Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Race Strategy and Ultra Running

In marathon running, it is race suicide to go out to fast and then fade at the end. But does that principle hold for ultras?

The night before Bandera, Dan Olmstead and I were reviewing some of the race materials, including Nick Clark's (at the time CR) splits from 2010, which Dan had along as a guide for his own race. Nick completed the two 50k's in 4:15 and 5:01. That's about a minute and a half per mile slower the second time around. Chakira Omine's second loop was 3 minutes faster than Nick's second loop, but Nick had a big enough cushion from the first loop to hold on for the win (and CR).

And so I asked Dan: Is it better to aim for consistency or is it better to go out fast, get a good lead, and just hope to hang on?

That night we both kind of shrugged it off, with no decision on which was the better strategy. But it is something I keep wondering about. Two years in a row I have had the fastest second 50k of all the women (7 min ahead of Jill/Aliza in 2010; roughly 5 minutes faster than Liza this year), but it hasn't resulted in a win. I was super happy with my race both years and I am not harboring any regrets. But one of the appeals of this sport is that there is so much to learn, so many variables to consider, so much experimenting to be done and I am an eager student (oh, let's not sugar coat it: I am the class nerd!). My strategy in basically all of my races has been to aim for consistency, but maybe I need to adapt. Maybe I need to risk a little more in the beginning, at least in "shorter" races?

Are you a gambler or do you play it safe? I would love to here thoughts from other runners and especially ultra runners on the idea of going out fast and hanging on vs. staying consistent... that is, if you are willing to share your strategy. ;)


crowther said...

In my best marathons and best flat ultras, I've run the second half 2-3% slower than the first half, so, empirically, that seems to work best for me. That probably doesn't apply to all people and all ultras; for example, in the 24-hour races, the most successful people tend to pile up a whole bunch of miles in the first 12 hours and then hang on after that.

SteveQ said...

Going back to the 1880's, the guys who were doing 6 Day races did the first 100 miles at 8 minutes per mile, then relied on speedwalking and lack of sleep; they did have money incentives for records at 100 miles and 24 hours, but that's still impressive. Kouros' 24 hour records early in his career were blisteringly fast at first and then just hang on, but over the years became more even.

When dealing with trails, however, one has to acknowledge that even pacing isn't possible and that one has to slow at night to avoid obstacles (Kouros could never do technical, for example).

I find most runners are so focused on finishing that they hold back at the beginning to decrease their odds of having to drop. Strategy then becomes: if you think you can win with a less-than-ideal pace, start slow and run even; if you think you're going against more talented runners, take bigger risks.

Chris Owens said...

I've lost more than a little sleep, pondering this. Always wondering, how slow early is too slow? At some point it just seems like any slower isn't really reserving any more energy. I don't divide a marathon in half, it's in thirds 10+10+6.2, and I try and make the first and second 10 as close to each other as I can, then pick it up for the last 6.2, doesn't always work out that way. My current thinking for ultras is try and hold the fastest even pace for 80% of the distance that I'm able and leave the last 20% to chance, good fortune and/or guts.

Pam said...

Thanks for your thoughts, guys.

@Steve- I agree you can't run an even pace on trails, but that is not to say you can't be consistent on more general terms. Three of the ultras I ran last year had one loop repeated twice for the full distance, but one could also compare first half vs second half in races where the terrain remains fairly constant. Some races, like Capitol Peak (run up, then run down) or American River (flat paved path vs uphill trail) have such differences that comparing halves would be meaningless.

Anonymous said...

I once read that you should run atleast one each year where you go out as hard as you can and then hold on, to prove that you can run on guts. You should run one race each year where you go out "slow" and finish hard ("negative split effort") to prove that you can run smart.

Great job in Texas.

You need to change your blog name, I don't think that "The Turtle Path" holds true anymore (if it ever did :))


amy said...

I've started to respond to this 3 times now, but my answer gets a bit long-winded and I give up. In short, I tend to go out harder, and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't. But, in general, I think I'm pretty controlled at the start, but maybe push a bit too hard overall in the first half. Or just don't sense the warning signs to slow down as needed. I think as I've run more and more ultras, my initial pace maybe hasn't changed much, I've just gotten better at maintaining it, as I've gotten fitter.

If you haven't tried it, you should go for broke in your next 50. Put it out there early, and just see what happens? If nothing else, it'll be a fun experiment. Right? (of course, go for broke is all relative....we're not talking a 5K pace....)

Anonymous said...

It's hard to figure out what that reasonable pace is for the first half -- since the second half of an ultra distance is always going to feel difficult. I feel like I'm trying to figure out what possible and if I don't risk "blowing up" after pushing hard the first half, I won't ever figure it out.
Liza Howard

Nicola Gildersleeve said...


I am the classic second half runner. I start casual and pick it up. Hence me coming in 11th at ws100 last year behind you. Because it was my first 100, I started out super easy and picked it up huge in the last 35 miles. However, I tend to enjoy races more when I take this approach. Hanging on can be quite unenjoyable!

However, at way too cool in 2009, I went balls to the walls. I don't know how I hung on but I did and came 4th in a time of 4:21. My HR was beyond through the roof from start to finish! I wouldnt say I had the best experience because I felt like I was suffering the entire time. However, I was happy with the end result.

Also, I find in ultras there are times when you are forced to slow down (hills) and then times when you can surge (downs/flats) which happen all the way throughout an ultra.

Other days, running fast the whole day will feel effortless if you are ON!

Hone said...

I tend to run the first 20 minutes easy and then go for broke. A lot of times it ends in disaster but in every race that I have won I was always in the lead by at least the halfway point. Usually it is much earlier.

I am not that great of a runner but I always like being chased over hunting someone down. On trails it is tough to know where everyone is so I think it is best to know that they are all behind you.