Highlights from Ann’s popular advice column in Ultrarunning magazine.
How should I use a pacer?
I have an ultra coming up and am thinking of having a pacer. I’ve never run with one before so I’m worried I won’t know how to use them. What should I do?
Your pacer is much more than someone who simply sets the pace. Looking back on what my pacers did for me, I realize how much they helped me achieve my goals. I’ll always remember 1992 Western States. I came into Foresthill in 24th place. From here on I could have a pacer, but I had been struggling all day. I felt like giving up and spending some serious time on a cot. Gary Neel, my favorite all time pacer, knew my race goal: top female, & top ten overall. He looked at me and simply said: “top ten.” As we ran along, he helped me break down the race into bite-sized pieces: Run to the next hill. Get to the next aid station. Catch the next runner. He monitored how I was doing and gave gentle reminders: time to eat, how much have you been drinking? When was your last salt pill? His enthusiasm was contagious. He knew the course: the hill eases off up ahead; you can run it; yes, you can do it. He made me feel that every second saved, every step run, every runner passed was a great victory. He got me to be efficient in the aid stations. As we approached each one, he reminded me what I needed to do to get in and out in less than a minute. He monitored my mood and talked and told funny stories until I forgot about the enormity of the task ahead. I found myself moving slowly up through the field. By Highway 49 aid station, with 7 miles to go we moved into 10th place. With a mile to the finish, cresting the last hill at Robie Point we saw my good friend Dana Miller ahead of us in 9th place. To my surprise Gary turned to me and said, “I want 9th.” His goals were now my goals and 24th place at Foresthill became a 9th place finish at Placer High.
Recently, I’ve learned from a different perspective what to do – and what not to do – as a pacer. I like to ultra-hitchhike: wait at an aid station of a race for a runner to come along who needs a trail companion, then ask if I can join them as part of their team. Recently I was at Leadville and the runner I was planning to help for the last 38 miles, dropped before I could run with him. I really wanted to pace, so I started asking solo runners approaching the aid station if they wanted someone to join them on the trail. . Eventually, I found someone – a runner from Calgary, who had come down to the race with his wife and daughter, but without a pacer. He accepted my offer and off we went. He was easygoing; I just gave some gentle reminders and the time flew by. But then I noticed he was obsessing that Sugarloaf - the last big climb with it’s many false summits - would break his spirit. My job was to turn that climb from an enemy into a friend. I told him each false summit was a smiley face. He thought it so ridiculous that we were at the top before he knew what happened. Once we were over that hump I was confident it would be smooth sailing to the finish. But, I let down my guard and learned another valuable lesson: Never stop communicating. As we entered the May Queen aid station at 83 miles, I turned my back for a moment and my runner disappeared into a porta-potty without a word. I ran frantically back and forth in the dark looking for him. I thought must have left, so I put it in gear and chased after him. I was worried so I kept the hammer down trying to catch him; no one I passed was sure if he was ahead or not. With a few miles left before the finish, it was clear: I had dropped my runner. Fortunately, it worked out well. He quickly realized what had happened, found the humor in the situation, and trotted after me knowing he would have a good story to tell at my expense. I learned some important lessons: If you’re a pacer, keep track of your runner. If you’re a runner and your pacer makes a mistake, smile and keep moving; you can tease them about it later.
So, Aaron, here are ten lessons I’ve learned over the years that will help you whether your pacer is a long-time friend or an ultra-hitchhiker you pick up along the trail:
Never stop communicating.
Position: Should they run behind or in front, during the day and at night.
Talking: Chat, tell stories, tell jokes, tell about a book or TV show, or be quiet. Sometimes, a runner may be too tired to talk … or even be too tired to listen.
Reminders: Set a time or situation (bottom of a hill, when runner slows) to remind them about salt, food, drink, cooling.
Aid station efficiency: As you approach an aid station, agree on what each of you will do.
Sense of humor: Whether telling stories or just being present, always be upbeat.
What ifs: talk beforehand about what might go wrong and how to handle it.
Know the course: Ideally, be familiar with the course, or at least the general profile and key mileages.
Goals: make sure you both know the runner’s A+, A, and B goals. Keep your runner striving for a better grade.
Ann’s newest lesson: Don’t lose your runner.
