I know if everyone else falls apart I'll still be going strong short of injury or unexpected illness. While I don't have the stems to outrun the fleetest I do have the will and the mental stamina to see this through to the end.
It’s coming fast. I’m taking the day off Friday and trying to do everything just right this week. It’s been a long process, but I know all of the effort is going to pay off, and then everything I learn will translate into an even better performance next year.