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Reverse-engineering the Ultramarathon

Sunday, July 28, 2013

What Makes me Think I can do the LAVS?

Google Map from this year's race.
(RIP symbols indicate where runners dropped out of the race.)
What makes me think it is remotely possible for me - a guy who's never run longer than 50 miles - to go 314 miles across five southern states in July heat? Before I say anything else I have to acknowledge that the bottom-line answer is that I don't know whether I can - and what that says to me is, "Go find out."

That's my genetic defect.

Acknowledging though, that I understand that no simple fact or piece of information, no amount of preparation, no encouragement from those who have been there and believe that I can do this can ever really guarantee that I can do it, here are some reasons I think I can - and that the time, pain, effort, and expense that I am about to undertake in the attempt are not being foolishly invested (if one accepts as a premise that ultrarunning isn't inherently foolish):

  • I am getting stronger.
  • I have a year to prepare.
  • Less experienced and well-trained runners than I have done this.
  • It can be walked.
  • Some really amazing people think I can do this.

I am getting stronger...

At the beginning of this year - coming off of injury, restarting training after almost two months of very little running - I would not have believed the progress I would see. Developing as a runner is a very long-term project. Progress can really only be discerned by looking at a year-over-year or even a multi-year time-frame. It was only a few years ago that I would come back to the house after maybe a seven-mile run and I'd stiffen up. My feet would hurt and I'd hobble around the house for a while.

Yesterday I ran seventeen miles. I did not stiffen up. I've got one troublesome spot in my left foot that I've been babying that was a little angry at me last night, but otherwise I was fine. This morning even the foot was fine, and I could have gone out and run far again today (I did last week the day after my long run) but this next week is an easy, recovery week and I take that seriously even if I don't feel like I need it (because I believe it's taking them seriously that makes it possible to continue feeling like I don't need it). I did a little four-mile 'canary run.'

It was only a few months ago that running seventeen on Saturday would have left me tired and unmotivated to do anything else for the rest of the weekend. I'd have been sore and had difficulty standing and sitting at church Sunday morning. Today it was like I didn't do anything yesterday (and I give thanks and praise to my God for making me a body that responds to stress by getting stronger).

I have a year to prepare...

How much stronger can I be one year from now?

Progress in a long-term endeavor like training to be a runner seems to come in short bursts in between long plateaus. I feel as though I am in the midst of another burst - or I have just come through one - and I have yet to really explore the new plateau. Here is my record of training so far this year:

There is much that I can say about this training record, but the first thing to recognize is that it is underwhelming training for an ultrarunner. It represents a total of a little more than 850 miles through the first seven months of this year. Runners who do really well at the shorter distances (50K and 50-mile) often run twice as many miles - or more.

What's important about this record to me is that it represents - for the first time in my running history - a plan for the year that, so far, has worked exactly as I thought it would. The plan was that if my injury allowed I would build slowly and carefully through the first part of the year to a peak in time for the Strolling Jim. The build-up would bring my trailing 12-week average mileage to 30 miles per week (MPW) just in time for the race. Next the plan called for surviving the Jim while aiming for an 8-hour finish, then leveling off at around 30 MPW until it was time to build for a new peak for the CanLake 50M (Oct. 12).

The idea was to build without crossing the threshold into overtraining, then to lock in that base for the next cycle of building. Everything my body is telling me says that this has worked - as now it really feels like running 30-mile weeks (about six hours of running for me) is no harder than, say, watching six hours of television per week used to be.

BTW, the only two weeks of breaks in the pattern that you see were the recovery week after the Jim (which actually totaled 20 miles of mixed running and walking) and a week when family obligations kept me too busy to run more.

The last two weeks on the above chart will eventually be recognizable as the first two weeks of my CanLake build-up. Here is what my plan going forward looks like (projected weekly mileages in red):

This is the same building pattern - only starting at a 30-mile base instead of a 20-mile base. As you can see, it will take my 12-week average to just over 40. I intend to follow the same strategy after CanLake as after the Jim - level off, and lock in a 40 MPW base. From that base I should be able to run 50K's or 50-milers pretty much at will, and in the next building phase I should be able to strike for new weekly highs that I have never before achieved - perhaps somewhere north of 80 miles. Back-to-backs on weekends should actually start to be respectable (say 20-25 Saturday and 10-15 on Sunday).

Hopefully, this will establish solid ground from which to approach my target race for a pre-LAVS shake-down and confidence builder: the 72-hour race at 3 Days at the Fair next May. If I can survive that, recover well, get some heat acclimation and notch a few peak training weeks in the 90-100 mile range before July, I think I can be prepared enough to approach Vol State with at least a little bit of confidence.

Less experienced and well-trained runners than I have done this...

There are not many, but they do exist. I think in particular of one young lady, 19 years old, who had run no race longer than 25K prior to attempting the LAVS with her mother. She finished. It wasn't pretty, but it was a finish. Granted, she had youth on her side - both its resilience and its foolishness - but I have training and some experience on mine.

I believe there have been others who have done this race with less of a training base than I think I can put together between now and next July.

It can be walked...

Math encourages me that this might be do-able. I think that at the back of the pack, the LAVS isn't at all about how fast you can go. It's about how long you can just keep moving at all. 314 miles in ten days is 'only' one 50K per day. These days I would expect that I can complete a relatively flat 50K road race in slightly less than six hours.

Suppose I just walk two miles per hour. At that pace I could cover 32 miles in sixteen hours, leaving eight hours in a day to find food and drink, and to rest and recover. If I could walk at three miles per hour I could cover the same distance in less than eleven hours. If I could run for even part of the time, who knows?

How would I feel the next day if I did a 50K as slowly as possible? I don't know, but I intend to find out!

I recognize that math like this in no way represents the crushing reality of trying to actually do what it implies - but it is encouraging nonetheless.

Some really amazing people think I can do this...

There is my friend Tim (who I mentioned in my previous post) who agrees that it can be walked. He didn't go so far as to say he thought I could walk it, but the implication was there.

There is "King Juli  the Lean" (who won the race in 2010 - every solo winner of the LAVS is declared 'king of the road' by an official Tennessee state proclamation). When I told her I was thinking about doing this she said it was, "the sanest thing I have ever heard from you." That got my attention!

And there is Fred in Ct. - another truly accomplished ultrarunner. More tempered in his encouragement than Juli, perhaps, Fred said, "...from where I stand, your aspirations seem completely reasonable."

How can I not go forward toward a goal that has taken such firm hold on me - with encouragement like this? Life is too short to not risk big things.

Cheesy as it may be, I also take inspiration from a fictionalized character - William Wallace, as portrayed by Mel Gibson in his movie "Braveheart" (one of my all-time favorite films):

Whatever happens to me should I ride the ferry across the Mississippi to begin this race next year, I will most definitely be living.

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