A fresh challenge – making the transition from trail to road running
So, I had this idea to race 50k on the roads. Given that I had only previously run ultras at high altitude on the trail, I thought it would be a fresh challenge. And anyway, the only difference would be that I’d have to run a bit faster, right? Wrong. The race was the Caumsett 50k, in Long Island in New York, which doubled up as the USA 50k National Road Championships. It was held in winter, so snow was guaranteed. It was more a case of how much snow would there be! The race consisted of 10 laps of a 5k circuit.
People often ask me what I think about on a long run. Often it is how much I will appreciate a good beer after the race. And although this was in my mind at the Caumsett 50k, the other thing I thought about was what one needs to do to transition from the trails to the roads. Well, here is what I did -and probably should have done more of.
Think smart when training
Ultras are tough on the legs. Ultras on roads can be downright miserable on the legs. When racing such distances it is important to simulate both the distance and pace in training. For example, if you are gearing up for a 50k, you need to a training run in at around the 40k range to experience how the body and legs will react. It’s also crucial to do longer-than-normal tempo runs or run for a set-time at goal race-pace. I worked hard at training on flatter roads in preparation for my race. I find running on pancake-flat terrain more demanding on my body, compared to slight climbs and descents, because the same muscle groups are engaged the entire time. A variation in gradient, meanwhile, allows a much-needed break for overworked muscle groups and lessens the risk of cramping.
Thankfully, the Caumsett 50k course including a few slight, rolling hills. I knew they were coming because every lap was the exact same… all 10 of them! If racing on pancake-flat road courses, be sure to get in plenty of long, flat training runs. Supplement these with some strengthening exercises like squats and calf-raises to prepare for the repetitive nature of the race.
Build mental strength – try planking!
Strong mental fortitude is another very important facet in training. This usually develops with hard, physical training but avoiding thoughts of negativity, especially in those particularly dark and painful parts of an ultra, is something that the mind can be prepared for. One tip is to break a race down into 5k or mile segments, focusing on just one segment at a time. Worrying about having to run 50k or 10 loops can be very overwhelming as you look down that long road ahead.
On the trails, there are twists and turns, uphills and downhills, sections that you can ease up and recovery on, before putting the pedal to the floor. In road running, it is more monotonous. One way I trained for the tedium was by doing lots and lots of planking! If you have ever planked, you will know that it can be extremely difficult, not to mention monotonous, when the position is held over a long period of time. During training for the Caumsett 50k, I reached a point where I was planking for 40 minutes a day. Each time, after just 10 minutes, I was mentally finished. My core would be shaking from a sustained hold and my arms would feel stuck, never to be straightened again. ‘I can do one more minute,” I would repeatedly tell myself. Doing this, I found the time passed much faster. Dreading and fighting just made the situation worse. Ultimately, that helped me get through my first road 50k… and the week after the race plank for a personal record of 2hrs 10mins.
We can’t always have ideal sunny Southern California weather, so training for the appropriate climate you will be racing in is very important come race day. This can be said for both road and trail running. If the race will be held in warmer temperatures, get to know how your body reacts to fluid loss through sweat and work out how much you will need to replenish those lost resources. In cold temperatures, it can be a little trickier since you will not be sweating as much and may not feel like you need as much replenishment. As a rule, I try to grab water at every aid station, even if I am not thirsty or don’t think I need it. This is especially important after the halfway point. If you wait until you are dehydrated, it will be too late and your performance will suffer badly. I also usually save the beer for afterwards!
Acclimatize and improvise – use the treadmill… and your garage!
The weather for this year’s Caumsett 50k was wintery. So cold was the wind that I opted for three pairs of gloves… and I still had cold hands! Any excess blood was, it seems, rerouted to my overworked leg muscles, especially in the latter stages of the race. My weather acclimatization was erratic at best. I live in Colorado and our winter is short in comparison. I took advantage on the really cold days and was exaggeratedly aware of how my body reacted to the weather, how my lungs felt in the cold and how much fuel I needed for long efforts. The best way to acclimatize is to train in the same weather that you will be racing in. If that is not possible when training for a road ultra, why not try improvising? Open your garage door while on the treadmill to simulate a walk-in freezer for those frigid climates. If it will be hot at your upcoming race, but it is cold outside, layer up the clothing and crank up the thermostat while on the treadmill.
Find the right road running shoes
Seek out a running shoe that is going to fit your foot well and not give you blisters or hot spots when your feet swell after numerous hours in them. If you find your feet swell a lot in training, consider going up half a size. How do know which shoe is the right one? On all your long runs and hard workouts test the same pair that you intend to race in -and do so on the appropriate surface. If the shoes give you trouble in training, they will probably give you a lot more trouble after 20 miles of hard racing. If that’s the case, try a different running shoe!
Don’t be lazy – research the course
Do your homework and research the course you will be racing over. If you are doing loops, go out on it before the race and walk a lap. Look for wet areas. At the Caumsett 50k, there were areas of slushy snow and puddles. I knew it would be a bad idea to get my shoes and socks wet with multiple hours of racing still to go. With that in mind I took the high road to avoid these areas. Those few lost seconds via the slight diversion were well worth having dry feet for the duration of the race. By viewing parts of the course in advance you will know what to expect before the gun goes off -and your feet will thank you!
Your body will be a mess, so allow extra time for recovery
I knew my body was going to be a hot mess after racing so many miles on the road. I expected it. I embraced it. Or so I thought I did. As I predicted, my body was very tight, sore and achy for the next few days following the race, as I hobbled around more like a penguin than a human. That subsided quicker than expected and I resumed a more human-like running gait. A week later and I was back in the running saddle again… but then it happened -my calf muscles felt like they were going to cramp at any time and my quads felt like jackhammers had been taken to them. It was the revenge of the road! I had not allowed myself enough recovery time.
In my experience, more recovery time is needed for long road races compared to long trail races. I would say it is better to err on the side of too much recovery than rushing back into training to get ready for that next race. You don’t want to be wondering why six months down the road you are feeling lethargic and struggling in everyday training.
As for my race at the Caumsett 50k, I found my body began to revolt against me in the last 17k -perhaps I needed to do one or two more longer efforts in training on the road. I managed to survive the final 10k, even when my mental fortitude was waning (thanks planking!) and place 5th overall in a new 50k PR of 3:10:38. It could have gone better, yes, but it could also have gone much, much worse had I not followed some of these training tips.
You can’t control the weather, but you can control most other things through simulation, so prepare yourself for what you will encounter on race day. Experiment with shoes, get on the road and be sure to recover like a champion.