By Dan O’Brien
In 2008, 2009, & 2010, I ran the Nashville, TN Ultra-Marathon (www.nashvilleultra.com) which is held in the fall (mid Oct/early Nov). The event offers distances from 50K thru 50 miles, but I did the 50 mile option each time. The course is 75% paved and 25% trails and alternates between paved greenways, grass trails, and several miles of asphalt through downtown Nashville.
I think what makes my experience interesting is that the 2008 event was my first ultra-marathon, and due to unforeseen factors, I ended up with three different training plans and race strategies over the three consecutive years.
Before the 2008 race, I had been running consistently for eight years doing several half marathons and eventually marathons. I found that I could run the snot out of a half marathon (1 hr 39 min PB), but the marathon distance had me flummoxed (4 hr 30 min PB). I got tired of crashing and burning while trying to break four hours and was looking for something different to do. After I heard about ultramarathons, I did probably what most people do (now), I read everything I could find on the internet. After signing up for the 2008 Nashville Ultra, the training plan I came up with was a hybrid of several different plans found on-line. I already knew my 42 year old body could not handle high mileage, so I set my maximum training week at 60 miles, my maximum single training day at 30 miles, and I followed the rule-of-thumb of not increasing my total miles by more than 10% per week. When my 24 week training plan started, I was already able to do a 13 mile long run. For three weeks, I would increase my long run each week, then the fourth week would be a recovery week and my long run would drop to 13 miles. From marathons, I already knew I would have to do a walk-run routine to finish 50 miles, so during training, I played around with several different ones until I found one I liked. What worked well for me is to run for five minutes and then walk for one minute (6 minute cycle). What I liked about this one was no matter how tired my legs got, I could always force myself to run for five more minutes after that one minute walk. Also, one minute was just enough time for me to fully eat or drink when it was time to do so. I am a heavy sweater, so I set a goal of 24 oz. of water every hour along with 300 calories. In fact, the hardest part of training wasn’t the long runs, but learning how to run when eating and drinking this much. One of the most fun things I did was to schedule my 30 miler the day of the Quad Cities Marathon. I actually ran four miles before the start of the marathon. It was warm that morning, so when I showed up at the start line already sweating with a waist full of bottles and pouches, I received a lot of strange looks. I ended up finishing within five minutes of my best marathon time which told me that my ultra-0training plan was very much on track.
The weather the day of the 50 miler was very good (40’s to 60’s). I walked up all the hills (which are frequent on a few parts of the course), but stuck to my six minute run-walk cycle as best I could. My goal was 10 hours, but after 30 miles, my pace slowed considerably putting that out of reach. At mile 40 in the midst of an extended trail section, I developed a shin splint that progressively got worse with each step. I finished in 10 hours 55 minutes, but the pain in my shin was such that I was sure I had a stress fracture, as I could hardly take a step on that leg. After just a week, however, the pain faded quickly and I was able to run again, so thankfully it wasn’t a serious injury.
So, what were the lessons learned from the first 50 miler? I had intended on doing 25% of my training runs on trails to mirror the course, but I never got around to it. I’m sure the shin splint developed because of this lack of trail running. In talking with other ultra-runners about my legs fading after 30 miles, I was told to consider doing back-to-back long runs.
