To many, especially those who have run multiple ultras before, the perfect race — that one where you just nail everything and hit all your goals, is as elusive as a goal as Doc Brown faced when trying to figure out how to channel 1.21 gigawatts of energy into Chris Kostman’s, er, Marty McFly’s DeLorean. (That was an inside joke there: the Badwater RD, Chris Kostman, actually owns a DeLorean).
Random trivia question: Anyone know why I’m referencing Back To The Future today of all days?
When viewed from the outside, the perfect race seems effortless, almost as if the runner is some more-evolved being, above such petty concerns as “pain” or “slowing down.” The Perfect Race gets mystified and glorified to the point that it becomes impossibly out of reach for us mere mortals. It is like that elusive “perfect blossom” that Tom Cruise’s mentor, Lord Katsumoto, kept blabbing on and on about…
The reality of the perfect race, though, is that it’s much more like the perfect hamburger than it is the perfect blossom. While the final product is awe-inspiring, and appears effortless, you don’t really want to know about the process by which that perfect piece of meat arrived at your plate.
(And if you ARE looking for the perfect hamburger, in your quest, be sure to stop by Louis’ Lunch in New Haven, CT. They claim to have invented the hamburger, seriously. The place is a little hole in the wall, they use wonder bread for the buns, and they don’t allow ANY condiments besides onions, tomato, and a flimsy piece of processed cheese. In other words, it’s ALL about the meat. And it’s sublime . . . that place has fed many a drunk entitled Yalie over the past 100 years!)
So let’s now delve behind the curtain to the “perfect race” that Noelani Taylor ran on Saturday at the Oceans 50-miler in Palm Coast/Flagler Beach, when she clocked a 7:04 and thrust herself onto the Florida — and national — ultrarunning scene.
First, though, my apologies for the third week in a row for not using this column to discuss the effects of heavy weightlifting on ultrarunning. (Don’t blame me, I’m just the writer; take it up with the publisher and editorial board) 🙂 Fear not, though: I’ll give you another hint as to whether weightlifting is good for ultrarunning:
(One of those two is an ultrarunner; can you guess which one?)
Actually, join me in wishing happy birthday today to Traci Falbo (pictured above), not only on her exquisite choice of days to have been born, but also on being the recently-crowned American record holder in the 48-hour race. (I believe she ran 242 miles, which is also the World Indoor Record for 48-hours). Happy Birthday Traci!!
Which leads us to the trivia question answer. Something MUCH more momentous occurred on November 12th (even more so than Traci or myself being born): November 12, 1955 was the day Marty McFly went back to the future! Yes, it was the day of the Enchantment Under The Sea dance!!!
(McFly singing “TraciBGoode”)
My sister was born on the day we landed on the moon and Neil Armstrong took his “one small step for man…” I got the Enchantment on the Sea dance. Awesome. Whatever, Mom. No, it’s cool, really.
So let’s delve into how Noelani generated her own 1.21 gigawatts this past Saturday:
2. How to Get to Carnegie Hall.
The first and most obvious reason for Noelani’s success is the same way you get to Carnegie Hall: practice (that most un-Allen Iverson of words) 🙂 In ultrarunning, that means quality consistent training. Noelani consistently runs 80-100 miles a week, and mixes in various tempo runs, long runs, and recovery runs. Every run has a purpose.
You can have all the goals and ambitions in the world, but if you don’t have the training base necessary for those goals, you’re just wasting your time. Your level of fitness when you toe the start line sets the ceiling for your possible performance on the course. How close you come to that ceiling . . . that’s where other factors come into play. But races are, almost exclusively, won and lost long before race day.
3. Have a Rational Goal.
The aforementioned training allows for a runner to set a reasonable and rational goal for raceday. Having only run one previous ultra — and on minimal training — Noelani probably did not realize how her current fitness translated into a projected 50-mile time. She thought she would be around 8 hours. I told her that she’d be much closer to 7. I wasn’t just shooting from the hip with my estimate: in the weeks prior to the race, I had her run some very specific “litmus test” runs to gauge exactly where she was with her current level of fitness. The week prior to the Oceans 50, she ran a 50k training run — by herself — in 4:15. With that type of time under non-race conditions, coupled with her training base, I knew 7 hours was a legitimate goal. So we planned her pacing accordingly.
