How to Win C2K – A Coaches Perspective – Interview with Sean Williams

Sean Williams - Image courtesy of Runners TribeBen St Lawrence - Image courtesy of Runners Tribe

In last weeks interview with C2K 2011  Winner Ewan Horsburgh, he made reference to his support team and a specific mention of advice coming from coach Sean Williams that really enabled him to unlock his potential.

So, on my usual early morning recovery run I swung by Sean Williams SWEAT Training Squad session in Sydney’s Centennial Park to quiz him on a few of those nuggets of advice and to get a better understanding of the role of a coach.

I have known Sean for a number of years and have been on the recieving end of his expert tuition, easy going nature and also his unwavering passion for all things running. I for one know he has made me a better runner. In addition, if you hang around the stadiums and tracks of Australia long enough his name would come up frequently as one of Australia’s leading distance coaches. Athletes such as Ben St Lawrence, Lara Tamsett, Keith Bateman have all starred on the global stage with success for them coming in droves during the 2010-11 season.

Do you think ultrarunners can benefit from a coach ? If yes why ?

Yes. A coach can help in the planning process and help ensure the runner get to the finish line of the ultra at their fastest possible speed and in their best shape. Top ultra performances are  generally accomplished  through a carefully devised program. It requires ongoing adjustments as ultra runners are only human and they are endeavoring almost super-human feats- plenty can go wrong in a build up! A coach is a sounding board for the runner. Ultra runners are strong willed and single minded, with many being stubborn to their own detriment. A coach can see the mistakes the ultra runner makes when often the runner themselves have no idea about their wrong doings until it is far too late. Ultra runners are extremely determined people and usually very self motivated, however even these men and women of steel go through periods of anxiety and low motivation. A coach is always there to get their motivation back on track and to try and keep the excitement levels high.

What sort of coach would be useful ? Motivational/Performance/Strength/Speed/Nutritional etc ?

It really depends on the needs of individual ultra runner. A guy like Blue Dog (Wayne Gregory) needed very little help on nutrition and technical aspects of ultras. However he benefitted greatly from speed work, strength and to a lesser degree motivation.

A guy like Ewan benefitted hugely from his background of speed with my squad and learnt how to perform as a semi elite runner over a period of time. Just a few simple words like “You can beat this guy as you are a better performed runner than him on pure running courses” sink in with Ewan and he really takes it to heart and develops a deep self belief. After 5 years of rigid programs Ewan was able to take everything he learnt on board and craft some of his own sessions and timed long runs geared specifically for C2K.

Lara Tamsett claiming victory in the City to Surf - Image courtesy of Runners Tribe

Guys like Ewan and Wayne (Blue Dog) Gregory were smart enough to learn a lot from other ultra runners, with Ewan recently learning a lot from Ultra168 athlete and GNW100 Course Record holder Andrew Vize on nutrition and a few other aspects of ultras. By talking and training with a wide range of ultra runners you become  a student of the sport. However, it is wise to have a coach to oversee what you are doing.

Someone like Martin Matthews (England- 6.10 at Comrades, 7.03 over 100km) needs the whole package. He had little knowledge on nutrition for ultras, and everything about ultras was a new world to him. He had come from a 5km-marathon background and was used to running 160km a week at an average pace of 4.10 per km, but broken up into much shorter runs. He needed to learn patience and timing specific to ultras. He needed to learn to slow down his overall pace a bit and focus on ultra specific training.

What role can a coach play, before, during and after an ultra ?

I formulate a program from as far out as two years before an ultra for some runners. For some runners it may only be from a few months out.  It starts with a broad plan then goes into finer detail with monthly programs which include specific runs and sessions. These often (but not always) include cross training, long runs, lead up races (including other ultras), strength work, nutrition plans, equipment/apparel and footwear experimentation  and training camps. The runner will be guided to gradually improve in various tiers of running performance- pure endurance, speed endurance, uphill running, downhill running, threshold running and pure speed. During an ultra race a coach’s role can vary. It is important for the coach to ensure that the runner is in the hands of a good crew and when relevant, a good pacer. It is nice for a coach to be a member of their runner’s crew or even be their pacer, but not really necessary. I really enjoyed pacing  Carol Lapsys when she broke the 100mile record at GNW a few years ago, but she could have done just as well with someone else pacing her. Once the runners are out there in the race, it is up to them to implement everything they have trained for. My only involement with Ewan during the C2K was talking to and texting his crew every couple of hours and asking them to suggest certain paces and efforts. Wise programming will ensure a runner recovers sufficiently after an ultra, ready to start training again for their next endeavor as soon as possible.

