Katie Schide winning the 2022 Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc was an emotional rollercoaster for all involved, myself included. As her coach, I’m overjoyed for Katie, but not just because she prevailed. The backstory is as special for me as the victory. It’s a story of the transformation she made to her training over the past year, the way she adapted to adversity, and the way she executed on race day.
Changes in training
When I started working with Katie this past December, she was already an accomplished athlete with two top-10 finishes in UTMB and wins in top-tier ultras. She decided she wanted to make some changes to her training, and I was happy to help. I want to be clear: Katie was an excellent athlete to start with. The training changes we made helped develop her natural talent but by no means were the sole key to her success.
Taking a training inventory is one of my first steps when I start working with a new athlete. Katie’s training had worked to get her to an already-high level in ultrarunning. My job was to find opportunities that could elevate her performance even further.
Changing the concentration of stimulus was one of the most substantial changes we made to Katie’s training. Previously, she had used what I sometimes refer to as a “peanut butter spread” approach. Weeks followed a pretty standard routine that tried to cover the full spread of volume and intensity. You see this when athletes say they run intervals on Tuesdays and Thursdays, endurance on Wednesdays, hills on Saturdays, and do a long run on Sundays. Every week.
With many elite athletes who are looking to improve, there’s a tendency just to do more. Take what made you successful and add to it. Doing 80 miles per week? Bump that up to 90. Ninety didn’t work as well as you wanted to? Let’s make it 100. This maddening cycle can work, to an extent, if they can handle the additional volume without injury or significant downtime. But many times, it backfires. Worse yet, they often don’t realize the error until it’s too late. As a result, what I decided to do with Katie was to keep her volume more or less the same. At the same time, I reorganized the overall training into a block style structure. She focused on one particular intensity for several weeks before moving on to the another stimulus.
Block training shifts the peanut butter spread structure to concentrate training stimulus on specific aspects of fitness and performance for a few to several weeks. (read more on block training) On the whole, we did not change Katie’s weekly training hours, or really her training frequency. What changed was the focus of her training and the number of sessions and intervals she performed during training blocks.
To Skimo and Back
Skimo represented another big shift in Katie’s training. She wanted to try skimo and I saw it as a good opportunity to get in plenty of VO2 max work in the winter, long before the competition season. This is the right time for ultrarunners to do VO2 max work. It is important for maximizing aerobic capacity, so later and closer to the event you have the engine to perform high quality long, sustained training efforts that are more specific to the demands of ultrarunning.
Skimo was also a new activity for her, which I also viewed as an advantage. She had a well developed cardiovascular engine honed through years of training yet was relatively underdeveloped with the specific skills required for skimo such as negotiating descents on skinny skis and transitioning from the ups to the downs. This dichotomy of being very good in one area and not in another was an opportunity to practice racing with some level of adversity and frustration, something she could lean on in future races.
Skimo was great for Katie, but we had to be careful about transitioning back to more running in the spring. The time on skis resulted in a slight mismatch between her cardiovascular fitness and musculoskeletal conditioning. Essentially, she had the cardiorespiratory fitness to run faster and longer than her legs were ready for after months on skis. Fortunately, Katie was patient and the transition proceeded without injury.
Last-minute Pre-Race Changes
Leading into Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc, Katie endured an emotional roller coaster that threatened to upend her entire race. A housemate came down with COVID in the days before the race. Everything seemed fine when I left the US, but by the time I arrived in Chamonix and called Katie, she was in tears
Knowing Katie was double vaccinated and had COVID earlier in the year, I knew she had a strong defense system, but I wanted to work with the facts. So, I promptly bought several rapid COVID testing kits and headed to her house, where she tested negative. I strongly recommended we change her environment and offered her space in the house I was sharing with other coaches and athletes.
Katie agreed and we moved her to our house. My housemates sprung into action to make her feel welcome, comfortable, and at ease. Their efforts paid off, and within a few hours Katie was visibly less stressed, smiling, and able to focus on her race. She deserves a lot of credit for her adaptability through a stressful situation. Many athletes would have resisted suggestions from anyone and would have retreated to the environment they were most familiar with, even if that environment was the source of stress.
Race day ups and downs
Everyone familiar with the race day play-by-play knows that Katie started out fast. For a while she was about 30 minutes under course record time and far ahead of second place. Then the proverbial wheels started coming off the wagon. Canadian Marianne Hogan caught and passed Katie and quickly built a 40-minute lead. Watching the live feed as Katie gradually approached my location, I honestly wasn’t sure what to do, or if this was even something that could be turned around.
I realized what to do when I watched on the live stream as Katie entered the La Fouly aid station. I noticed her demeanor, the way she carried herself, and how she was interacting with people. She was still in the fight. She was working the problem and fully engaged in finding solutions. This was not a defeated runner. We could turn this around!
ADAPT in Action
In “Training Essentials for Ultrarunning” (and this article), I described a method I use for teaching athletes to handle adversity. The acronym ADAPT stands for Accept, Diagnose, Analyze, Plan, Take Action. Katie knew she was in trouble, but was working the steps. I found out after the race that at a particularly low moment, a man she knew was nearby and recommended she put on her jacket. The jacket had no relevance to the problems she was experiencing, but putting on a jacket was something she could control. It was a step toward helping herself out of the rough patch, and sometimes that’s all you need to do. Just get the ball rolling.
As I watched her in the aid station, I observed she was only eating what appeared to be bread and butter or cheese. Lots of it. So, now it was my turn to ADAPT. A shift to bread and butter wasn’t on the nutrition plan. But Katie had worked through her options and determined bread and butter were working.
As she picked up speed on her way to my location, I ran out to the local market and bought a variety of bread, butter and other sources of fuel that were not on her previous plan. When she arrived at the aid station where I was, I told her I noticed she’d deviated from the plan, asked her to explain what was working for her, and then we came up with a new plan on the spot.
A Special Victory
Winning Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc is huge. If you are not as familiar with the international ultrarunning scene, UTMB is the apex ultrarunning event worldwide. For individual sports (as opposed to team sports), it’s similar to a professional triathlete winning Ironman Kona.
Katie Schide’s victory at UTMB was one of the coolest coaching and crewing experiences of my coaching career to date. From the beginning, she was open to making significant changes to her approach to training, recovery, nutrition, and mental preparation. She put in the work, day in and day out, month after month. She showed that an elite athlete can achieve substantial improvements by focusing on the fundamentals.
Right before the biggest performance of her career (so far), she handled major emotional stress and a move to an unfamiliar environment surrounded by mostly strangers. And then during the race, she went from leading to trailing by a long way, only to fight her way back and win by more than an hour.
The Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc was an emotional rollercoaster for all involved, myself included. I’m overjoyed for Katie, not just because she prevailed, but because of the transformation she made to her training over the past year, the way she adapted to adversity, and the way she executed on race day.
Head Coach of CTS Ultrarunning, author of “Training Essentials for Ultrarunning”