More Than Just Going Long

Ultrarunners love to push their limits. “Let’s see how far my body can take me!” Sound familiar? With this mindset, and ultra registration fees, this can leave many of us trying to fill the gaps between one ultra and the next. A great way to do this, which I’m sure many of you already do, is to sign up for a few of the 5k/10k events that seem to come up just about every weekend. These events not only fill the gaps, but they can actually improve ultra-running, as well as serve as gauges for how your ultra fitness is coming along.

If this interests you, then let me explain how I used the Bellin 10k as a way to get in a quality ultra workout, and measure my fitness. As much as I would have liked to go into the Bellin 10k with a little more rest in my legs, I knew I had to take advantage of this week. This week was the third week out from Western States 100. My training philosophy with ultras is that the third week out is the last chance you have for the work you put in to be physically beneficial for your race performance. I set myself up with 121 miles in the six days leading up to Bellin, including three intense runs (two hill sessions and one pick-up session). On the morning of the race I woke up at 5 a.m. (three hours before the start) to do a shakeout run of 1.5 miles (really easy). This served two purposes: First, to get my body up and running, and second, to let me gauge how tired my legs were. Typically, if I would have tapered, my legs would have felt extremely light, and I would have wanted to start the race right after the shakeout run. But in this situation I was looking for a bit of tightness as evidence that I had worked hard the previous six days and was not at 100 percent. I was a little tight on my shakeout run, so I was right where I expected to be. This way the race and cool-down would mimic the worn-down feeling at the end of an ultra race. Second, it gave me a chance to work on the mental aspect of ultrarunning.

The next step was the warm-up. I typically do a 3-mile warm-up for races less than a full marathon. Warm-ups are more or less personal preference when it comes to length. If you have a big base of mileage, you can usually afford to go a little further in your warm-up. For me, the warm-up served two purposes: First, it allowed me to loosen up my muscles before the intensity of race pace. Second, it added miles to the daily total, which is a big part of getting your body ready for an ultramarathon.

Once you toe the starting line you can approach the race just like you would if you came in at 100 percent. The hard part is keeping in mind that you are not likely to PR, but nevertheless to keep pushing yourself in order to get the training benefits from the added speed. At Bellin it was easy to not expect a PR as it was hot, humid, and we had a nice wind to start the first two miles.

The main thing I was looking for from the actual race was an elevated heart rate. If you push your heart rate too high for too long it becomes extremely hard to bring it back down. This is mainly because your body starts to try to compensate for oxygen debt. I spoke about this a bit in my race report for Ice Age 50 Mile (the higher your heart rate, the higher the ratio of carbs to fats you will burn). In an ultramarathon, you want to spare the carbs as much as possible. The reason I was looking for an elevated heart rate during this race was experimental: to see how difficult it would be for me to bring it back down and develop a steady pace for the miles I'd run after the race.

For me the exciting part of the day was the 10 miles I ran after the race. If I had felt run-down, started looking for excuses to cut the run short, or just felt like time had ground to a halt, I would have known I was having difficulty bringing down my heart rate. If I felt really good, like I could keep running even when I finished the extended cool-down, I would know I was in good position to be able to put more surges into my next ultra race plan. Fortunately for me I felt the latter.

Fuel