What is the main area of focus for you as a coach to an ultrarunner such as Ewan ? Is it strength ? Speed ? Mindset ?

It was predominantly helping Ewan with self belief and pace judgment at Coast to Kozzie. Coast to Kozzie was in the pipeline for Ewan for a long time. Ewan turned himself into a top ultra runner over the final 12-18 months before the big race by moving to the mountains and doing plenty of long runs up and down long, steep hills. No rocket science there.

Ben St Lawrence - Image courtesy of Runners Tribe

How much focus would you put on speed v distance work for a 100 miler ?

This varies for each individual. The key session in a build up for a 100 miler is obviously a regular ultra training run. Something  in the range of 45km-90km every 2-3 weeks. When these occur in the buildup will depend on each runner. Some shorter ultra races can be used as training runs in the buildup. Overall weekly mileage is crucial. It is best to be built up gradually, but needs to be at least 80km per week; some runners will log over 200km per week. Regular speed work is essential. For an ultra runner speedwork can be in the form of hill reps (both uphill, downhill and a combo of the two) and flat reps of various distances and time cycles. most ultra runners are best to aim for fast jog or even “float” recoveries in between hard efforts. Speedwork can also be in the form of time trials over distances between 4km and 10km. It can also include tempo or threshold runs up to 14km in length. Most importantly speed work should include pure sprinting, usually done at the end of recovery runs. Technique must be addressed in the form of drills and exercises. Ewan was able to blitz the field at C2K because his technique  has really improved over the years. He has far more lift than the majority of ultra runners, which results in a longer stride and faster cadence.

Would you coach someone differently for a road/trail/track ultra ?

The basis of the training is very similar across all three type of ultras. However, specificity  comes into play for some runs and sessions. I am sure that Andrew Vize will tell you that the countless hours he has spent on the GNW trails gave him a familiarity to the course like no one else’s, giving him a huge advantage over his opponents. His regular hill sessions around Mosman also would prepare him for the monsters on the GNW course, both physically and mentally. Some runners can adapt to varying race terrain without the specificity. Even though not an ultra example, Lara Tamsett won the world mountain running championships on incredible long climbs and descents off a training program with absolutely no hill work, just flat running around Centennial Park. What works for one does not work for all.

Is ultrarunning coaching as far advanced as say middle distance track ?

No. The sport of ultra running at the elite, high performance level is still in its infancy, thus coaching is still in its infancy. Ultra coaches can learn from middle distance and long distance coaches and apply what they learn to the ultra coaching. Middle distance running (800m-5km) and long distance running (10km-marathon) has only been at a truly international level over the last couple of decades. Every nation is into it in a big way and a world champion can come from any of the 200+ countries in the world in any distance. This includes those runners from the very poorest Asian, African and South American nations. In fact the very best runners have come from these nations in recent times. The depth of competition in every event is amazing, with literally hundreds of runners in each event coming within 3% of the top performers and thousands coming within 10%. Thousands of top runners in the world are full time athletes/professional. Ultra running stars still only come from wealthy countries and most of the competitors juggle their sport with full time work. Just a few are professional. I can see the sport of ultra running becoming more professional and once more prize money and endorsement money comes into the picture, you will get those 200+ countries far more involved. Think Kenya, Ethiopia, Brazil, Japan, etc and think lots of them; young, fit, fast and hungry for success.

World Masters Champion Keith Bateman and Coach Sean Williams - Image courtesy of Runners Tribe

Does an ultrarunning coach need to be a good ultrarunner?

Were Peter Coe, Arthur Lydiard and Percy Cerrutty good runners? No they were all average, but they were passionate about their sport and very willing to learn and help others improve. Having said that, I feel ultrarunning coaches are best off having some experience as competitors in the sport.

As a coach, what do you look for in terms of who would make a world class ultra runner ? Is it marathon time or mental/motivation etc?

