By David Henry, CTS Ultrarunning Coach
I ran the 2017 Quad Dipsea ultramarathon and it provided the perfect illustration for some simple lessons in race pacing. The Quad is a “fun” ultra spin on the traditional Dipsea Trail that runs the route from Old Mill Park in Mill Valley, CA to Stinson Beach and back, twice, covering 28.4 miles and 9200ft of climbing and descending. Because it’s a double out-and-back it is a great test of pacing techniques. The first and third legs are identical, as are the second and fourth, and of course, the first and second halves are also identical. After hours of running over familiar ground, here are my four simple and smart pacing tips (hopefully you’ll be smarter than I was…)
WHEN IN DOUBT, SLOW DOWN!
If there is one thing I’ve learned running ultramarathons, it’s that there is always plenty of time to go hard. Even in a 5-hour race, which is on the shorter end for an ultra, you can wait a long time and still have plenty of time left to make yourself hurt at the end of the race. In the buildup to the Quad I had been fighting an ankle issue and it was still present enough on race day, which helped to temper my enthusiasm out of the gates. This worked out in my favor, encouraging me to run a very relaxed first lap. While it felt initially like I wasn’t even running a race, that first lap still ended up being my fastest lap on the day. Let that sink in a moment… I felt like I was out for a recovery run and still couldn’t top that first 7.1 mile lap, so: When in doubt, slow down!
WHEN YOU’RE READY TO PUSH, WAIT!
After the first lap and the u-turn back up the climb out of Stinson Beach, I started to feel really good. I was warmed up and out in the Marin Headlands on a beautiful day on the historic Dipsea Trail. “Let’s Go!” I thought. Fortunately, even though I’m not that smart (I did sign up for this race, after all) I’ve done of enough ultras to remember there is always plenty of time to hurt. I was only 1.5 hrs in; it wasn’t time to do anything but chill out and wait. On thing to remember about ultra-endurance events is that regardless of whether you feel great or terrible, neither sensation will last very long. Patience and perseverence will serve you well.
DON’T GO TO THE WELL TOO EARLY!
The first time heading up the climb from Old Mill Park to Cardiac on lap one I told myself I was going to run the same split on the lap three. While this provided a good carrot to wait to push until the second half, I made a critical error in the process. It turns out the Quad is 4 laps of the Dipsea trail… weird how that works, right? So, while I met my goal of running a faster split on the 3rd lap compared the first (running a 50:01 on the 3rd compared to a 50:19 starting out), I went too deep, too early and still had 10 miles and 2500ft of climbing to go. Repeat after me: There is plenty of time to hurt in an ultra! I set an arbitrary goal that, while helpful in running a solid 3rd lap, was placed too early in the race and I didn’t realize my mistake until it was too late. This should also provide a great illustration of why it’s important to establish a pacing plan ahead of time, instead of thinking it up on the fly.
WHEN IT’S TIME TO HURT, MAKE IT HURT!
The story of my 4th lap can be summed up with this: you can’t uncook what’s been cooked. The good news is there are shades between something that is perfect golden brown and charred beyond recognition. Even though I had turned up the heat too early, I still had some time to make some adjustments before the finish.
Even though most of ultra race pacing is about realizing there is plenty of time to hurt (see above), at some point you have to go all in and make it hurt. While I cooked myself a bit too early at the Quad and didn’t have much left, the typical time and place to do dig deep in an ultra is usually in the last hour or two. Whether you’re at the front of the race and pushing for the win, or closer to the back and pushing to make it in before the time cut, the final few hours are when you’re going to need to dig really deep. To get it done you’re going to need to have something left in the tank. This is where all that patience from earlier portions of the race pays off.
Late in your race, digging deep is mostly an exercise in staying mentally engaged. You’re fighting fatigue and aren’t likely to actually start running faster. Rather, going all in in for the final few hours is a matter of not slowing down, or at least not slowing down as much. The patience you displayed earlier in the race will not only help you with physical energy, but also the mental energy necessary to stay engaged and committed all the way to the finish line. When it starts to hurt that, remember you chose to sign up for an ultra because you wanted to be in this spot and find out what you are made of.