It’s one of the craziest things some of us back-of-the-pack ultrarunners do. No, I’m not talking about entering events that are longer than our training would justify; I’m talking about those pace charts that I usually create before each event.
Taking a step back, I know that it’s kind of silly — there are SO MANY variables on race day. So making up a table with pace goals can feel like little more than guessing. And it’s even more silly when I’m preparing for a course that I have no familiarity with. I mean, I know that downhills are generally going to be faster than the flats, and the flats are usually faster than the uphills, but planning to run a particular pace without knowing anything about a particular course’s footing or other trail conditions is pointless, right?
Even though I’ve never done a good job at preparing a pace chart that I actually came close to following on race day, I think the act of creating the chart, and having it with me during the race, is invaluable. My process normally goes something like this:
- Create a New Spreadsheet. Pencil and paper are not going to cut it here. I’m likely to try to put together my first draft several months before race day, and to revise the numbers many times as race day approaches. Part of the reason for doing it so early is because looking more closely at the course might inform my training approach. (For example, if a course has three 2,000’+ climbs then I’m certainly going to do some sustained climbs in training. But if a course has a dozen 500′ climbs then I’m likely to spend more time training on a different type of trail.) Multiple revisions helps me tie my training into some of the specific characteristics of the race.
- Choose the Segments. The most natural way to set up a race plan is by the segments that run from aid station to aid station. Since I’m going to be stopping at most, if not all, of the aid stations, it’s an easy time to check my progress and remind myself of the goal time/pace for the next segment. Having this down on paper, and referring to it during the race, helps my mind focus on running the course in pieces. It’s a lot easier to think “Ok, I have 5.2 miles to the next aid station” rather than “Ugh, I have 32.4 miles to the finish.”
- Fill in the Other Key Course Data. For trail ultras, one indispensable type of information is the general elevation change for each segment. I don’t care so much about the exact gain/loss as I do whether each segment is rolling, gradual up, steep up, steep up then gradual down, or some other similar description. Having this on paper helps remind me what to expect when I set out from each aid station for the next segment.
- Pick a Goal Finish Time. This can be difficult to do, particularly I’m running a particular race for the very first time. I’ve quickly learned that the “Target Time” listed on UltraSignup’s Entrant’s page is much faster for me than I’m likely to finish. For the upcoming Black Canyon 100k, for example UltraSignup gives me a Target Time of just over 14 hours. I think a more realistic finish time is between 15 and 16 hours. (In any case, my core goal is to finish in under 17 hours.) Having this bottom line goal helps me consider how I might try to approach each section of the course.
- Come Up With Something that Might Work. Now I start playing around with the numbers. I’m not likely to spend much time running faster than 10:00/mile pace (although that first big downhill on the Black Canyon Trail looks mighty inviting…). And my pace is going to decay in the last third of the race, to be sure. My current plan has aid-to-aid segment paces ranging from 10:45/mile up to an 18:00/mile slog during the final climbs.
- Focus on Segment Pace, Not Segment Time. In most events the stated distances between aid stations are pretty accurate. But if there are some that are a bit off by a quarter or half-mile, then it’s better for me to focus on my average pace over a segment rather than total time. For example, if it’s a half-mile more to a station than I planned for, but I’m still moving at my target pace, then I don’t feel like I have to run the next segment faster than planned just to “make up” that time.
- Be Flexible With Those Segment Paces. In the past I’ve tended to run the first section or two faster than I had planned. I understand that that might happen again at #BCT100k, so I try to remind myself that my REAL goal in the early miles is to go easy. If the trail is such that 9:50/mile truly feels easy on my body, then I’m not going to freak out and think that I’m going too fast.
- Pay the Most Attention to the Most Challenging Sections. In my upcoming race, the nearly 9 mile stretch between Black Canyon City and Cottonwood Gulch looks to be one of the most difficult of the race. It’s late in the afternoon, there’s some sustained climbing, Black Canyon City marks the end of the 60k race (so there are fewer runners on the trail heading to Cottonwood Gulch), and I’ll already have 37 miles on my legs. I’m penciling in averaging 17:00/mile pace in this segment. I try to think in terms of the average pace over a particular segment, not necessarily spend much time moving that that average pace. This segment will hopefully be comprised of some slower running (maybe in the 12:00/mile pace) along with some slower power-hiking and walking.
- Don’t Forget Your Aid Stations. I’m generally pretty quick through aid stations, even though I don’t use a crew. But even if it’s just a minute or two or three at each, that can add up over all the stations. There are nine aid stations in the Black Canyon race (four of which will have my drop bags), so I’ve added a couple minutes to the chart for each. This helps reaffirm how the cumulative time at aid stations can impact my chances for going under 17 hours.
- Look at Other Runners’ Past Splits. One extra piece of data that I sometimes use to refine my pace chart is how other runners have progressed throughout the course in years past. This works best if the race directors provide split times, but you might also be able to get some good info from Strava. For my race, I have access to last year’s splits at UltraSignup. Runners who finished in the 15:00-15:30 range have a Black Canyon City split time somewhere around 8:00. My plan forecasts me leaving that aid station around an 8:20 or 8:30 split. Cool!
- Understand That I’m Probably Guessing. But at the end of the day, I know that these calculations are all guesses. Some might be decent guesses, but I’ll be surprised if I come close to these numbers on race day. Maybe my finish time will be close to my goal, but my intermediate splits might be way off.
So if these numbers aren’t likely to be accurate, why bother?
The short answer is it helps me get my mind around the event. Making up a pace chart helps drill into my head that I’m not running 62 miles all at once. I’m running 7.3 miles. Then I’m running 5.2 miles. Then I’m running 6.7 miles… you get the picture. It’s easy to get overwhelmed with trying to run a long distance, and making a pace chart re-frames the challenge in more manageable terms.
Another reason is it helps me plan out my drop bags. Thinking about how long each segment might take me, and what time of day it occurs, helps me avoid taking the “kitchen sink” and adding too much of too many different things to my bags. Sorting through all that stuff and deciding what I might need on the next segment just makes getting in and out of the aid station a longer process than it needs to be. And I never want to become one of the folks who sees their drop bag in this context:
Of course, the main pace chart (with details about what I put into my drop bags, etc.) is too much to deal with on race day, the last step of the process is to distill it all down to a little slip of paper that I can fit into a tiny ziploc bag.
Am I making things too complicated? Believe it or not, I don’t actually spend a lot of time with pace charts. Ten minutes here, five minutes there, I look at it as a way to make sure I’m as ready as I can be (at least in terms of mental state and drop bag support).
Still, it’s hard to deny what the Run Rabbit Run RD told us at the pre-race briefing in 2015. He said something along the lines of “you know those little charts that you made for this race? Throw them away. The only thing that matters is that you get yourself to the finish.”