One of the biggest realizations that I had this year was that I was not fast enough. After finishing well off the pace in the Squamish 50 miler in August, I began to discern that my biggest downfall in the race was my ability to run fast and efficiently. My training throughout the summer has been focused on achieving huge amounts of climbing and time on feet. Speed was assumed to be a by-product due to increased leg strength and muscular endurance. Many runners that I know train with the same mentality; that simply spending a lot of time out on the trails and running up big hills will make them good trail runners. This is true to a point, but I am forming the opinion that to take things to the next level, a focus on structured workouts and speed needs to be a part of every runner’s repertoire. Finishing two hours behind the winner in Squamish was a wake-up call.
The idea that learning to run fast translates into good race results was supported by reading numerous articles, listening to interviews and perusing the training logs of several elites whom I admire. One of the elite trail runner whom I admire the most is Rob Krar. In the last two years Krar was won 3 competitive and challenging 100 mile races, along with several 50 mile and 50 k races, all while training more or less on a road racing/ marathon training plan. His key workouts are based around long hill repeats, interval training and pace change workouts. I spoke with high-level local runner and coach, Matt Cecil, on his approach which has garnered him several key wins and impressive fastest known times (FKT’s), including winning the gruelling Fat Dog 120 mile race. His advice was that he needed to become a fast and most importantly efficient runner, in order to become a successful trail runner. He told me that he had runs enough trails in order to be competent. Success has come from the ability to partner strong hill climbing with efficient running of the flat sections, the flats can then be used to your advantage without letting them be your undoing.
All of this is a round about way of saying that this fall I wanted to improve my speed via a few different outlets. My first step was to race my last ultra of the year, the Oregon Coast 50k. It was a relatively flat course compared to many that I have run, and I knew the profile would allow for leg speed to play a part. I would then be integrating structured speed work into my training for the Fall Classic 1/2 marathon, one month after Oregon Coast.
Following the completion of the Wonderland Trail in late September, I took a full week completely off of running and activities in general. My knee was incredibly swollen, mostly due to the added weight of my fully loaded pack that was required to complete the self-supported 150 km run. I also wanted to give my body some time off, as I was focused on trying to return to form for my race in just 4 weeks time. With that in mind I had just 2 weeks of hard training, and then a one week taper. Mainly this involves a few key workouts; some speed sessions on the road, some hard trail runs with long climbs and finally runs which had some good rolling hills to simulate the Oregon course. My favourite workout is a run I have nicknamed “The Beast”. This 25 km run combines long runnable climbs, rolling hills, power hiking, and steep technical downhills. With 1400 m of climbing, when I finish this workout, I will have a good idea of where my fitness is at. Following my personal best on The Beast two weeks out from the race, I felt like things were turning around.
On Friday at noon, my friend Colin and I picked up my girlfriend from work and we were off for a 4 day trip to Oregon! We hit the road with excited premonitions of rugged coastlines, huge cedar trees and sand dunes. This enthusiasm was soon dampened by a line of cars stretching seemingly from the Vancouver to Portland. We arrived after 13 ½ hours of driving at 1:30 am, feelingly thoroughly unprepared for the race the next day. After 5 hours of sleep we were up and preparing to eat breakfast and pick up my race packet. The race began at 9 am, and started with 10 km of pancake flat beach running. Excellent, a good way to test out the leg speed and pull away from the majority of the pack. Unfortunately, we were buffeted by a fierce headwind which staggered our pace from an effort of near 4 min/km to 4:50/km. After splashing through several creeks and being sandblasted my pack of 8 runners arrived at the first aid. I blew through the aid after quickly exchanging bottles, and was off leaving the others behind to change shoes, jackets and re-fuel. The next part of the race traveled though the seaside town of Yachats, and I tried to run both easily while clicking off the kilometres quickly. When the course moved to the trails, I was able to start working more efficiently catching up to runners on both the climbs and the descents, my forte. By 30-ish km I had moved into 2nd with the hardest part of the course in the bag. The leader was apparently about 15 min ahead, so I took off downhill from the highest point on the course absolutely flying.
As I descended I was feeling a bit dehydrated due to the exertion, and lack of water on the drive down the day before. This dehydration soon became apparent as my entire leg locked up with about 10 km to go. I fell down the stairs I was descending and slid into the bushes, my leg fully extended and feeling like my muscles had been reinforced with concrete. I lay in the mud, massaging my quads and calves, hoping for something to happen and waiting for my pursuers to pass my withered form. Eventually, my leg would bend again and I started slowly walking down the trail and then running. I quickly downed several salt pills at the next aid station, and as many chips as I could fit in my hand. I hoped this would be enough salt to get me to the end and stave off any further cramping. I ran hard for the remaining climbs with everything I could, listening for cheers of runners behind me, fully in running scared mode. As I ran back through town with everything I had left, and finished 2nd in 4:25, a PR for the distance!