How can I reduce my ultra expenses?
As a single-income grad student family, I don’t have a lot of money to spend on gear, and paying over $100 for most trail running shoes (especially every few months, as they wear out) is out of the question. I’ve managed to find a few discount retailers, but they usually have little technical specs on the shoes (heel-toe drop, under- or over-pronation correction, etc.). Is there a site out there that knows ultrarunning and sells gear at steep discounts? Or any other tips for scoring gear on the cheap? My question is mostly about shoes, but any gear recommendations are welcome!
Boy, do I remember those days when my passion for running always seemed to exceed my budget. As a college student at Cal, even though my passion for running always seemed to exceed my limited finances, I was a frequent visitor to local retail running stores for their personalized advice and service as I moved from roads to trails to ultra marathons. Even now, many years and many miles later, I resist the seductive pull and deceptive ease of anonymous shoe and gear buying on-line—I still have a personal relationship with my local running store.
Over the years I’ve learned that even with long-term relationships you can learn something new. Recently, I realized the shoes I was wearing were just not quite doing it for me. I headed straight out the door to my friendly local running store. Now I thought after all these years I knew my taste in shoes, but to my surprise they encouraged me to try a shoe brand I had always considered as making heavy, clunky shoes – just not my type for a long-term relationship. My first reaction was: No Way! Well, they suggested even shoe companies grow and change as they mature, and brought out several shoes from this and other brands. They suggested I try on two different shoes at a time, one on each foot so I could make a direct comparison. A spin around the store was all it took. A pair from the previously scorned brand felt sleek, light and fast. I had found a new love! If I were shopping on-line with my eyes I would never have given them a glance. The great thing here was my feet got to decide. If I had let my eyes decide by shopping on-line, what are now my favorite pair of shoes would never have found their way into my cart let alone onto my feet.
My recent local shopping exploits have not just been limited to shoes. This past summer I wanted to branch out and try running with “trekking poles.” How complicated could that be? There’s lots of information on-line. But could I really trust the blurbs and blogs and testimonials? Running is too important to me: I headed over to a local store. After listening to me explain what I would be using the poles for, the sales rep patiently walked me through what was available, and pointed out how something as simple as the type of handgrip on the pole would make a big difference for the type of terrain I was going to use it on. Expert advice based on where, how and when I was going to use this new, little tool, and tips on how they fold, how to adjust them, and how to use them on different types of hills was invaluable and has allowed be to spend hours out on the trail instead of sitting perusing the reviews and blah, blah, blah of the blogosphere.
The folks at my local running retail store share my passion. When I walk into the store I know their goal is to keep my feet happy on the roads and trails. They listen to me, assess my running style, and work with me to help me select a shoe that will keep me injury free. I also know they’re familiar with all the other gear – socks, clothes, packs, foods, bottles, and more – I need to keep me exploring my endless sense of adventure. While you’re there, tell them what types of running you like to do and ask about their favorite runs. They’ll know some local routes that you would never find on-line or on your own.
So Ryan I realize with a tight budget it may seem convenient to just read the on-line reviews then click on the one that seems the most popular. But all it takes is one injury from the wrong shoes and you’ll be spending money on rehab instead of running: the few bucks you saved will all be for naught. I know it’s difficult, but find a way to save money elsewhere in your budget. Consider your running purchases an investment in your physical and mental health.
Ultimately, the service your local outdoor retail store provides is Priceless. Take my advice and BUY LOCAL. Cheap thrills are not always that cheap in the long run.
Do not make your DNF a DNL!!
I get a lot of questions regarding not finishing ultra marathons. Recently, I had a conversation with a dear friend who was distraught over the fact she dropped out of an ultra relay. As a result of our conversation she prepared such a wonderful list of things she learned from her experience, I feel privileged and honored to share it with the readers of UltraRunning Magazine.
I dropped out of my section of an ultra relay at the 42 kilometer mark of an 80 kilometer leg.). I made so many mistakes!!! How do I overcome this failure so that I finish my next ultra?
First, let me congratulate you on running 42 kilometers. That in itself is an achievement. I would like to share with you one of my golden truths of ultra marathon running: there are no mistakes; just learning opportunities.