For the 2009 50-mile training plan, I used the same one from 2008 but added in some back-to-back long runs including a 30 miler followed by a 20 miler the next day. I also purchased some trail shoes and added in trail running. Everything was on track in the training until I slightly sprained my ankle doing some yard work right at the peak of training. However, I found that after I ran for a couple miles, the ankle pain went away. What I didn’t realize was that I was compensating for the ankle sprain and changing my running form. The following weekend, I did a 30 miler, but when I attempted the 20 miler the next day, my Achilles on the other foot developed shooting pains the last five miles. I iced the Achilles and rested it for a week. I figured by the following weekend, I would be good to go, but after just a mile, my Achilles got the shooting pains again. So, I did the RICE routine to both ankles for two weeks, but a test run showed that, while my sprained ankle no longer hurt, my Achilles did not seem improved much. According to my training schedule, it was time to taper, but I had already been doing nothing for three weeks. How can I taper from that? So, with great reluctance, I mentally threw in the towel for 2009. For the next couple weeks, I continued to ice and rest both feet while thinking about signing up for a 50 miler in the spring. I tested myself on a short run and thankfully there was no pain. I then began to wonder. Was it still possible to do the 50 miler at this point? I took a rest day and then ran further. That Saturday, I did 15 miles pain free. The 50 miler was the next weekend and I decided to go for it. But, because I had run less than 25 miles total the previous 6 weeks, I knew that there would be no time goal for this one. I came up with a race plan to do my six minute cycle (5 min run/1 min walk) for 20 miles and then switch to 5 min run/5 min walk cycle for 30 miles. I figured this would get me in just under the 12 hour cut-off time
On race day, after 20 miles, my legs felt very dead (about the same point at 40 miles the year before). I suspected that I was going to DNF, but as planned, I switched to my 5 min walk/5 min run pace. I was pleasantly surprised to find that my legs started to feel much better after only a few miles and they held up very well to the finish with a final time of 11 hr. 38 min.
During the previous several years, in addition to running I had also been doing triathlons and working up to the half-Ironman distance. I decided that 2010 would be the year that I would do the full Ironman (IM) distance. The IM I picked was in mid-September, and after some wishful thinking that I could train to do the IM followed by the Nashville Ultra just four weeks later, I decided it was probably a bad idea to over-commit. I trained and did finish the IM triathlon in Sept, 2010. I gave myself a week’s rest and went for a short run. Surprisingly, my legs felt great. The following week, I continued with short runs and then threw in a mid-distance run with good results. I decided to really test my body and did a 20 miler the following weekend with no effects that I could feel from doing the full IM just three weeks previous. I knew that the 50 miler was back on the schedule. So, without any specific training, I showed up for the Nashville 50 miler in 2010 just four weeks after my Ironman and signed up the day of the event. I was still worried about how my legs would hold up, so I followed the same race plan as 2009. For 20 miles, I did a 5 min run/1 min walk. I then switched to a 5 min run/5 min walk pace. At mile 48, I realized that my legs were not very tired and that I had actually held back too much. I ran the entire last two miles at a very fast pace including running up a pedestrian bridge ramp (something I could not have fathomed doing in the 2008 or 2009 race). If I had known how strong my legs would be, I’m sure I could have smashed my 2008 time. As it was, I came within six minutes and finished in 11 hr. 1 min.
Before I comment on the last run, I need to tell one more story. In early 2011, a fellow runner and triathlete I knew did the Baton Rouge to New Orleans 126.2 mile run as part of a relay team. She then trained and finished her first IM distance triathlon later that fall, and subsequently contacted me for some ultra-marathon advice. She had the idea to do the Rouge-Orleans 126.2 run as a solo ultra-marathon run in early 2012 which was only six months away. She had already talked to several people who told her to forget it as she would need to train for at least a year if not more for a 126.2 mile run. Based on my experience in the Nashville Ultra in 2009, however, I was confident to tell her that she had already been training for six months via her IM triathlon training. She subsequently signed up and completed the 126.2 mile run in early 2012 with technically only six months of specific ultra-running training.
So the question arises, why did the triathlon training translate so well to ultra-running? My theory goes along with the idea of doing back-to-back long runs. One of the key workouts when doing triathlons is called a brick workout where you do a long bike ride followed by a long run. For example, during the full IM triathlon training, a brick might consist of a 50 mile bike immediately followed by a 10 mile run. This simulates running on tired legs which should sound familiar. So, based my experience and those of my fellow triathlete/ultra-runner, I would not hesitate to tell someone to use triathlon brick workouts in place of some back-to-back long runs. I can say from experience that both methods teach your body/brain how to run on tired legs and work equally well. It also makes me wonder if ultra-runners can extend their career (i.e. avoid over-use leg injuries) by doing more long bike training in place of long runs.
Dan is a retired ultra-runner due to congenital degenerative disc disease. He spends his free time writing, walking, and trying to stay up with his 3 year old boy who has enough energy to do an ultra-marathon if only nap time did not get in the way.