By Jason Koop,
CTS Coaching Director
Author of “Training Essentials for Ultrarunning”
Early in my coaching career, I had a rule of fours. If I had four athletes in any particular race, I’d figure out a way to be there. The rule was largely an economic one, as I could only rationally afford to travel to a few races a year to accomplish the rudimentary task of sitting endlessly under aid station tents and hand out gels. I later learned that rule was a big mistake, and now I travel to every race I can, economics be damned. Since abandoning my rule of fours, I’ve learned being at races makes an impact for athletes. Sure, most of the work is hanging out under aid station tents and handing out gels, but the value goes far beyond stuffing a few hundred calories into a sweaty hydration vest.
As most of my coaching is done remotely, simply having a presence at the race – the culmination of the athlete’s training – has a profound effect. Coaches can be there to provide a kick in the pants, a shoulder to cry on or just a friendly face in the middle of a very long day. It’s also the show of support that matters, not necessarily any functional need. As one of our coaching clichés go, your athletes don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. Endlessly waiting under aid station tents in obscure locations simply to give out some calories and a pat on the back is certainly one of the ways I can show I care.
Over the course of 15 years, I’ve spent countless hours, thousands of dollars and a lifetime of zero sleep nights in these endeavors. I don’t regret any of it. While I love irunfar’s Twitter updates and on-line runner tracking, I’d just rather be there myself. I can confidently say the time and resources have paid off one hundred fold by improving my abilities as a professional coach and my relationships with athletes and the ultrarunning community.
2018 Western States 100 Setup
As the annual Western States 100 lottery and subsequent ordered waitlist unfolded, it was clear we would have over a dozen CTS Athletes in the race. The list of CTS athletes would include previous winners, first timers, aspiring silver bucklers and those seeking any finish possible. Led by the enthusiasm of 10-time finisher and CTS Coach Andy Jones-Wilkins, we quickly hatched a plan to go ‘all in’ for these athletes in their individual Western States quests. As a coaching group, we discussed training, nutrition, and specific heat adaptation strategies for the race. We held informational webinars for our athletes, flew our whole coaching staff out to the event, and I drove our company van and camp equipment from our Santa Ynez, CA location to Squaw.
The investment of time and resources paid dividends. All totaled, we ended up supporting 12 CTS Athletes athletes and 2 coaches on race day. Thirteen got to the finish line on the Placer High School Track (for an astonishing 93% finish rate), 8 of them earned the coveted silver buckle (62%, wow!) and 3 women placed in the top 10. Each of these was a priceless result that did not happen by accident. How did all of these athletes, from many backgrounds and with varying goals have such a high success rate?
Get to the starting line
More than 30 people initially selected to run in this year’s race choose not to start. This is a testament to the fact that simply getting to the starting line is a challenge. Training is hard and runners succumb to injuries every year. Some studies suggest up to 79% of runners will suffer an injury while training for their event. Out of the 16 CTS athletes chosen for the race, only two had to withdraw. One for pregnancy (see Western States new pregnancy deferral policy here) and one with an injury. I’d call that a win.
Put fitness first
It goes without saying that you need to train for these events. One hundred mile races such as Western States 100 require runners to be prepared for everything. Nutrition, fitness, gear, the ability to cope with extreme heat, and the mind all need to be honed during months of preparation. Fitness is the key, and when you have greater fitness you have more bandwidth to deal with unforeseen challenges on race day. You see this ‘fitness first’ strategy play out in all of the strategies below. For example, our heat acclimatization/acclimation strategy is positioned in an athlete’s list of priorities to maximize fitness and minimize the impact on day-to-day training.
Our athletes did a variety of workouts. High-intensity VO2 max running intervals, lactate threshold focused Tempo runs, and endurance based Steady State Runs and Endurance Runs. While there is much debate in the coaching world about polarized training vs. threshold training vs. base training vs. pyramidal training vs. any other scheme you can come up with, our athletes’ training focused on one simple principle: Do the most specific things last and the least specific things first.
Fast, high-intensity workouts with less volume were positioned early in the year and less intense workouts with more volume were integrated as the race approached. Simple as that. All of this was aimed at improving our athletes’ overall fitness generally through the year and improving race-specific fitness closer to the race. Eighth place women’s finisher Aliza Lapierre started her year in January and February with high intensity Running Intervals (4 to 6 intervals of 3-4 min each) and a total weekly volume of about 10 hours per week. Closer to the race, she was doing Steady State intervals of 45-60 min and nearly 15 hours per week of total volume.
Do a camp
One of the essential activities we do with our athletes is to have them complete a specific training camp leading into the event. The camp can be a great opportunity to build some miles and vertical, test out nutrition strategies and, in some cases, get feet on the course itself. Our athletes used a combination of camps they arranged near their own training grounds, the official Western States 100 training cam,p and camps we put on in Asheville and Colorado Springs.
Train for the heat, but do it reasonably
This year’s Western States was the 9th hottest on record. Temperatures in some areas of the course were in excess of 100 degrees. Without knowing exactly how hot it was going to be, we knew heat would be a factor. To prepare, our coaches had athletes go through a variety of different heat acclimatization/acclimation protocols. While there are many out there, we focused on three tried and true methods. In order of priority they are:
- Using the natural environment: CTS Athlete and 12th place female finisher Kaci Lickteig just happened to have an early summer of training in Omaha that was marked with numerous 90+ degree heat days. For her, no additional heat training was necessary. Her natural environment was enough. I will say, however, that if the temperature had dropped a few degrees I would have had her go in the sauna, which is our second most preferred method.