I’ve had lots of my own learning experiences over the years. I showed up to my first ultra marathon event (American River 50, 1985) without a water bottle. The day of the event the high in Sacramento was triple digits. I was young and naïve. What’s so bad about a little heat? Aid stations were only about five miles apart, and water bottles seemed like just extra weight that would slow me down. Fortunately, early in the event a fellow runner shoved a water bottle into my hand. He taught me my first of many lessons about running ultras: carry the right amount of liquid for the conditions: five miles between aid stations on trails, in over 100 degree heat, is just way too far to go without extra water.
I was very slow on the uptake even though I did finish that race. For the next few years I collected one DNF after another, culminating in two failed attempts at Western States 100. In 1988, after being pulled at Highway 49 (mile 93) in my second WS 100 DNF, I retreated to the foothills of the Sierra Mountains. It finally dawned on me that ultras are learning experiences. For two days I wrote list upon list of what I had learned from my two attempts at Western States. In future columns I share with you what I have learned from my own DNF’s. Meantime, let me give you another of Ann’s golden truths: listen to others; learn from yourself.
So, Misti, do as I did and start with a list of three things you learned and would do differently for your next ultra marathon event.
Below is my list — I could not stop at three.
1. Buy 2nd battery pack for Petzl.
2. Have better quality back up headlamp.
3. Slow the f*** down.
4. Figure out how to set food alarms on Garmin.
5. You cannot run 80km on a tomato sandwich - pre race food is just as important as what you’re eating while you run. Plan for no vegan options and bring everything you need to eat as if there is nothing there. If there are options - bonus.
6. You cannot crew AND run. Accept that.
7. Just run thru the mud/creeks - your feet are going to get wet, deal with it and stop wasting time picking a way around the mud holes (within reason).
8. Salt pills resolve sloshy stomach.
9. Carry more food than you think you’ll need. If you had had a nap (or even a rest) and then had something for you to eat you could have kept going.
10. DO NOT PANIC. It’s ok to puke and keep going. Give yourself some time to pull it together before quitting. 30 min. minimum stop and regroup time before pulling the plug.
11. Get a damn Suunto so you know how far you’ve gone.
12. Get little speakers for the iPod to play music for races that disallow headphones.
13. Run events you can finish in 20hrs. Your body hates 4 am.
14. Running in the dark makes it hard to tell if you’re going up a hill- when you’re panting and breathing heavy just walk ‘cause it’s probably a gradual incline.
15. At night find someone to run with, even if it’s a bit slower than you’d like.
16. Get Rx clear lenses to help with depth perception.
Heart Monitor Part 1
I just got a heart rate monitor, what do I do with it?
Congratulations on accruing one of the best tools an ultra runner can have. Heart rate monitors are individual to the wearer and know you better than anyone else, and that is why they make the best training partners, and pacers. The key to getting the most out of using a heart rate monitor is understanding that your heart is unique While there is a wide range of possibilities to use your heart rate monitor for you’re training and racing, I recommend starting simply!
Strap it on and wear it around the house. Make sure it is comfortable.
Fit can be a factor.
Lightly dampening it with a spritz of water can help.
Before you start worrying about what the numbers mean, just get used to the numbers. Take note of activities that you make your heart rate rise and fall.
There are several variables that make heart rate unique; including your size, gender, age, fitness ability, altitude, and even some medications will impact heart rate. Women tend to have higher heart rates than men.
Next, you have some homework to do!
Now that you have become familiar with wearing your heart rate monitor and watching the numbers go up and down, we are going to put some meaning behind those numbers!
You and your new friend are going to find two important numbers-your personal resting heart rate and maximum heart rate. Maximum heart rate is the fastest, highest number of times your heart beats per minute. Resting is the slowest number per minute (usually taken when your wake up the morning).
Your resting heart rate is quite informative. They can change with training and generally decrease with increasing fitness. An increases in resting heart rate, on the other hand, can indicate fatigue, overtraining and sickness. Homework assignment #1 is to record and chart beats per minute upon first waking. Take special notice to changes following long runs and high intensity workouts.
Maximum heart rate does not change with training. Over your life time this rate will only decrease and is part of the natural aging process. At any age, figuring out your maximum rate is critical; all your training zones are calculated from this number.
