By Jason Koop,
Head Coach of CTS Ultrarunning
This past week, I had the pleasure, pain and privilege of running the Tor Des Geants in the Aosta valley of Italy. The race is a beast, boasting 24,000 M (78,741 feet) of climbing over 356 kilometers (221 miles). Within those miles is a variety of terrain from benign and flat to ridiculously steep and technical. It is a beautiful race, supported by the entire region and the connecting towns, all of whom come out with enthusiasm and hospitality to support the runners through the 150 hours the race allows for completion of the course. The race, and the process of preparing for it, was transformative for me personally. After taking some time to reflect (and catching up on some sleep), I found more than a few key takeaways I think are relevant for all athletes preparing for ultramarathons.
When I registered for this race, it honestly scared the shit out of me. It was difficult to wrap my head around the idea I would be in a race easily three times the duration of any other race I had ever done. Add to that the fact I’ve never raced outside of the US, am not very good on technical terrain, and turn into a whiny little baby if I get less than 8 hours of sleep a night, and it’s a recipe to ask, “Um, yeah Koop, why are you doing this again?”
The initial answer was pretty simple; I just wanted to see what I was made of, which is a purely internal and self centered reason to do a race. Fortunately, I came to realize that having a sole, internally focused reason is also a mistake. As time and training went along, motivation flagged a bit and the sheer “I want to see what I am made of” was not powerful enough to get me out the door. My original “Why” thus expanded to experience the region, to provide some inspiration to athletes I work with and athletes who follow this blog, and to hopefully learn something during the process that I can utilize in the future. Expanding the scope of my Why gave me a purpose in training and during the race itself, particularly when things got ugly (which they did).
When I am working with athletes, I council them a lot on the emotional connection they have with the events they are doing. Ultrarunning is always a difficult endeavor, and the more emotionally connected athletes are with the things they are doing the better they set themselves up for success. The Tor Des Geants was no different for me. I certainly had an emotional connection to the challenge, but as the training and race went along, I also found an emotional connection to the region, the people, and the desire pick up something useful for the future – all of which reinforced my personal Why.
The How – Training
To piece the training for this monster together, I divided my training into three distinct phases.
Phase 1: fitness still matters
In the winter months of January, February and March, I did copious amount of VO2 max work, much of which was uphill. I even did some back to back hard interval days. I had two staple workouts, one was 6X3 minutes hard, 3 min easy, the other a ladder of similar time at intensity: 1,2,3,4,5,4,3,2,1 minutes hard with equal recovery. The work was at the top of the intensity spectrum and the volume was relatively low (10 hours per week). To add to the intensity, I also entered our local winter series races which consisted of four low key races between 6 and 12 miles.
Phase 2: Ramping Up
April, May and June consisted of ramping up training volume as well as the amount of vertical I was doing. I still included some lactate threshold intervals (4X10 minutes with 5 min recovery was a staple workout) as well as some time trials up the Manitou Incline. During this phase, I also introduced some overnight runs and started testing out gear, such as packs, poles, lights and the like. Overall volume settled in around 12-14 hours per week during this time.
Phase 3: Specificity
June, July and August were all about total training volume and total vertical gain, with a focus on hiking everything I could. As most frequent readers of this blog will know, I spend copious amounts of time during these summer months at races supporting athletes, as well as coaching at camps. Although my schedule was irregular, I was able to put in a few weeks of greater than 30 hours of training that included over 100 miles and 30,000 feet of gain. To be clear, this amount of training is far above and beyond what I normally would do and handle without injuring myself. I rarely go above 20 hours per week as I simply don’t have the time and, more importantly, the higher volume breaks me down and is not sustainable. But, I knew that for a focused period of time, the volume would do me good. Therefore, to better cope with the increase in volume, I brought the day-to-day intensity down. So much so that all the climbs I normally run easily in training, I hiked. Every time the trail turned upwards, I hiked. Even if I could run easily, I still hiked. This helped me to cope with the increase in volume, as well as increase the specificity of my training to the demands of the race (where I would be hiking ~70% of the time).
In addition to the mileage during this time, I also trained my gut by taking in 250 calories an hour for any run over 2 hours. As you will see below, this is ABOVE what I planned to do in the race. I put zero focus on being more metabolically efficient or fat adapted, never counted a calorie, and took no supplements nor vitamins – save for the one-off CBD product that seemed to be all the rage and someone wanted me to test. I simply focused on eating high quality foods with lots of vegetables, that’s it.