- Using the sauna: I remember partaking in some unusual and extreme heat training tactics when I first started working with a number of athletes training for the Badwater 135. For whatever reason, runners were so paranoid about the heat they would do anything to train for it. Notoriously, they would put a treadmill in a 180-degree sauna, strap on several layers of clothing and then start running, as if the combination of strategies would somehow be greater than the sum of its parts. Fortunately, since then we learned a simpler sauna protocol is much more effective. Just get in for 20-30 min after your normal run. No treadmills, no extra clothes, no frills. That’s all you need. Running before entering the sauna reduces the timeframe you need to create necessary adaptations. It also interferes less with the training, thus allowing an athlete to continue to focus on developing fitness.
- Overdressing: If, for whatever reason, an athlete can’t train in a naturally hot environment nor get in the sauna, overdressing can certainly do the trick. We kept these runs to less than 90 min with 3-4 layers of various long sleeved tops and long pants.
In any case, all forms of heat training are an additional stress. Therefore, overall workload needs to be reduced during this timeframe.
Create flexible nutrition strategies
Another strategy we used across the board was a nutrition strategy that included flexible fluid targets and sources of calories. Flexibility is always a good thing, but is particularly necessary when the race is long, calorie needs are high, taste preferences will change and, most importantly, fluid requirements vary throughout the day. At some points, fluid requirements can vary as much as three to four-fold, depending on the athlete and the strategy. As a result, we had athletes experiment in training with everything. From the most scientifically engineered products to gas station Little Debbie snacks, very few things were off the table. Through this training process of trial and error, each athlete developed a plan that was relatively static in calories per hour (200-300 cal/hour, every hour) but dynamic in fluid requirements (16-48 oz per hour, which varied throughout the day). The most important thing was that this was developed in training. In the days before the race, there was little to add or subtract from the plan because so much attention had been paid to developing the plan in the first place.
Downhill work: a little goes a long way
Western States is a net downhill course, meaning the vertical feet of descending are greater than the vertical feet of ascending. Because of this, there is a lot of muscular damage and quads get trashed. Coach Adam St. Pierre had his athletes do specific downhill sessions, but surprisingly very little of it. The two athletes he coached for the race were classic flatlanders, hailing from Maryland. Neither had a hill they could descend for more than 2 minutes. Adam had his athletes prepare for the 23,970 feet of descending with just 4 specific downhill sessions. Each session contained 20 one-minute hard climbs followed by a hard descent. That’s still only 80 min of focused downhill work for the entire period of training leading up to the Western States 100. Not a lot. I hear a lot of training stories and strategies focused on long, hard, fast and repeated downhill efforts. The combination of “long, hard, fast and repeated” in regard to downhill sessions is misguided at best and reckless at worst. To prepare for descending, a little goes a long way.
If you have a time goal, maximize efficiency in the aid stations
CTS Athlete Patrick Meskell finished in 23:44:50, barely 15 min faster than his 24-hour time goal. Speaking to him after the race, one quote stuck out: “If I spent just one minute extra at each aid station, I would have a smaller belt buckle.” During the race, his brother was assigned the singular task of keeping track of the time he spent in each aid station, making sure he remained in the aid no longer than 5 minutes. Like clockwork, he would punch his stopwatch and the countdown would start: “3 minutes left… 2 minutes left… you have to be out of here in 60 seconds.” The rest of the crew was responsible for taking care of the other tasks, refilling bottles, changing gear, etc. This ensured his aid station time was efficient and effective. He used the time he needed to get the food, fluids and gear he needed while minimizing any wasted time. If you have a tight time goal, it’s worth your time to maximize efficiency in the aid stations.
CTS’ ‘Golden Hour’ finisher was Jennifer Raby. She finished in 29 hours and 11 minutes. Western States guru Andy Jones-Wilkins coaches her, and we paired them up knowing she would need his very specific Western States knowledge, as well as the race day toughness he could cultivate during training. As the day wore on, Jennifer battled the heat and a sour stomach. She inched closer and closer to the time cutoffs. True to form, Jennifer’s training came to the fore as she switched her focus on running aid station to aid station, and at one point just outright proclaiming: “I am NOT leaving this race without a buckle.” This type of determination is not magic. It is not pulled out of a hat on race day. It was intentionally cultivated by Andy’s strategy of spending two minutes training your mind for every one minute spent running.
Treat everyone as an individual
As a coaching group, we had many common training strategies and discussed our individual athletes’ training ad nauseam. Nevertheless, I can say with 100% confidence that no two training schedules were alike. Absolutely nothing was copied and pasted from athlete to athlete. There were no pre-built plans that were lazily regurgitated into athletes’ training schedules. Our athletes put too much time and effort into their training to use cookie cutter plans. The takeaway for all athletes is that, regardless of whether you have a coach or not, educate yourself and craft your own path. Blindly copying what your friend does, or what the elites do, is recipe for disaster. It is also one of the reasons you will rarely, if ever, find specific training plans in our ultrarunning blogs.
Fourteen athletes, thirteen finishers, eight silver buckles and six very tired coaches. This was the result from our 2018 Western States experience. It took 30 hours for the race to unfold, but a career’s worth of insight and education to achieve.