The post race party was truly epic, situated at the Adobe resort on the rugged coast with beer, pizza, smiles and sunsets. The next day we took to the sand dunes, exploring the natural environment via a completely different medium. By the time we returned home, I was thoroughly exhausted but ready to start training for the Fall Classic.
Like the 50k, I would only have 4 weeks to train for the Fall Classic. One week of recovery mileage, and 2 ½ weeks of hard, focused and structured training. During this time I leaned heavily on my road-running guru Jerry Ziak. Jerry co-owns the Forerunners in North Vancouver, and is an encyclopedia of road running knowledge with the resume to back it up. With his PB’s of 1:05 in the ½ and 2:17 in the marathon, he would often lead me on group runs, pulling me along the road at a pace I would have thought impossible. I entered a world of Yasso 800’s, lactate thresholds, pace change workouts and more. I was clearly in over my head, I use my watch for tracking time and climb, not km splits and laps. But I had the desire to get faster, and that meant delving into this foreign world. For two weeks I trained according to Jerry’s advice, and began to feel that perhaps my slow legs would be able to go fast.
During this time, I once again focused on several key workouts. The workouts are based on both effort and goal time for the race. I was aiming to run around 1:22, so this would dictate my pace during workouts. Yasso 800’s are one of my favorite workouts, relying on a bit of endurance while allowing for me to feel that I am running hard. The aim of the workout is to run 800m on the track at race pace, followed by a 2 min recovery jog and then your next 800, aiming to keep your 800m times the same or faster. I started with 6 sets and progressed to 8 over the two weeks, enjoying the data side of the workout which doesn’t allow for excuses. We also completed several pace change workouts, running 10-12 km with a race pace and then a float pace of about 30 seconds slower, with different increments of time between the hard effort and the float. My final key workout was a tempo run at race pace. I was lucky to have Jerry lead only me on this Saturday morning run, one week before the race. After a 4 km warm up with dynamic stretching and drills, we set off for a 14 km tempo run. I ran on Jerry’s shoulder, focusing on the thought that this would be my race pace, effort and pain level. It is unlilke anything which I have experienced in a trail run, to exert myself at this kind of speed for well over an hour. We finished and my overall pace determined that I should run about 1:23. Reasonable, I hoped that I would be able to sneak another minute off of that during the race.
Perhaps the thing that has struck me as the most different between trail and road running is the importance of seconds in road running. In order to take one minute or 60 seconds off my 1/2 marathon time, I only needed to run 2.8 seconds per km faster. Run 5 seconds faster, and I take off 1:45 of my time. Every second counts. This was probably my biggest downfall during the race as I am so unused to running by feel at sub 4 min/km. If you spend too much time looking at your watch trying to adjust faster or slower, you stress, lose focus and most likely speed. So as I lined up for the race, I wanted to run by feel, to try and hit my pace and no go out too fast. The problem I soon found was that when a kilometer ticked off on my watch and said 3:58 instead of my desired 3:53, how much extra effort should I put in to gain back that 5 second? To go 10 seconds faster seems impossibly easy, it isn’t when you are trying to judge that over 1 000 meters.
I ended up finishing in 1:24:01, thoroughly disappointed by my extra seconds that I had amassed onto each kilometer. Road running is a fickle beast, and the challenge of managing pace and effort over distance is a very difficult skill to attune my body to, especially when I am used to running so slow comparatively. I quickly considered entering another race just 2 weeks in the future, eager to fix the mistakes that I had made during the race. Reflection brought to mind the fact that running a minute or two faster in the next race would do nothing for me. It was time to rest, and that I would have another crack at the ½ marathon distance in February, hopefully fully trained and in better communication with my internal pace calculator.
So I entered my off-season. I tried to imagine what that would envision. I had ideas of hitting the gym and doing many a squat, dead-lift and strengthening routine. I would spend the winter ski touring and cross-country skiing through the snowy backcountry. I would work on achieving full body strength and a ripped core. And finally, I would get fast. I would run low mileage, but I would continue working with Jerry to improve on my raw speed, pacing and road running skill-set. Some of these things have happened, and a few have not. Mainly the snow has still yet to materialize in mid-December, and so I am left to hike in the hills, avoiding long runs and big days on my feet. I have continued my speedwork, realizing gains with the consistent effort, and I have been hitting the gym, bouldering wall and assaulting my core with a variety of grievances. The rest feels great, not having to run every day is a big change but a welcome one. Unfortunately my first race, a 25km trail race, is now only 7 weeks away on Jan 31st. Following the holidays I will fire up daily training again, with a focus on the First Half 1/2 Marathon on February 15th and my shot at redemption with the road, my watch and every damn second!