Finally, in August I had the opportunity to see some of the course as I went to Italy a few weeks in advance of the race. I see a lot of athletes do this for European races, and they all make one classic mistake. They do too much too quickly too close to the race. If you don’t believe me, go Strava stalk anyone who goes to the UTMB races a week or more in advance. They get into the European playground, have too much time on their hands, and an overabundance of enthusiasm because of the change in scenery, and just do too much. Sadly, the last two weeks of training lead to their downfall, as they go into the race fried and tired instead of rested and fresh.
Conscious of this, I viewed any time spent on the course through the lens of making the race make sense, not through the lens of physical training. Sure, running on the course was good for the body, but primarily, putting a few climbs and a few sections together helped me wrap my head around the whole ordeal and made it seem possible. Similar to the way I used low intensity hiking to offset the previous increase in volume, the time I spent on course was all very easy and at a low intensity. This reconnaissance piece of training served its purpose well. It was not too taxing and, more importantly, it helped me intellectually wrap my head around the enormity of the course.
All the while, I had a keen focus on the entirety of training, not one particular run or week. I knew they would all stack together like many bricks building the same wall. No one week, workout, mile, or foot of vertical gain was any more important than the rest. They all shared a part in the process.
If there was any one key to all of the training, it’s that there was no one key. And that I think all athletes can take notice of. All too often, I see athletes focus on one particular part of training. Maybe it’s the last three weeks, or a singular week, or a singular critical workout, or the amount of vertical they did, or the time spent on course (as in the case of so many a UTMB runner). There was no one singular key to success. I simply showed up every day and put the work in and over time I knew that the totality of that work would pay off.
Now, it’s on to some lessons from the race itself. I fully expected to have some good, bad, and ugly show up at various portions of the event. I’m happy to say these three facets did not disappoint. The goods were really good. The bads were pretty bad, and the ugly – although it did not completely undo me – was the ugliest I’ve ever been, by a long shot.
The good: my crew and (simple) plan
The best by far was my crew. I had my loving wife Liz out there helping me at every major aid station (called a Life Base), which occur at approximately every 50k. To help provide assistance and reduce the need to have several different drop bags, the race gives you a giant yellow duffle bag that follows you around the course. At each Life Base, you can access this bag to change out gear, food, and anything else you can stuff in it. Therefore, I came up with a simple system where most of my gear would stay in the yellow bag, and Liz would bring a standard list of food that I would choose from. For each Life Base I would have a choice of pizza, french fries, hot and cold coffee, ginger beer, soup and some odds-and-ends candies. That’s it. I kept this part of the crewing process simple for a reason; I just didn’t want to worry.
Thinking and stressing cost time and energy. The less of it I did, the more resources I could apply to hiking down the trail. So, instead of a litany of spreadsheets, choices, instructions, 3-ring binders, color coded and highlighted workbooks and the like, I duct taped a simple list of the aforementioned 6 items onto a cooler. Those 6 items were the only things I needed and wanted, and I knew they would be there at every Life Base. Sure, I could have been super pretentious and said, “Well, I’ll want the chicken soup at mile 30 and then the vegetable bouillon at mile 60, and then if it’s cold, just make sure it’s extra hot.” Thankfully, I’m smart enough to know none of that makes a difference. I put the simplest amount of effort possible into the plan, therefore saving every last shred to put toward the physical effort out on the trails.
I wish I could convince more ultrarunners to keep it simple. I have seen too many well meaning but ultimately overcomplicated race plans that crews (and runners) are vigorously trying to decipher in aid stations. Complication takes effort, and effort is at a premium during ultras. The simpler and less complicated your crew’s plan is the better. Six items duct taped on a cooler for a 100-hour effort, that’s it. Don’t tell me you need 70 lines of 8-point font to describe what you are going to eat in your next 50k because I ain’t buying it.
Calorie wise, I faithfully pumped in 200 calories an hour of ProBar Bolts, rice balls, soup, pizza, polenta, shortbread cookies, chips, fries, gels, chocolate and electrolyte drink mix. All of which, with exception of the polenta, I tried out in training. At an aid station or Life Base, I’d take in ~400-600 calories all at once, then not eat for the next 2-3 hours, something else I did in training by using the Pikes Peak summit house as an aid station (Pikes Peak pizza is terrible by comparison, by the way, but it does the job). In between aid stations or Life Bases, I’d stay on a regular routine of 100 calories every 30 minutes of whatever tasted good at the time. I processed everything I ate and quite literally had zero stomach issues. Zero, zilch, nada. I estimate I took in over 20,000 calories over the course of the race.
