It was an article posted by our big shoe’d friend Roger Hanney on Facespace this weekend that got me thinking about the theme for this latest article. I’m sure you’ve all had nearly enough of the Great North Walk (apart from the last two race reports to arrive from Marcus and Andrew), so I thought I’d open up the floor to a bit of debate on the topic of how hard can you go in an ultra, or rather just how hard should you start out?
The report in the link above is quite simply phenomenal – Cavin Woodward defied the laws of ultra-running and just went for it. Just to give a quick run-down as to what happened, the Tipton 100 miler was a British Road Runners Club race where 18 competitors had been very carefully selected, all vastly experienced ultra-runners. Woodward the eventual winner blitzed the first 50 miles of the race (setting a new world record) and then held on to record the then fastest ever track 100 miles in a time of 11:38:54 – simply amazing. It stands today as one of the fastest ever times over that distance.
But how did it happen? Cavin went into the race with the theory that he may as well start out hard because he was going to slow down anyway, so why start out slowly? Why not give it a real thrash and see what he could do? Now this is all well and good for what we would regard as an elite athlete, but could we as normal ‘athletes’ go out and do something like this? It’s a really fine line I believe.
I’m sure all of us has experimented in certain races where we’ve gone out harder and then felt the effects further on in the race. From a personal experience I tried this recently at the Great Ocean Walk 100km race down in Victoria where I decided to go out a little harder than I normally would in a 100km race. My split for the first 50kms was 5:44, quicker than I normally would go out in. But the second half paints quite an interesting picture, as I came home in 7:20. Ouch… Now the second half of the course is slightly harder I believe in terms of climb, but still it’s a big positive split.
But would I have run a better time if I’d headed out slower? It’s hard to tell without trying, but I don’t believe so. My goal at the start of the race was to run a 12:59. I failed by five minutes, finishing in 13:04. But I was there or thereabouts, so in my head it was pretty much objective achieved. If I head down and do this race again next year, maybe I’ll try to head out a little slower to see if there is more gas in the tank at the end, but to be frank, it’s not in my nature to do that.
I’m a typically ‘faster’ starter than some of my good running friends (not the really quick ones), but I do tend to run a little harder in the first 50-70% of a race and then the inevitable slow-down appears, and I try to hold on.
It’s a really tough one I think for us ‘weekend warriors’ as we’re often told to ‘start slowly and finish slower’. But my theory is that I don’t want to die wondering what could have been. Now, in the race described above at Tipton, there was that inevitable slow-down from Woodward, but would he have broken the world record had he gone out slower? Maybe he would and overall the journey so to speak would have been easier on his body. But again, relating back to us the average runner, I do think there’s a certain amount of conditioning you need before you can go out and start doing this kind of thing.
I’m reminded of the time a few years ago when I started the Glasshouse 100 miler in 2009. I was still a very inexperienced runner, a bit overweight too and I just went in with the attitude of ‘stuff it’. I ran the first 60kms like a bat out of hell – a stupid pace for my own ability and subsequently crashed big time at 60kms. Lay down for an hour and got back into the race, but by 100kms was done. The body had reached its finish time and was saying – no more. Now there were a few other mistakes I’d made in that race, but I basically ran myself into the ground. So proved the theory that I don’t think anyone can just go out and try this type of thing and you can’t go out really really hard i.e. 90% threshold.
So if you’re game for giving it a crack, how hard should you go? Well there’s a saying here at Ultra168, “Don’t take too many cookies out of the jar too early.” I think the pace I headed out at Great Ocean Road was just about on the borderline. Not stupidly crazy, but sharp-ish. I did suffer mid-race for around 5kms, but I got it back and managed to finish ‘OK’. But what is that pace?
On a scale of 1-10, with 10 being at the top-end of your threshold and 3-4 being a comfortable jogging ultra pace, I’d say it was around a 7. It’s basically an effort run. I won’t put any times around it as it differs for different people, but it essentially feels like an effort.
Now how long you can hold onto that ‘effort’ is another thing and I think based upon your training. Quite simply if you’ve done very little training, don’t expect to be able to hold onto it for long. But my threshold for that GOW 100km run was around 65-70kms. After that I could feel the body starting to break down somewhat and then it was the fight for survival to the finish, but I knew I could finish just about within what I wanted to achieve.
For most too, it’s not just about the time you can run a race or how hard you can go – it’s also about the journey and we accept that some people want to run races and have their body feel OK at the end of it all. That’s fine, but if you’re game for seeing what you can do, then I certainly think it’s worth having a crack early on. Not stupid pace, but enough to know that you’re trying and then seeing how your body reacts and holds on. You might just surprise yourself.