Go Hard or Go Home

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.

Go out hard and risk crashing? Or take it steady Eddie?

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?

Yours truly feeling the pinch at CP4 (103kms) at GNW this year... BUT, in control.

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.

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I'm a mediocre runner who can bat above his average when I train hard. A man of extremes, I do enjoy everything life offers and consider it an absolute pleasure just to be able to put one foot in front of the other and let my mind wander somewhere different.

17 thoughts on “Go Hard or Go Home

  1. I tried the flat out method at the Kedumba Half on Saturday. ran the downhill at about 90% effort and got to the turn around in about 50 minutes. ran as much of the mountain on the way back as I could and finished 5 minutes faster than last year. the main difference being that I am still stiff and hobbling with smashed calves, quads and glutes. was all this pain worth 5 minutes? dont know, maybe find out next time

  2. “Iโ€™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 โ€˜stuff itโ€™. I ran the first 60kms like a bat out of hell โ€“ 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 โ€“ no more. Now there were a few other mistakes Iโ€™d made in that race, but I basically ran myself into the ground. So proved the theory that I donโ€™t think anyone can just go out and try this type of thing and you canโ€™t go out really really hard i.e. 90% threshold.”
    Hey Dan, I was there at Glasshouse, and other times. I really believe you were running in your ability but didn’t have the mental space you have now. Maybe the first 60kms were too fast (but then you ran with me to 100kms) You could have finished. 90% threshold is stupid for anyone not named Vize. Mental willpower is an amazing thing. Roger did amazingly well for a virgin 100 miler and with the added crap he has to deal with being Type 1 Diabetic. Interesting and should be discussed. This is what I enjoyed watching for the first time ever as a bystander last weekend. You have to want that finish more than anything (even a fast time) then you tweak for a faster finish.

    1. Agreed Jane, when you’re getting into the realms of 100 milers, the first prerequiste of entering this game is the absolute desire to finish. If you have that then as long as you do the training, you should finish. I know that very early on for me, this was missing. But I was also very naive I think too when I started running. There were a few other issues at play, but by the by I don’t think I actually believed I could finish.

      Thanks for your support last weekend too – it was great seeing you at the various checkpoints towards the end and really appreciated your support too. Hope the stitches are clearing up too.

  3. Great post Dan, one of my favourites actually! I totally respect Cavin Woodward for going out hard. I respect that attitude. A sensible approach is definitely an even-paced effort but when records are smashed its usually by people that run hard from the start and have no fear. Prefontaine is also another favourite of mine.

    Given GNW100 was my first miler I went out soft. But there will definitely be a race in the future when im going to go out hard and see what happens. You dont know if you dont try. No shame in blowing up and pulling out anyway. Its what the sport is all about. Would be boring if everyone was cautious.

  4. Great story about Woodward. I keep thinking about Anton Krupicka chasing Matt Carpenter’s course record at Leadville in 2009 and 2010. Both times he went out under record time until he collapsed with 20 odd miles to go. It would be interesting to consider the relative merits of going all out in a track race relative to adopting that strategy in a trail race.



  5. Great article Dan. And a good topic too. My training partner and I chat about this often for road marathons. Do we go out hard and hang on or try the conservative even pace effort ? I agree with Jane in that we do feel better after an even split attempt than just a go for it first half. At the GNW I thought the same thing after I finished . Legs and muscles tired but not trashed, so did I leave too much in the tank ?

    I think I am ready to try this at training runs – and see what happens. The Woodward case may be accurate but it may not suit us all.

    One thing I do agree on though is that the pace and the results at ultras is getting hotter and it is no more a case of just turn up but rather turn up to race. I found myself looking over my shoulder the entire last section of the GNW as I was not going to be passed and would give it all to stay so.

    Now, where is Andrew’s race report ?????

  6. You tricked me Dan! I was reading this thinking what a great discussion starter you’d written and how interesting it is that a number of us are questioning some running ‘truths’ that are commonly accepted and rarely challenged, and all of a sudden, 98% of the way in, there it is – the word ‘journey’!! aaargh!!

    I do enjoy Ian’s bloodymindedness but the non-finish isn’t an option. I think that the logical extension of the 168 cookie jar is that we either need to make more cookies or get a bigger jar. We need to do more of the hard stuff, more regularly. I’ve got a pair of running spikes I picked up in the US that haven’t even got dirt on them yet. Peak long run done for the year, decent recovery time til B2H. Time to ugly it up.

    Still going to be mid pack but hopefully a faster fitter one than this year.

    1. Come on Roger, after my hand-holding finish last week, we have to mention those who love the journey too ๐Ÿ™‚

      You’re right about making more cookies. Vizey has done a great job of doing that the last few years, although there are some in marathon circles who believe he is a very ‘lucky’ runner! But yeah, the goal now is to try and make faster cookies, something I’m giving quite a bit of thought to as I contemplate what’s next for 2012.

      In some regards, with twin girls due in a few weeks, part of my decision is being made for me, having to focus a little on some of the shorter stuff, but trying to get quicker at it. I also just received a nice reminder from UTMB this evening, that I have guaranteed entry for 2012 – an opportunity I’m going to struggle to turn down!

  7. It,s great to start each race “not” with the intention of arriving safely in an attractive well preserved body but rather come screaming sideways to the finish line chocolate in one hand E-load in the other- body totally used up worn out and screaming “WOO HOO” what a ride,that hurt so much im never doing this race again.Then a few hours later on the way home in the back of the kombi planning how much more good hurtin you can pack into the weekend the following year.

    1. Well said Gordi, wouldn’t expect anything different from you. Hope the recovery is going well and we get to see your navigationally challenged body smashing up the trails again soon ๐Ÿ˜‰

  8. Cavin Woodward was not an elite athlete physically, he was little more than an average club runner. What he was was an example of mental toughness and the ability to ignore pain. Most people can run a 6 minute mile, your body can do it, but it takes the toughness to do it mile after mile. I think the elite tag for the 100 mile brings with it the idea of vast experience etc, in fact it was his first and only attempt t the distance, with his next furthest being 100km, his furthest prior to the 100mile beign the London to Brighton, he had no idea what would happen to him over the extra 40+ miles, but had worked out his schedule to run as he always did.

    There is another important aspect, which I think made him the runner he was, and should not be undersestiamted. Despite stoppign for a check over byt he race doctor after the 50 miles he broke the 100km record. He ran many 100km races after that but never beat the time despite the stop. Why? To me it comes down to his wife, Carol. In the track 100km she was there every lap encouraging and driving him on, despite loking after their 3 kids at the same time. She was able to have a much alrger impact on him than in a 100km road race, seeing him every minute and a half and being able to yell like a banshee across the track for the rest fo the race. I truly beleive this addition to his personal toughness was what made that run possible.When self doubt creeps in, to be able to draw upon the unshaking belief of another is important.

    It’s no good dgoing out hard if you have nothing to sustain you when your body is falling apart.

    He worked as an accounts clerk in 1975, had 3 kids, Twins aged 3 at the time of the 100mile and one aged 1. He trained with his local clubmates and went on the carbohydrate loading diet before races, have bled out in a marathon the week before. If you want to know what he ate during races etc let me know, I’m one of his twins

    1. Hi Darren and thanks ever so much for posting such an indepth response to this article. It’s great to have you on here reading and commenting, along with giving us some more insight into Cavin’s running. We may well do a follow up on this, so I’ll be sure to be in touch with you to get some more insight. Thanks once again. Dan

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