Here are three ways to determine your maximum rate is:
The gold standard. This involves getting a Cardiovascular Stress Test performed by a physician. However, this can be expensive if not covered by insurance and is not an option for everyone. It is recommended for anyone over 40 years in age that has not been exercising.
Tried and true. Run 3 X 400 meters running all out at what you perceive is maximum effort up a steep hill. Take note of the highest rate your heart rate gets. Voila! You have figured out your own maximum heart rate!
Basic math. If you are under age 40: 208-(.7 x your age). If you are over age 40 205-(.5 x your age). This method is an estimate, and you should allow for some variability in accuracy.
Congratulations on doing your homework and finding out your resting and maximum heart rate! Below are some basic guidelines on how to use that maximum heart rate number in you’re training or racing.
65%-75% of your MHR
75% - 85% of your MHR
95% -100% of your MHR
80% - 85% of your MHR
Ultra events longer than a 50K
70% to 80% of your MHR
Enjoy your getting to know your new training friend and stay posted for more ways you can use your heart rate monitor to personalize and benefit your running!
Heart Rate Monitor Part 2
Last month I described some fun ways to get to know your new training partner, your heart rate monitor! The goal this month is to let your training partner explore ways to elevate your training and racing to the next level.
Wake Up Heart Rate
Over the course of last month, I hope you had time to chart your resting heart rate.
By knowing your resting heart rate, you will be able to get a head’s up from your body on injury, illness, overtraining, stress, and incomplete recovery. A big red flag would be if you see a jump of more than 10-15% in your resting beats per minute.
If your resting heart rate is waving a red flag, it’s time to listen to your training partner by checking in with your hydration levels and possibly adjust your training schedule. Take the extra steps to get plenty of fluids and to eat healthily. This is a good time to hit that bathroom scale and check your body weight. Most likely you have dropped some weight from the previous day. According to a study reported in the Journal of Physiology (Joyner, et., al 2003) “mild exercise-induced dehydration causes an increase in resting HR.” One of my ultrarunning commandments is: “never underestimate the healing power of good old-fashioned water.”
The red flag enlarges in size as your resting heart rate stays elevated over consecutive days. Your training partner is now telling you to allow some time for injury assessment while stretching and warming up on your runs. If you do not detect an injury or illness, overtraining may be the cause of the increase in your resting heart rate. At this point, adding in additional rest days, and getting more sleep are smartest choices you can make.
On the other hand, if your resting heart rate is decreasing as your training progresses, you and your training partner should be happy with these results! You are increasing your fitness level. Hearts are muscles that get stronger with training. As your heart becomes stronger and more efficient, it will not need to beat as many times per minute to circulate your blood. Yup, your heart, is getting more economical!
Staying in the Zone
Another part of your homework last month was doing the math on your maximum heart rate. Once you know your MHR, I suggest using the following heart rate zones from Sally Edward’s book, “Smart Heart”
Zone 1. Healthy Heart (aka chill zone)
• 50-60% of max heart rate.
• Recovery runs, warm-up, cool down for harder workouts.
Zone 2. Temperate Zone. (aka Ultra Zone)
• 60-70% of max heart rate.
• Fat is used as primary fuel source.
• My goal is to do my long runs at or near 70%.
Zone 3. The Aerobic Zone (aka: Most Bang for Your Buck Zone)
• 70-80% of max heart rate.
• This is the last aerobic zone before crossing over to the anaerobic threshold.
• Carbohydrates are used predominately for energy.
• Most tempo runs are done in this zone. Only one of these workouts per week, should be included in your training. Sixty to 90 minutes maximum.
• Major adaptive physiological changes take place in terms of metabolism, skeletal and heart muscle when runs of this profile are included into your training regimen.
Zone 4. The Threshold Zone. (aka Interval/hill repeat Zone)
• 80-90% of max heart rate.
• Utilizes both aerobic and anaerobic pathways, stimulating favorable adaptations.
• Too much in this zone can lead to injuries. Only once per week, and only of feeling strong and rested.
• Not for the weak of heart.
Zone 5 (aka call 911 zone)
• 90-100% of max heart rate.
• This is the top of the heart rate chain and leaves you gasping for air after only 10 to 20 seconds of work.
