By Jason Koop,
Head Coach of CTS Ultrarunning
Earlier this month I had the honor of crewing and pacing one of my athletes at the Bigfoot 200, which is first leg of the Triple Crown of 200s. Two-hundred milers present a different set of stressors and require different race strategies (as discussed in my recent podcast with a few of our coaches). As if the 200-mile distance wasn’t enough, the conditions at the Bigfoot 200 were brutal. Temperatures soared above 90 degrees in the first day, which forced athletes off their pacing and nutrition plans from the get-go. Many athletes succumbed to the heat and overall stress of the race, as reflected by the finish rate of less than 60%, with many dropping out after the first day. Across our group of CTS Coaches, we had a total of 6 athletes participating in the race and I’m happy to say that all of them finished. They represented a wide swath of experience levels, from former Triple Crown of 200s finisher to first timers, and they finished near the front, middle, and back of the pack.
As a post-mortem to the race, I had our coaches put together some learning lessons from a successful weekend. Although the experience and performance levels of our athletes were broad, their successes were connected by some points of commonality that all athletes can learn from.
Start at the 30,000 ft level, zoom in from there
At times, ultramarathons can seem daunting. There’s always a gap between what you can practically actually train for and what you experience on race day (more on this concept from the Trainright Podcast here). In a marathon, that gap is 4-6 miles (the distance from a prototypical long run of 20-22 miles to the race distance). In a 100-mile ultra, that gap might be 50 miles. In 200’s, that gap can literally be days. Because of this vast unknown, coach Duncan Callahan had his three runners start from the big picture and then zoom in from there:
- How long will this take me? 85 hours
- Home many days is 85 hours? 5 days
- How many hours of sleep will I need? 4-6 hours
- How many calories will I need? 17,000-28,000
- Where will I get those calories from? 50% from drop bags, 50% from the aid station
All too often, athletes get caught up in too much nuance (where am I going to sleep? Do I need a bivouac, or can I use an aid station?) before answering the bigger questions (how much sleep will I need in total?). This nuance-driven planning approach leads to confusion and an endless game of ultramarathon whack-a-mole, as there are too many gaps to fill and not enough time plan for the myriad of contingencies. By starting out with the big picture, you have an overall framework to operate from that can be adjusted depending on how the day actually goes. The relatable point for ultrarunners preparing for any race is: when you are planning your race strategy, start general (how many calories do I need?), and then move to specifics (am I going to eat a gel or a banana?), not the other way around.
You have permission to walk
CTS Athlete and aspiring Triple Crown of 200’s finisher Ken Lewis had a strategy to walk just about the entire 200 miles. He did just that and finished in 103 hours. Ken’s strategy came about after working with his coach Andy Jones-Wilkins and realizing that:
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- Training had not gone perfectly due to an injury (how many of you reading this can relate?)
- The early race heat made walking a more favorable choice
- Simple math says you can walk 20-30 min/mile and sleep for 7-8 hours total and still finish within the race’s cutoff of 107 hours. (Seriously, this is not that complicated).
The learning lesson here is that if you are looking to finish an ultra, look at the minimum pace required to get that done. Chances are, you don’t have to run any portion of the race at anything near Eliud Kipchoge speed. You might not need to run any of it at all if you are efficient in aid stations and you walk and hike purposefully. In Ken’s case, walking was the right choice. It was appropriate for the reality of his training and prevented any catastrophic failure stemming from lack of calories, a fall, or overheating.
Above all, adapt
In what is surely the millionth time I have written about adapting to ultramarathon situations, the Bigfoot 200 served as a ground zero for having this strategy play out in real life. Because of the near record-setting heat, every single runner in the race slowed by several hours, and sometimes even a day or two. The athletes who were laser focused on precise points of their race plan (like sleeping at a particular aid station) at a particular moment in time (2 AM, EXACTLY) or being able to access their magical pancakes at exactly 3 AM, all of the sudden had their plans turned upside down. They found themselves several hours away from whatever preconceived notion of support they had mapped out on what was surely a spreadsheet with no fewer than 18 colors. The smart athletes threw out the detail of previously prepared plans and refocused on the big picture (like Duncan’s athletes above).
Remember those big picture questions at the beginning of the article? When you must adapt, the answers to those broad questions provide guideposts for where to take your plan next. For example, if you know you need 4-6 hours of sleep you can be opportunistic about when you take those slumbers. The athlete I was pacing was originally planning on sleeping at the end of the second night but shifted his sleep schedule to the end of the second day to avoid running for a few hours in the heat, as well as to accommodate for the additional duration of the event.
Ken Lewis planned on walking the entire 200 miles, but had to adapt his equipment. Hence, the “bivvy dress” he’s modeling in the featured image at the top of this blog post.
On the nutrition front, if you know you need 250 calories an hour you can compensate for the heat by taking in just 200 calories an hour during the hottest parts of the day (when your gastrointestinal system will be more prone to distress) and 300 calories an hour at night (when you get some relief from the heat and your stomach will be more receptive to more calories). It evens out in the end, but you only get to that answer if you approach it from the total number of calories you need over the entirety of the event.
As races go further and athletes test themselves across longer and longer distances, a premium will be placed on correct planning and execution of race strategies. Whatever your ultramarathon of choice, start your planning process with the big picture, work inward toward the specifics of your goals, and be willing to adapt if the situation dictates. Success can come in a variety of formats, even if means an extra day out on the trails, as it did for so many at Bigfoot.