Last weekend at the 105-mile Ultra Trail Mt Fuji, Dylan Bowman chased Pau Capell, (winner of the 2018 Transgrancanaria) for 19 HOURS, and passed him just 3 miles from the finish line to take the win. He closed 27 minutes in the final 34 miles, 12 of those in the last 8 miles. My phone call with him after the finish was a lot of fun, and there are a couple takeaways I think all runners would benefit from.
Run Against Yourself
When I asked how he metered his effort with the gap to Pau getting bigger and smaller throughout the race, Dylan replied, “I was running as hard as I could to finish in the shortest time I could.” He didn’t mention deliberately trying to chase down the leader. And he specifically said his intent was to run hard and not get complacent once the gaps to the leader and the runners behind him expanded.
Sometimes having competitors to chase or stay ahead of can be motivating and lead to a breakthrough performance. More often, at least in ultrarunning, when there are handful of runners within 10 minutes of each other, they start running against each other, trying to accelerate away on climbs or take greater risks on descents. By the finish line, though, the winner is nearly always the runner who metered his personal effort the best. The runners who turn their attention to each other typically suffer for their effort.
Run your own race, and race with the intent to run hard. Push yourself to get to the finish line as fast as you can, and focus on making the best possible decisions on pacing, hydration, nutrition, etc. These are the things you can control, and the things that can put you in position to win or finish strong in your goal time.
You Don’t Know What’s Happening For Anyone Else
There are two potential narratives to explain Dylan’s come from behind win. The first is that Capell just crumbled in the final third of the race and slowed so much Dylan was able to catch up. The second is that both Dylan and Pau Capell were slowing, Pau didn’t suffer any kind of performance collapse, but Dylan just slowed less. The latter appears to be a more accurate narrative.
Dylan’s described his strategy for the final 30 miles of Ultra Trail Mt. Fuji as “emptying the well”. Due to the fact the course was pretty remote, there weren’t many fans on the course, and the language barrier, Dylan had very little information about time gaps or what was going on ahead or behind him. In that scenario, relying on external competitive stimuli for motivation can leave an athlete vulnerable. Yet, because he was racing with the intent to finish as fast as he possibly could, Dylan evaluated how much energy he had left to give and set about expending every last bit of it.
RPE is an ultrarunner’s greatest advantage
You can’t really say Dylan went faster in the last third of the race. Everyone slows down due to fatigue. But Dylan forced himself to go harder even if it didn’t translate to going faster. The ability to stay so focused and attuned to your own sensations after 15+ hours of racing has to be learned and trained through years of experience and hard work.
For years I’ve encouraged athletes to train and race predominantly by perceived exertion. I’m not a technophobe. Quite the contrary. I’m an early adopter of most new technologies out there. However, I have not seen any technology that does a better job than perceived exertion in terms of directing an athlete’s pace and effort level. Runners have to develop a highly refined understanding of how to adjust their effort level, hydration/nutrition strategy, and gear choices based on the conditions as they evolve and change.
Dylan trains by perceived exertion most of the time. Learning to gauge his efforts and make the right decisions took a number of years and a ton of mistakes, and he’s still learning, but now he can run hard for 19 hours because he knows how to stay close to the edge without going over it.