• Running to catch a bus is the only time I enter this zone!
Finding What Works For You and What Worked for Me.
As you discover what works for you, keep in mind that:
• One of the most common mistakes is to run your easy days way too hard. Let your heart rate monitor/dictate these days for you and stick to them. It is during the recovery phase of your training that your fitness increases.
• During a hard work out day, collaborate with your heart rate monitor and zones ahead of time, ie establish your targets and limits before the workout begins. However, for hill repeats and speed workouts, you do not need to check your monitor repeatedly. Concentrate on the task at hand and get your workout done!
• Once you get home, it’s important to analyze your data, but think of the numbers more as discussion points and feedback rather than the ultimate truth.
• Stay away from Zone 4 for prolonged periods of time during an ultra event, especially a 100 miler.
• Remember that cardiac creep is normal while racing. Dehydration is the main culprit.
• The ultimate goal is that your training partner does not need to join you for all your runs. After checking in with your resting heart rate in the morning, eventually you will come to know what your heart rate is during any given time just by feel!
Here’s what worked for me during my racing in the mid 1990’s:
• Knowing my numbers and checking in with them!
o Resting heart rate was low to mid 30’s
o Maximum heart rate was 187
o Easy running was around 120 to 125 bpm
o Tempo runs were done around 165 to 170 bpm
o Long runs were done around 140 to 150 bpm
o Speed work was done around 180 bpm
• For easy runs, using the heart rate monitor kept me honest and stopped me from running too hard.
• For tempo runs, using the heart rate monitor kept me in the right zone.
• For long runs, the heart rate monitor kept me running at an even pace and helped me last longer out there, and really stimulate fat metabolism for fuel.
• When it came to race day, the heart rate monitor was a tool that I always started out with to keep me at an even pace. For example, I ran Comrades marathon at 155 bpm. However, usually about half way through every race, I reached a point where I decided to let the heart monitor go. This is when I would say goodbye to my training partner, and go forward on my own, into the abyss…
I wish you the best as you get to know your training partner. Whether your goals are to run five milers around your neighborhood, or to train for your first ultramarathon, using a heart rate monitor can provide important feedback as you progress.
Training in Winter Months
At this time of year how did you go about planning your races and schedule for the upcoming year? Also, how did you approach these winter months, I’m getting stir crazy and want to be out there, racing long out on the trails, right now. How do you approach and handle this time of year? Thanks, Luke.
Decide on your key goal for the upcoming year. For me sometimes it was a race I loved like WS100, a combination of races like Comrades and WS100, or a challenging series of races like the Grand Slam. I based my training and other races off of achieving my key goal.
I always reviewed my previous year’s races. Ultras are all about learning from experiences. What did I do right? What did I do wrong? What do I need to work on?
I picked early races that worked on weaknesses - Way Too Cool was not the optimal course for me, but it was great for working on improving my ability to cruise at high speed on rolling terrain. Sometimes I ran a spring marathons like Napa or Big Sur. Marathons are a race of truth. Find that sustainable level of discomfort and hold it. I would sign up for early-season 50 milers as part of my buildup. I knew I was not in optimum shape to run them fast, but that was not my goal. Sometimes I wanted to work on things I needed to improve: uphill walking. Aid station efficiency. Recovering from a bad stretch. Other times I wanted to try something new. How would my body (and mind) respond if I went out harder or slower? If I walked or ran more than usual on steep uphills? Still other times I just wanted a day where I could have no goals, just let myself run free.
“New Year New Gear” was always my motto for the turn of the calendar. After spending much of the year running long races, my goals for the first month of each new year were to run shorter, run faster, and run on uneven terrain. I loved chasing my friend and mentor Dan Williams on runs like a rolling 13 miles loop around Briones Reservoir. We would head out after rains and cows had made the surface a jumble of hoof prints and mud patches. I liked to do these runs while fresh and stopped before my form deteriorated or my ankles got too tired. Great practice for strengthening the ankles and learning to float lightly along no matter how bad the footing.