The bad: my right calf
Only 15 miles into the race, I thought tragedy had struck. I was happily and easily running along on a very benign section of road when my right calf seized up. At first, I thought it would just go away so I slowed down and just walked. It’s a long race and a few kilometers of walking was not going to be a big deal. Much to my dismay, a few kilometers turned into an hour and one hour turned into several, and my bad calf was becoming more and more problematic. I couldn’t push off or land on my right foot normally, causing me to run and hike awkwardly and basically use my poles as crutches. After hobbling around for about 7 hours, I thought my race would end early, and I would have to pull the plug to avoid any permanent damage. I knew I’d at least give myself a chance and go as far as I could, but if I’m being honest, much of that time I gave myself zero chance of finishing given how dysfunctional my leg was. Then, from one step to the next, it all went away. And I don’t know why.
Weird things happen in ultras and I think that sometimes, just accepting where you are is a big part in coping (it’s the first part in my ADAPT plan for when things go awry, after all). I could have easily forecasted how long I was going to have to limp around, how much (maybe permanent) damage I was taking and probably called it a day. And while I would never advocate an athlete finish a race at all costs, I think that at times we make mountains out of physical molehills during ultramarathons. Instead of prognosticating, I just accepted the situation, limped along until it fixed itself (to be fair, I stretched and massaged it for a while, which seemed to have no effect at the time). I kind of shrug my shoulders at it all now, but in retrospect, the simple act of being in the moment, slowing down, and accepting the problem for what it was went a long way.
The Ugly: Too little sleep
If I screwed anything up, I should have slept a bit more and bit earlier and/or gotten in some higher quality sleep early in the race. I honestly don’t know if I could have predicted how I would have reacted to that, though. After more than 80 hours of running with 5 hours of sleep, I entered the final Life Base at Ollomont. At the time, everything was en fuego. I was on cloud nine, completely coherent, had a great attitude and stomach. I ate my standard 2 pieces of pizza, Nutella sandwich, soup and coffee, and headed out of the aid station ready to tackle the night and remaining 50 kilometers. Immediately awaiting me was a 1300-meter climb, which I must say I quite easily dispatched (and probably got a little cocky because of it). Shortly thereafter, and with only one climb to go, the wheels came off and they came off in a big, dramatic way.
For 5 hours, during which I only covered between 2 and 3 kilometers, I uncontrollably, repeatedly, and relentlessly passed out on the side of the trail. I’d wake up with my face in some hunk of earth, pick the grass out of my teeth, get back onto my feet, walk about 100 meters, then I’d find myself curled up on the ground again. My body, mind and will had completely shut down and I no longer had control over the situation. Get up, pass out, fall down, wake up, rinse and repeat, again and again for hours.
Every so often, a passing runner would poke me with their poles as if to see if I was still breathing. I think I only got up about half the times this happened. The other half I just grunted. Satisfied that this poor runner lying on the side of the trail was still alive, the passing runner would let me be. I was only about 500 meters from the next aid station (I could literally see it in front of me) but with my head in my hands in a haze I thought to myself, that this was it. There was no way I was going to bounce back from this and tackle the remaining 30 kilometers.
Eventually, I made it into the Frassati refugio and took stock of the situation. I did the same things I did at every other aid station: eat, say ‘grazie’, see what’s next, get out. Somehow, the combination of an aid station, one very gracious aid station captain who knew I was in big trouble and just gave me a big Italian hug, a rising sun and some internal motivation got me going again.
Summiting the last climb after this meltdown got the better of me, and I cried like a baby on the last col. Although dramatic, I wouldn’t have had it any other way. I had completed the full circle of Why’s coming into the race. It tested me immensely, I further connected to the region and the people that make this race special, and I learned an immense amount along the way.
I’d be remiss not to thank everyone who reached out and followed along during the race. Your presence was surely felt! I spend much of my personal and work life in the support of others, and I take an immense amount of pride and joy in that role. In some cosmic way this experience felt like those efforts were paid forward.