The Five Hour Marathon (#1)

My work schedule and the weather finally aligned for me to do my first five hour marathon training session yesterday.

And it wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. It’s true that I’m feeling the 26.2 miles of pavement a little bit today, but for the most part the run was a success.

Having intermediate goals throughout the workout (60 minutes for each of the 5.25 mile laps), but not having any specific plan on how to meet those goals, let me go back and forth between analytical problem solving mode (“Ok… how’s my pacing so far this lap? Is this a good time to take a walking break? How’s my fluid/calorie intake? What do I have to do right now to stand a better chance of meeting my lap goal?”) and simply running without thinking about anything. If I had been focusing too much on hyper-specific goals, I’m sure it would have been a lot more mentally draining. Good practice for my upcoming Umstead attempt. Sometimes concentrate, sometimes cruise….

My data are as follows:

Lap 1: 59:39 (HR: 123)

Lap 2: 58:41 (HR: 129)

Lap 3: 58:43 (HR: 133)

Lap 4: 59:20 (HR: 136)

Lap 5: 58:36 (HR: 139)

I’m glad I was able to come close to meeting my goal pace on each of the laps, but I’d like to do a little better next time.

Lessons Learned:

  • I found out that (at least under cool temps and on a flat course) I’m capable of taking in 28 oz of fluid and 250 calories an hour (all calories from Tailwind) without even the slightest hint of stomach distress.

New Questions:

  • Could I bump that 250 calories an hour up to 275 or 300?
  • My eyes felt really dry the evening after the run. (It was a slightly breezy day, but I wore sunglasses throughout.) Would using eye drops during the run help?
  • That average HR increase over the last two laps is kinda ugly. Anything I can do (besides more training) to keep that better in check?
  • How close could I come to meeting lap time goals only checking my watch just once or twice (or perhaps even zero times) during a lap?

Chasing the Five Hour Marathon

There’s a lot of talk these days about what it’s going to take for someone to run the first sub-two hour marathon. I think it’s an interesting topic, particularly the science and training principles behind the discussion, but the two-hour marathon itself doesn’t have much relevance to me or my running.

I’m a slow-ass runner who doesn’t like cross-training, and doesn’t do speed work. I just like to run, although occasionally I enter races to see and experience new things. My goal for racing is usually to not blow up and just finish in one piece (i.e., without having done any serious or lasting damage to myself). If I’ve run a race course before, then I might choose to set a goal of running it better than the last time – although that usually means running it more comfortably and evenly and happily than before, rather than running it more quickly.

My next big race is the Umstead 100, which happens to be my first attempt at the hundred mile distance. The cut-off is 30 hours, so I’ll be ecstatic if I finish in 29:59. In fact, I’d be happier with a 29:59 finish where I don’t have a catastrophic crash and burn (is that possible in a person’s first 100? Can anyone reassure me that such a thing is possible?), rather than a 29:45, a 29:30, or even a 29:00 flat finish in which I covered the first 50 miles in 10 hours then death march the remaining 50.

I don’t know if it’s possible to come up with a solid pacing strategy for a distance that I have no experience with, but a 30 hour finish equates to an average pace of 18:00 per mile. Obviously I won’t be moving 100% of the time (when the aid station, bathroom and other stops are taken into account), so my actual moving pace will be less than that; say perhaps 16:00/mile. And I know that I’m almost certain to slow down as the race goes on, even though I plan to start off slowly.

My assumption is that self-care and running efficiency are going to be the keys to me completing 100 miles, much more so than how fast I can cover the first few hours of the race. So a training approach that builds up my system to run 10 or 20 miles quickly is probably not as valuable as an approach that would have me run that same distance 10-15% slower, if I could do so at an energy savings of 20-30%.

I don’t think “banking time” works for me in a long race, so I’d rather bank energy.

I think about how plenty of middle- and back-of-the pack marathoners get caught up in the excitement of a race, run the first 10k too quickly, then find that the wheels come off later and they’re not able to maintain their goal pace — and they give back far more time than they “gained” by running quickly during the first quarter of the race. I’d like to avoid this type of situation with my 100 miler. I don’t want to run the first 25 miles so quickly that the rest of the race is more of a struggle than it otherwise needs to be. So how can I formalize my training in a way that really makes a deliberate effort to focus on covering distance efficiently?

The five-hour marathon.

Here’s the training strategy I’m going to take during the next couple months: I’m going to see how efficient I can become at covering a marathon distance in five hours. I want to try to answer the question, “what’s the best way for me to cover that distance in that time (and really trying to stick as closely as possible to 5 hours) while expending as little energy as possible?”

A five hour marathon works out to 11:26 per mile average pace. There are countless ways to maintain that average, only one of which is to actually run each mile at an 11:26 pace. I know at Umstead I’m going to run some, and I’m going to walk some. But at what paces, and in what combinations? And how much am I going to slow down as time goes on? Is my slow-downs going to level off at some minimum pace (I assume so), and what is that pace?

Endless spreadsheet manipulations and formula constructions, as much as I like doing them, aren’t going to answer those questions with any confidence. I need to experiment by actually putting my feet on the ground.

I chose the five-hour marathon training target in part because it’s a nice round number. But more to the point, the four hour marathon would be too fast for a training run, while a six-hour marathon might be too slow (although I’m still open to seeing what it feels like). It’ll also let me get enough time on my feet so that I can start to feel the effects of fatigue, but not so much that it requires significant time off before I can run again.

