By Jason Koop,
Head Coach of CTS Ultrarunning
The past seven weeks supporting Timothy Olson’s bid to set the fastest known time (FKT) on the Pacific Crest Trail-and the months of preparation beforehand-have been a huge test of endurance, and I wasn’t even the one doing the running! On paper, Tim’s accomplishment was tremendous: 2653 miles in 51 days, 16 hours, and 55 minutes – an average of 51.3 miles a day – to break an already fast record set by Karel Sabbe of 52 days, 8 hours, and 25 minutes. Being with Tim day in and day out and taking part in the support operations makes what he accomplished even more awe-inspiring. A lot of things had to go right and a ton of obstacles had to be overcome, and Tim and everyone on the crew learned many valuable lessons along the way. As I head back to Colorado to catch up on some sleep and get started on my next project, here are some of the lessons I’m going to take forward with the athletes I coach.
“Do what works until it stops working”
Before Tim’s FKT attempt we had a weeklong recon camp on the PCT, running a similar 50-miles-per-day schedule and trying to dial nutrition, hydration, and logistical routines. Once we got about a week into the actual event, the nutritional plans kind of went out the window. The recon camp was only 1/7th of the total duration of the challenge, which proved to be too little to base a nutritional plan on. On the trail we adopted the philosophy of sticking with foods or routines that were working until they stopped working, rather than trying to forecast what we thought might work in a few days. Similarly, we quit trying to take what was working and make it better. If it was working as it was, we let it be.
The lesson for ultra runners preparing for single day or 2- to 3-day events is that trying to optimize everything can get in the way of good execution. Perfect really is the enemy of good.
Put the athlete in the position of power
During events there are sometimes questions of whether the athlete is calling the shots or whether the crew is making decisions for the athlete. This leads to conflicts and confusion. To avoid this in an expedition-length endeavor, we decided to put Timothy in the position to call the shots and we would do our best to be ready to respond. The physical demand of the FKT attempt was so high that he was the only person who could completely understand what he needed. Our job wasn’t to make the attempt easier, but rather to make it less hard. No matter what we did from a support standpoint, he still had to run every mile and climb all the elevation.
The lesson for ultra runners is to agree on a decision making strategy between the runner and the crew. The times on the PCT when there was more tension or stress were when Timothy felt he needed to entertain or accomodate questions and suggestions from the crew. The smoothest times were when our behaviors gave him confidence in his decisions.
“Take what the terrain will give you”
Chasing an already-fast speed record is like an athlete chasing cutoff times in a one-day race. You can always do the math to determine if you are on pace or not, but you can’t accurately forecast how long it will take to complete the miles in front of you. For the FKT we knew roughly where the previous record holder finished each day, so we could use those daily markers to monitor Timothy’s progress. Even so, we didn’t tell Timothy whether he was ahead or behind record pace very often; we saved that information for when he really needed a kick of motivation.
In the last two weeks Tim was ahead of record pace and we knew he just needed to run 50 miles a day to break the record. The idea of “take what the terrain will give you” came from the fact that some miles on the PCT are easier than others, but the information available about mile-by-mile conditions is scarce an unreliable. Tim knew he could hit 50 miles and be done for the day, or he could keep going if he felt good and the trail was easy and push for 55 or 60 miles. If, however, the going was rough and slow, he didn’t feel the pressure to push through – which would have made the day longer, reduced time for sleep or recovery, and potentially cost him miles the following day.
The lesson for ultrarunners is to take what the terrain will give you. If you can run a faster pace for a few extra miles because of the weather or trail conditions, take advantage of that. If the weather or terrain are not cooperating, get the job done but then recognize you don’t have to push for more (speed or distance) if pushing for more is going to increase your risk of injury, fatigue, or lost time.
Train your weaknesses, race your strengths
Timothy’s strength is running, as opposed to hiking or backpacking, so we took steps to keep him in his strengths and minimize the time he spent hiking or carrying a pack. We tried to find places where the van could get closest to the PCT so he could get to his gear and food and family more quickly at the end of each day. This was also the rationale for a more structured approach to daily mileage. We wanted him to spend as much time running as possible. Many previous attempts used a strategy of: “How far can we get each day?”, whereas we managed the length of the days based–in part–on how much of the trail we believed Tim could run effectively.
The lesson for ultra runners is to shore up your weaknesses through training, but when it comes to competition, race to your strengths.
I’m sure I’ll have more lessons and takeaways from this incredible experience, but for now I am grateful to Timothy for trusting me to get him ready for and support him through such an epic adventure.