I believe someone can only be tagged “world class” if the whole world are participating in that sport. At this point in history, there are only two sports in the world which are truly international- i.e. every country on the planet does it; they are soccer and running. But by “running” I mean 100m up to the marathon. Ultra running is still very much in the developing stages. If the current crop of 2.03 marathoners took on 100km or 100 mile ultras, they would tear the top ultra performers to shreds. They would literally take hours off race records at events like Western States 100. Show them around $1 million (as that is what the top marathoners attract with appearance money, sponsors money, and prize money combined for one marathon effort) and watch a migration of some amazing pedigree into ultras. So what will it take to make a world class ultra runner? A distance/marathon  runner’s build (men usually only weigh between 47kg and 60kg; women lighter), sound biomechanics, an ability to utilize both glucose and fat stores efficiently, a certain top end speed (the ability to sprint 100m in at least 12 seconds), be professional and have an very tough mindset.

So for those of you setting out your 2012 racing and running goals and have an ultra in mind and you feel you need some expert tuition, coaches like Sean can certainly take you up a notch or two.

Like our articles? Take a second to support Ultra168 on Patreon from as little as $1 a month!

20 thoughts on “How to Win C2K – A Coaches Perspective – Interview with Sean Williams

    1. It is going to happen one day Ian that is for sure and with new races adding big prize money, Sean’s predictions may yet come true.

      Funny thing though, is we often see the likes of road racers like Mike Wardian mix it up the front of the field in trail ultras, but we are yet to know what Kilian could possibly do with his genetic potential to a road marathon. I doubt we will ever find out, but would be interesting all the same.

  1. Not sure I totally agree with Sean on that one. There are quite a few sub 2:15 marathoners running ultras in the US and their marathon times dont necessarily translate into dominant 50 mile or 100 mile times – especially if they run hilly trail races. Uli Steidl (runs a 2:10 marathon) has run some very fast 50 milers but he can’t seem to finish a 100 miler. Most of his course records have been broken in recent years.

    Comrades is the classic race for attracting guys who have very fast marathon times but, because they often don’t know what they are doing, they crash and burn at half way.

    Yannis Kouros’ PB was a 2:35 marathon but he could string 3 or 4 sub 2:55s back to back. He had an X factor that made him the greatest ultra runner in history and it wasn’t because he was the greatest marathoner. He had an ability to run fast for hour upon hour and not all marathoners have that.

    1. You raise a couple of good points Charlie, but what happens when ultras become as well organised and have the big dollars to throw at elite road runners, will we see a marked improvement in times ? IMO Absolutely, because these runners will focus on a single A race for the year like they do now for the road stuff. Take Wardian and Uli Steidl, they raced heaps in any calendar year. Imagine the day coming when all they train for is WS100 and not the Olympics ? One can dream 😉

  2. Excellent article with some great points… but how does your average runner find a coach to help them to the next level. If you are elite it is no problem, the coaches are there for you. I am strictly a trail runner these days, mainly halfs with the odd marathon thrown in. I have toyed with the idea of doing an ultra… but at 52yrs old, I would need to be coached correctly or it could literally kill me. I need someone month to month to help me plan my running, nutrition and all the other bits.

    1. Hi Mike, thanks for your comments.

      Coaches like Sean actually have more beginners in his training squads than elites, that is the law of averages I suppose. He runs his sessions at differing times for differing abilities. I am sure on your side of the ditch there are similar coaches to Sean? He coaches a number of runners by correspondence and at all abilities with great results so he maybe able to put you intouch with someone. I have asked him to come onto this forum and respond to some of the comments.

      As for stepping up to ultras, a quick chat with medicos to get the all clear and then find a reputable coach, a bunch of mates to train on the trails with and anything is possible IMO.

  3. good point Charlie. However, were the sub 2.15 marathoners in sub 2.15 shape when racing ultras. How many of these sub 2.15 marathoners were there and what are their names? I would be surprised if someone in 2.14 shape would line up in an ultra with no prize money or chance to line up in a major championship like Olympics or World Championships. 2.14 marathoners are on the fringe of cracking it in the big time in marathons.

    You have to remember that 2.08 marathoner Alberto Salazar won Comrades at his only attempt at an ultra, and Comrades would have the most depth of any ultra field on the planet- why? decent prize money and tremendous profit to be made from endorsements as well. The fact is though, that Salazar was well past his prime when he won this ultra. What could he have run if in 2.08 shape?

    Looking at IAAF world rankings the past couple of years, they go approximately 250 deep. It takes a time of around 2hr12min to be ranked 250th marathoner in the world.