My intention is to set a 5.25 loop or out-and-back course in my neighborhood, starting and ending at my house, then run a five lap workout of that course at least twice per month, trying to come as close as possible to doing each lap in an hour. This will force me to hold back in the beginning, and hopefully leave me feeling relatively unscathed by the end.

Using the same course for each of these workouts will allow me to compare my effort levels with different walk/run combinations. Starting and ending at my house means that I don’t have to worry much about hydration or refueling, and the five laps in five hours structure makes it easy to focus on pacing.

I think it might initially be tricky to follow walk/run combinations that get me to the 5.25 miles in one hour for every lap, so assuming I’m erring on the side of going too fast, whenever I reach the end of the lap before one hour expires I’ll simply walk the rest of the hour. Just as I’d consider a 5:15 time to be a workout fail, so too would be a 4:45.

The ultimate goal is to perform the distance in the specified time and feel like I could do the distance again the next day, or even right away that same day. After all, I’m going to try to do (almost) four back-to-back marathons at Umstead. Be able to complete the first one or two without taking too much out of the tank seems to be essential to completing the event.

I was hoping to do my first five-hour marathon workout tomorrow, but the sidewalks and paths in my neighborhood are in bad shape (I did 5 miles this morning, and found the ground conditions to be horrible), and the forecast isn’t looking good:

TuesdayI consider myself a little tougher than the average person, but I’m not tough enough to do a five hour training run in those temps…

Race Lotteries are the WORST! (Except for all the other options…)

We’re finally getting to the end of this year’s elections and, in light of all the junk I’ve sees on TV and received in the mail, one of Winston Churchill’s most famous quotes has been on my mind a lot:

“It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.”

The same could be said for the lotteries that decide who gets to run the most popular trail races. Lotteries are certainly the worst way to choose race participants… except for all the others.

Lotteries are merely a consequence of our sport’s popularity. Every race is going to have a limit on the number of entrants, and lotteries are an increasingly popular way in handling the growing demand for those spots. Ideally, everyone would be able to run every race they want, but that can’t happen. There has to be some method for choosing, and I think race lotteries are the best choice among all the horrible options for selecting entrants.

Still, there are a lot of complaints about the lottery process:

Lotteries Don’t Reward Our Loyalty.

Many of us form emotional connections with particular trail races, and our feelings can be quite strong. Lotteries fail to take these deeply personal connections into account, and they frustrate our expectations. A lottery means that even if I’ve done my favorite race every year for the past five or ten years, and sacrificed a lot in training for it, some newbie is going to have the same chance as me at getting into next year’s race!

But… isn’t that how it should be? We talk about how great our sport is – how the weekend warrior can toe the line right alongside the very best runners! We’re all part of the same big community! If those sentiments mean anything, then a first-timer should have the same chance as me at getting in.

Lotteries Aren’t Entirely Fair.

Most often race lotteries are a simple one person, one entry affair. But in others the process combines a lottery with other means of admission (like guaranteed slots for past winners, race pioneers, volunteers, sponsors, etc.), or conducts the lottery process in a manner that makes it more likely for prior lottery losers to get drawn (like Hardrock and Western States). These hybrid lotteries seem to have their share of haters, too, with claims that some of the slots are being allocated to runners who somehow aren’t deserving, or that first-timers actually don’t have a fair chance of getting in.

The short answer, of course, is that the race directors can run their races in whatever way they see fit (in accordance with their permits). For example, some use qualifying standards for entrants, while others don’t. Some racers want to reward volunteers and sponsors, or recognize specific individuals, while others don’t.

It’s all good!

Different race organizations have different ways of doing things, and I believe that it’s healthy for races to have different personalities, different feels, and different competitor profiles. If every race felt the same, then there’d be little reason to choose one over another.

Lotteries are Too Random.

At their core, lotteries are inherently random, and to some that might seem wrong. Our ability to prepare for and compete in a race we love shouldn’t depend on the vagaries of whether our name is drawn out of a hat, right?

The truth is that there’s far more randomness involved in whether we’re actually going to make it to the starting line of our favorite race and how we’re going to perform on race day. How many of us have gotten injured the week before a big race? Or eaten the wrong thing the night before? Or done something else that led to a horrible night’s sleep just before the race? Or suffered unseasonably hot (or cold) weather on race day that completely threw off our well thought-out pacing and fueling strategies?

Stuff happens. Our sport is a crazy combination of large amounts of training and planning and structure, together with a healthy dose of uncontrollable randomness.

A lottery should be the least of our concerns.

The Alternatives are Worse.

Besides, isn’t a lottery drawing preferable to a first-come, first-served process that, when a race becomes popular enough, becomes a race to click a registration link within the first few seconds after it goes live? You might get lucky with your mouse, but is a lottery really so bad in comparison?

And at least with a lottery you know what you’re up against. While I love everything I’ve ever heard and read and seen about the Barkley Marathons, I’m glad that no other big races follow their less-than-clear entry process.

Finally, while it hasn’t become an issue (yet), another way a marquee race might conceivably fill their slots and avoid a lottery would be to keep upping their entry fees until demand and supply match up. That might drive most of us away, but as long as enough paid entrants show up the race would still go on. I’d certainly prefer a lottery to a purely market-based approach.

Even if you’re still a lottery hater, don’t forget that new races are popping up all the time, and these events generally don’t have an overcrowding problem for at least a couple years. If you don’t get drawn to run in your first choice race, then congratulations – now you have the opportunity to go try something new!

Are race lotteries perfect? Not even close.

Are they the best option for dealing with a crush of race applicants? Probably.