4. Allow for the Possibility of Greatness: “The New Normal.”
One of the major things that can derail runners on race day — even someone who is fully trained for a realistic/rational goal — is that their minds get in the way. They just don’t believe that they can run that fast.
This is why we need to open our minds to the possibility of greatness. So much of life is about “getting your reps in.” The more you do something, the better you get at it. That spans all walks of life, professions, sports, everything. Ever see a rookie pro athlete talk to the media in his first few months as a pro? Compare that kid with the guy who’s been in the league for a dozen years. I don’t care if the rookie went to Harvard and the veteran went to the NBA straight out of high school . . . after enough practice in dealing with the media, they all sound articulate and thoughtful.
It’s the same with running races. Once you cross a threshold (say, 8:00 for 50 miles), then your mind knows it can accomplish that feat, and it becomes “the new normal.” The point is that if you have the training base and a sound plan — i.e., your goal is reasonable and rational — then you have to push out that doubt from your mind and allow the possibility that you’ll actually reach that goal, even if you’ve never reached it before.
Most readers of this column know my friend, stud Aussie ultrarunner Grant Maughan, who was a Florida resident until a few months ago. Grant began running 100’s a few years ago, and steadily progressed from running them in the low 20’s to about 15 hours today. If you ask him, I bet he’d tell you he got there — among other things –by (a) consistent quality training, guided by his great coach Lisa-Smith Batchen, (b) continually setting the “new normal” for himself (“Okay, now I know I can do that…”), and (c) keeping his mind open to the possibility of greatness.
(From a solid ultrarunner to one of the very best in the world . . . in about 2 years!)
With Noelani, she is just starting out in the sport, so she had no real way to measure if she could run a 50-miler in 7 hours or not. But she kept an open mind, and allowed her training to take over on race day so that she could perform as close to her “ceiling” as possible. In other words, mentally, she got out of her own way.
5. A PhD in Pacing.
Our plan was for Noelani to start at 8:30/mile, and hold that as long as possible. From the prior week’s 50k training run, we knew she could hold 8:00/mile for basically the whole 50k, so we dialed it down a few ticks for the 50-mile distance.
Well, for the 50 miles, Noelani averaged 8:29/mile. Of the 50 miles, 49 of them were run between 8:00 and 9:00 per mile. That is an insane statistic right there. (The only mile not in that range was Mile 46, which she ran in 9:10 and only because she tripped and fell on a tree root on one of the short trail sections of the course). She ran the first two miles in about 8:20 each, and the last two miles in about 8:20 each.
(Fast at the beginning . . . and the exact same pace at the end)
THAT, folks, is how you pace yourself in an ultra.
6. Feed the Machine.
Like most fast runners — especially those with little ultra experience — Noelani likes running on an empty stomach. It’s easy to see why: running with stuff in your stomach (fluid, food, whatever) just is not very comfortable. And in a marathon or 50k, you can get away with not consuming calories during the race.
But once you start running 50s and 100s, you absolutely need to keep a constant flow of calories/energy into your system. The body cannot process more than 200-300 calories per hour, and since Noelani is used to running on little to nothing in her stomach, we kept her towards the lower end of that range. And when you are running at her speed, solid foods are pretty much the enemy; she could not afford to have resources diverted from her extremities (where they were busy keeping her cool) to help digest food in her stomach. So it was lots of gels and Gatorade, with the occasional handful of chocolate-covered espresso beans thrown in there for a little jolt. (Caffeine works especially well if you, like Noelani, don’t normally ingest caffeine in your day-to-day life).
And re the calories, start the “calorie drip” pretty much from the beginning of the race. Given her splits, Noelani clearly never hit that “energy low” from lack of calories during the race…
7. Deal With Potential Problems AS SOON AS They Arise.
The ONLY real issue she faced out there with the potential to derail the awesome race she was having was the specter of overheating. Even though it was only in the 60s for most of the race, when you are working as hard as she was, you can overheat pretty quickly. (Keep in mind that for most people, the ideal marathon racing temperature is around 40 degrees). So as soon as she started feeling warm, we continually poured ice water on her and gave her ice to stuff in her shirt.