    I agree that Yiannis Kouros had an X factor and that he is the greatest ultra runner in history. His conversion rates are excellent for a 2.35 marathoner. Marshall Ulrich mentioned in his book RUNNING ON EMPTY that he had an “out of body experience” just once in his life. It was when he was racing Badwater on one of many occasions in his life. He wrote, ” About 35 miles into the Badwater Ultramarathon one year I saw the sun setting in front of me, and then had the oddest sensation, as if I was floating over my body and watching myself run. It was over in the blink of an eye, but when I regained normal consciousness the sun was rising behind me and I was down the road 50 miles. It made me think of the Native Americans, the drifting spirits. I didn’t want to make it sound weird, but it was weird.
    Yiannis was matter of fact (when he heard about this). ‘Oh it happens to me all the time’ ”

    So Kouros obviously had an amazing skill to block out the pain by experiencing these grand hallucinations, possibly reaching some form of transcendence.

    Ultra runners often mention how tough you have to be to complete ultras. Well the elite 5000m, 10000m, half marathon and marathon runners in 2011 are the toughest buggers I know, as well as the most talented. Once ultras become more commercial, just watch this tough, talented breed take over.

    Vizey, good point about Kilian. Current top ultra runner Kilian is just a glimpse of what is about to come in the ultra world. He may not have a super fast marathon to his name, but I bet he could run a decent marathon if put to the test and that was his focus. Bottom line is he is talented to run long distances, plus he is tough!

    1. Thanks Sean, I was in no way suggesting that the 5,000, 10,000, 1/2 marathoners or marathoners were not tough enough to race ultras. I am aware as to how hard those guys train and how dedicated they are (had a chat to BS-L at the HuRTs drinks just the other night – he didn’t have one beer!). I was just questioning the assumption that just because you are a top marathoner you will be a great ultra runner. No doubt some will but, I would argue also, that some wont. I also question the assumption that “hours will be taken off” the course records of races like WS100 because there is more than just speed that is required to run these races fast; you need to be able to run up and down mountains, deal with the heat and the cold, altitude, plan nutrition, hydration, electrolytes, deal with wet shoes, chafing, blisters, battle through down periods, run over snow, rocks, roots, creaks and on top of all that – cover the distance. It is a far cry from racing a flat-as-a-pancake marathon course. And just like Mottram has never coverted his 3k and 5k times into a world class 10,000m time – many of these marthoners wont do it. Ryan Day had the fastest marathon PB (2:17) at the recent North Face 50 miler in San Fran – probably the most competitive ultra in North America – and the winner Mike Wolf beat him by 46 minutes.

      Dont get me wrong, times will come down just not by the “hours” that you suggest.

      I remember when Steve Moneghetti ran Kepler a couple of years ago I thought he would smash it, he had just run 30:08 for 10k and broken his age group world record. Instead he ran a pretty ordinary time and said afterwards it was the hardest thing he had ever done. Past his prime – for sure – but still a great runner nonetheless.

      1. I was racing Kepler the year Moneghetti was racing and I echo what you had to say Charlie. We saw each other and chatted before the race and he was pretty pumped about racing this big hill hard. Saw him in the pub later that day and swear to god he looked half dead. He indeed said it was the hardest thing he has ever done. Sean Williams then told me at one of his training cams that Moners was getting DOMS from Kepler 2 weeks later. Specificity is so crucial. That reminds me, I must find something a little steeper than the Woolloomooloo stairs if I am to stand a chance at B2H

  4. Great interview guys and thanks for sharing all your knowledge Sean. I definitely agree with you about the changing of the guard when it comes to the new breed of ultra runners. The growing sponsorship opportunities, cash prizes (in the US) and higher profile that the long races are offering will see younger, more talented runners on the scene.

    I especially think that this will be more prevalent in the US, given the lack of running options for the bulk of graduating collegiate runners. There is no real amateur running scene apart from the big marathons and so many will be turning their attention to what is ultimately more enjoyable for many of the them – long trail runs. Though I still think the main factor holding back these young guys is the stigma that all ultras are just glorified bushwalks.

    Regardless, I agree that we should all be cashing in on the glory and front end field finishes while we can before the real studs take over.

    Cheers for the interview, the best yet I reckon.