Those dreary days in January and February were always the time for cross-training. I developed core routines for myself that were as tough as any training run, and a lot more beneficial than another long, cold slog in the rain. I joined a gym so I could do spin classes. Lots of runners profit from focusing on other outdoor (or indoor!) activities in the winter months. If you live in snow country, try snowshoeing or XC skiing for a fun way to build aerobic capacity and strength. Even spending the weekend downhill skiing instead of running can have benefits: that burning feeling in your quads can help build the muscle strength, you’ll need for you downhill running. No snow? Try some biking: road, mountain, gravel grinders, even cyclocross are off-season fun sports. For a really good workout, when was the last time you signed up for a yoga class? Yes, guys, it’s not just for us women. Try it for a few months, and you’ll be surprised how much easier it is to float over the rocky trails this spring.
I liked to pick destination race - some places I’d never been before The races were at the optimum time of year for my best performance, but I didn’t care. My goal was to combine a vacation adventure with a good solid training run and a chance to meet new runners.
I also used the winter as the time to let my body heal. We all find ourselves nursing little aches and pains. Backing off on the intensity, distance, or number of days run each week can be difficult - especially for those of us for whose bodies and minds crave exercise as much as food and sleep. But, letting the body and mind refresh for a few weeks can pay off big time when fit and fresh the following summer.
So, Luke, do what I did: use the winter months to heal, build a strong foundation, refresh the mind with some new sports and new types of adventures. Let it be the other runners who go stir-crazy and overtrain and over-race all winter. Don’t worry, this summer you’ll find yourself crazy fast at your goal race! I’d love to hear from you and all my other readers what you’re doing for cross-training.
My favorite coach
Now that you’re a coach, are there some key lessons you pass down from your own coaches?
I have always loved being a student of the sport, always reading, always asking questions, always trying new things and learning what worked for me. Becoming a complete runner is like completing a puzzle. I have been fortunate to have had several coaches that helped fill in gaps in the complex puzzle we call ultrarunning. Your question gets me thinking about the one who did the most to make me the runner and coach I am. Here are 17 lessons I learned from my favorite coach.
1. Consistency - My coach made sure I would get out and do something every day, every week, every month, year after year. . Sometimes a lot; sometimes just a little; occasionally fast, often very slow. When I look back on my career, I learned that consistent training yields consistent racing.
2. Smile - Happy is infectious. She taught me that no matter how tough the day, there is always something to smile about. How can I mope about something going wrong when it makes for such a great story to tell my friends!
3. Passion - I learned that a good coach must be as passionate as their runner. She made it obvious that she shared my passion for running.
4. Adaptability - I always admired her instinctive ability to accept and instantly adapt as situations change. We all have that ability buried inside us. I’ve worked hard to let it out.
5. Running is play, not work - I have no idea how many miles I’ve run in my career. I can thank my coach for that. She viewed running as a chance to play. For her, there was no focus on checking the pace, tracking the miles, counting the hills. A good run was being out there having fun.
6. Positive Attitude - My coach never scolded me, never barked orders. She did give me a sly look occasionally when I did something wrong, but it was always to tempt me to do something better.
7. Relax - let yourself run free. My coach was a natural for beautiful running form. Just watching her glide along, no tension, no unnecessary motion, made me a better runner.
8. Keep it simple - My coach was always about simplicity. She was not into fancy gear. It was simple running.
9. Don’t overthink things - She taught me never to overthink my running.
10. A steady trot is the fastest way to cover ground - I’ve never been the fastest runner, nor the most talented. My coach helped me learn to run steady, mile after mile, never worrying about the other runners or the terrain ahead.
11. Enjoy the journey - For my coach, it was always about the journey, not the destination.
12. Explore new places - My coach made sure we searched for new trails, trotted across green meadows, bounded up hills, just because they were there.
13. Stop to sniff the flowers - My coach taught me to look around, smell the fresh air, feel the breeze blowing my hair. No matter how long or hard a run I had scheduled, there was always time to take in the unexpected view.
14. Get wet - Every stream, every lake is a chance to refresh yourself with a quick dip.
15. Enjoy the moment - there are times in life when we need to run long and hard; there are other times when the best thing to do is sit quietly at the edge of a meadow. In either case, enjoy the moment.
16. Passing the torch - seeing her love of running increased my desire to give back to the sport by mentoring and coaching others.
17. Unleash your potential - There are times to hold back, but there comes the moment when you need to take off the leash and let yourself run free.