8. Have a Crew That is Passionate About Your Success.
Noelani’s crew consisted of her cousin, her boyfriend, and me. Her cousin and boyfriend were fully invested and very passionate about doing everything in their power to get her to the finish line as soon as possible. Right from the moment we arrived at the race, it was patently obvious that the two of them were there for the sole purpose of helping Noelani in any way possible. Which is the exact right attitude for a crew member to have. Remember, it is your race as a runner, not theirs, so the only “agenda” anyone on the crew should bring to the table is “how to get the runner to the finish line as fast as possible.”
It is also important to have at least one member of the crew who is experienced in ultra running/crewing, so that the operation runs smoothly. A good crew should pretty much resemble a NASCAR pit crew. Everyone has defined roles, and the runner comes in, gets what she needs, and is sent off with minimal delay.
(Celebrating with a beer at the finish line with Dwyn (her cousin) and Christian (her BF))
Finally, it’s a good idea to have one crew member who is more or less “in charge” so that the race progresses in a clear direction from a crewing standpoint. At this race, that duty fell to me by default, and that was fully expected by the other two crew members. The point is that I’ve seen far too many crews where personality conflicts/in-fighting within the crew really hampered the race efforts of the runner. Remember, even with a speedster like Noelani, we spent 7 hours in a car together. For longer races, you will spend considerably longer. So make sure that the crew make-up accounts for that, and everyone has their eyes open going into it…
9. Ditch the Tunes: Treat Music Like RedBull.
Like many runners, Noelani likes to run with music. It took some convincing, but she decided to try to run the first 30 or so miles without music.
Why did I ask her not to use music for the majority of the race? Because it is dissociative: instead of listening to your heartbeat, taking in the sounds of your race surroundings, and focusing on all of the little signals your body is constantly giving you, you are focusing on the cadence of whatever song you are listening to and — whether you realize it or not — your pace usually shifts (even if only a little) depending on the beats of the songs.
I think music should be treated like any other stimulant you may use during the race. It can be valuable to get you moving when you are in a low period during the race, but that “high” you feel from listening to music just cannot be sustained over the course of an entire ultra. You are much better served by using it sparingly as a little energy boost.
Noelani made it over 40 miles without music, and when she needed a little pick-me-up over the last 10 miles to keep her pace going, she had it.
10. The Perfect Race Mindset.
Last week, I wrote how to reach your maximum potential as a runner, you should run “from a place of love in your heart,” which is an unapologetically-cheesy line. I’m sure some of you rolled your eyes a bit when reading that. But after Saturday, I’m more convinced than ever that this is — indeed — the best mindset to have during the race.
LIterally EVERY time we saw Noelani out on the course, she was smiling, waving, and asking how WE were doing. She would continually kiss her boyfriend as she ran by, give us high-fives, and stay in an unflinchingly-positive mood.
(She looked like that the ENTIRE race)
That attitude had everything to do with her performance on the course. Instead of allowing herself to think about how much her legs were hurting, she focused on others, and focused on keeping herself in a positive mood. (Which probably wasn’t too much of a struggle for her, given that being happy/positive/cheerful seems to be her default attitude!)
So there you have it. I hope some of the above points can be useful as you prepare for your next ultra (many of which are coming up very soon here in Florida). Thanks to Noelani, Dwyn, and Christian for a GREAT race experience! I’d also like to congratulate Dawn Lisenby, a great Florida-based running coach who — along with one of her clients — completed the Oceans 50 as well, as part of a two-person team!
Finally, good luck to everyone who is running this weekend, at both Andrei and Claire Nana’s Icarus Ultrafest (down in Ft. Lauderdale), as well as the Wild Sebastian 100 (in St. Sebastian State Park near Fellsmere). I’d like to extend a special “good luck” to GFOB (Great Friend Of the Blog) Aly Venti, who is competing in the 24-hr Icarus race on Saturday in hopes of qualifying for the U.S. team (along with Traci Falbo, who has likely already qualified) that will be competing at the 24-hour world championships in Torino, Italy next Spring.
I hope everyone has a great week, and if you’ll be at either Icarus or Wild Sebastian this weekend, I’ll see you out there!