  5. I really enjoy listening/reading about what Sean has to say.

    He is right about fast marathoners coming into ultras. They would certainly ‘rip shreds’ off existing times. Guys like me are just lucky that the real athletes aren’t interested in ultras or trail/mountain running. At the moment, we all look good because we are big ducks in a little pond, however, the trend is shifting. It will be interesting to see what Rowan Walker can do at TNF100 next year. However, until ultra or trail running is an Olympic sport, or there is a bit of money to be made in it, it will never attract the calibre of athlete that track and marathons do.

    The Alberto Salazar example is a good one to look at. He was primarily a road marathoner, so no surprise he made the transition to Comrades easily, especially as it is a road ultra. On the other hand, I had direct experience at this year’s Commonwealth where there were 5 sub 2:25 marathoners who all bombed out/got injured due to not respecting the extra distance and the terrain of the course. I do believe a quick runner is a quick runner and you can never take that away from then regardless of what distance they favour, but you do have to train specifically for the race distance and conditions. A runner may be fast but if they don’t have the strength in their legs to run up and down mountains all day in a trail 100ker or 100 miler, or don’t have the ticker for it, they won’t succeed, regardless of their marathon PB.

    To highlight this again, Matt Carpenter, the elite US mountain runner had a crack at Leadville 100 miler and bombed out majorly at his first attempt, probably not getting the nutrition right (a massive element of 100 milers), or not respecting the extra distance (he was leading by a long long way. The next year he came back and smashed the race record by 90 minutes and no one since has come close. He has a marathon PB of 2:12-2:145 from memory, so this backs up what Sean is saying, although he did obviously train more specifically for the 100 miler the second time around.

    So, in the meantime, as Lance sadi let’s keep picking up the scraps the elites leave behind and be grateful that our sport is still, refreshingly, a very amateur sport.

    Now if Sean is right, there could be a market for a good ultra coaches in the future…

  6. Even trail to road to track amongst ultra marathoners is highly variable.

    Yiannis Kouros has a Western States trail 100 mile pb of 20:13.

    This is a guy who can run 473km in 48 hours just goes to show that it’s not a forgone conclusion that a fast 3/5/10km equals a fast marathon in the same way a fast road ultra runner does not equal a fast trail 100 mile runner.

    Take Kouros’ 6 day record of 1,036.8km at 7.2km/hr – that would give him a WS100 time of 22:20 at his average 6 day pace. Not far off his actual PB at WS100. And you would assume Yiannis knew a thing or two about nutrition, foot care, staying awake at night, pacing. So is he purely just a flat road specialist? Doubt it – Sydney to Melbourne had a few hills in it.

    The transition to trail 100 milers from flat running is tricky. Without naming names there are more than enough people who can run fast around a marathon or a track / road circuit for 12 hours / 24 hours who haven’t translated that to C2K, and that’s road for road comparison. It’s even more compelling if you look at leading AURA runners at trail races.

    However, if you were to say to Sean – “What would you prefer? A fast short distance runner or a mentally tough plodder who can go 100 miles, Sean will take the fast runner everyday and turn them into a fast trail 100 mile ultra runner – but he might need 10 fast runners to be able to get two or three to the start line and then perhaps one to the finish line ahead of the plodder – who knows?

  7. Good points Vizey. Fascinating stat about Kouros. I wasn’t aware that he did anything other than road and track ultras. I would hazard a very rough guess and say that he probably wasn’t conditioned for the terrain, altitude and different running style needed for a tough trail 100 miler. From my thinking his success was all about long rhythm running and you just don’t get that for very long in trail running, which is a beautiful aspect of the sport, and does take some time to master as you would know.

  8. I think the athlete not doing Ultras at the moment who could have the biggest impact on times on Australian courses is Pete Jacobs. He has the legs speed and can produce ridiculous marathon times having just jumped off a 180km bike leg.

    The cycling he has in his legs would be a massive advantage in terms of leg strength over some of the hillier courses on offer. Im sure if you ask Artup, he would tell you his background on the bike was a significant factor in his 6ft time in 2009.

    Just some thoughts really

  9. It’s interesting the range of marathon PB’s accredited to Kouros. I understand from his own website that his PB was closer to 2.25 (though that may have been on the shorter, though tough,~40K, Marathon-Athens course)
    Also his Western States time was set merely days after one of his 48 hour World Records.

Leave a Reply