Blog Subtitle

Reverse-engineering the Ultramarathon

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

How to Train for Vol State

Archival image of a Vol State training session from the early days.
(Real runners wear the fez)
This is it – the post you’ve been looking for!

One of the questions I have occasionally gotten, and that I have also seen from time to time in comments on Vol State discussions is, “How would you train for a race like that?” Many ultrarunners, who either seriously think they might want to do it or who may just have a passing curiosity about it, seem to wonder about this, and I have finally been moved to reach out with such wisdom as I have on the topic.

First, let me define the limits of that ‘wisdom.’ I finished the Vol State once, in 2014, in 9D 20:03:33, so if your goal for the race is more ambitious than “just finish alive” you may want to look elsewhere for advice (though I suspect there are aspects of the race’s unique difficulty that are shared by all runners, so you still may find something useful here). For those of you who only want to know what it takes to be adequately prepared just to survive a 314-mile journey run across the American southeast in July and reach the end within the time limit, I think I have some answers for you, and the first and most important one is this:

“Wrong question. Stop asking that.”

Okay, very tongue-in-cheek - but also very real. Why? Some things you can’t prepare for. The Vol State isn’t a race in the same way other ultras are. It’s a very intense, very challenging life experience. How do you train for getting married? …or having a child? How do you train for getting hit by a truck? How do you train for cancer? Those challenges are far greater in degree than Vol State, but similar in kind. You can’t really train for life experiences, or be fully prepared for them. That’s what makes them experiences. Vol State is like that.

A very accomplished multi-day racer once told me the best way to train for multi-days was to run a lot of them. Vol State, in spite of the fixed distance, is a multi-day race, and one with unique challenges even among multi-day races. The best way to train for Vol State is to run Vol State.

Next answer: “It takes less than you think it does.”

Another accomplished running friend of mine, 2010 Vol State King of the Road Juli Aistars, told me back when I was where many of you are (just starting to dream a little about one day taking on this challenge) that finishing it took less than I thought it did; that it was less out-of-reach for me than I believed it was. She told me that when I got my endurance base to the point I was averaging forty miles a week or so I could finish Vol State. I took her at her word. It was in the spring of 2014 that my trailing one-year average weekly mileage crossed forty for the very first time, and I ran Vol State that July.

It’s possible that idea sounds a little foreign to some of you. If you are a runner whose experience of running is a yearly cycle of starting almost from scratch, training up for one big race, and then slacking off for a long ‘off season’ (I have no idea what that is) then that is probably one root of why you’re asking the training question. Multi-day runners, by and large, do not follow that pattern. Actually quite a few plain-old ultrarunners and even plain-old runners do not follow that pattern. They build large, consistent, persistent, year-round endurance bases. If you’re not doing that, beginning to do so would be a very good step in your preparation for Vol State.

Understand this though: you can complete Vol State on virtually no training at all!

I ran it with my daughter. Vol State is (so far) her only ultramarathon credit. Prior to Vol State her longest race was a single, twenty-mile trail race – and prior to that her longest run ever had been about six miles. I took her out for one, slow 50K training run just to make sure she had a feel for what one minimum Vol State day felt like. She ‘trained’ for Vol State mostly by being a college student who didn’t have a car. I told people she was planning to do the race on youth and stubbornness, and that’s what she did – and she finished.

Vol State is uniquely structured. The best multi-day runners in the world can find a huge challenge there against which to test themselves - and yet pretty much any basically-fit human being can finish it on sheer guts and determination alone. There is a place there for everyone else between those extremes. Many of you who are asking the training question are already capable of finishing Vol State. Don’t put arbitrary prerequisites in the way of starting.

Now for some answers more like what you may have expected:

“Do long, slow, journey-style road runs.”

Training specificity is always a good idea, and that applies just as well to Vol State. Get comfortable with the open road. I did quite a few Saturday long runs where I got up, had some breakfast, put on the clothes I planned to wear at Vol State, strapped on the pack I intended to carry, loaded with much of the stuff I intended to take, walked out my front door, picked a direction and just took off for twenty miles or so.

Sometimes my route meandered around the busy suburbs of my city, and sometimes I struck off straight out into the rural countryside. Sometimes it was busy streets thick with cars and sometimes it was wide-open highways with high-speed traffic whizzing by. The best runs like this involve moving from small town to small town along rural roads, stopping at convenience stores or gas stations for food along the way. Bonus points for doing this in the hottest, most humid conditions available where you live.

“Practice covering distances under-fueled and randomly fueled.”

It’s best if you don’t leave home with food on you for those long training runs. A great quote from the 2017 Vol State: “If you don’t get enough nutrition in a regular ultra, you bonk and quit. if the next food is 12 miles away here, you bonk and do 12 more miles.” You will not get enough to eat at Vol State. Between the infrequent access to food sources and the difficulty forcing down calories in the extreme heat and humidity, you will be doing many miles on far less fuel than you may think possible right now.

If you are a runner who relies on a particular sports fueling product, you will not have access to it at Vol State unless they sell it at Little General or Marathon gas stations in Tennessee. You cannot carry enough of it with you onto the ferry. Don’t take any with you on your Vol State training runs. Practice running and sustaining yourself on whatever the heck you can find out on the road - because that’s what you’ll be doing at Vol State. Eat the crap hot food from the little glass cases by the checkout counter. Eat the day-old pre-wrapped sandwiches, and squirt on the mayonnaise from the little foil packets. Pick random snacks from the aisles. Drink random, brightly-colored sugary beverages, chocolate milk, orange juice - whatever. Leave your salt pills at home and eat salty junk at the convenience stores if you think you need salt.

If you screw up and ‘bonk’ somewhere out in the middle of nowhere, thank your lucky stars – and keep going until you find somewhere to get some junk to eat. Calories = ‘good.’ Form = ‘couldn’t care less.’ Eat that food and go back out for more miles. You need to be able to roll with anything. Practice that.

“Get comfortable with night running on roads.”

Some people insist on moving during the day at Vol State, but most people will have to move during the night at some point. Many people - even some who meant to move during the day -  end up running mostly at night to avoid the worst heat. It’s a good idea to get familiar with and, ideally, comfortable with this before you go. There’s a whole different feel to being alone out on the side of a highway with traffic going by at night. Again, practice that. Think training specificity.

“Run at least one multi-day race.”

I ran a 72-hour race on a one-mile loop in May of the year I ran Vol State. Prior to that race the longest time I had ever been trying to move on my feet had been sixteen hours. I cannot tell you how valuable that one multi-day experience was to me going into Vol State! If you have only ever been a one-day (or one-day-plus-however-much-longer-it-took-to-finish-your-100M) ultrarunner there are things you need to learn that you will only learn in (I’d say) a 48-hour or longer race.

It is there you will learn what your real chafing and blister issues are and how best to deal with them. It is there you will learn how some of the things that have been serving you well enough in shorter ultras may fail out there beyond that experience. It is there you will learn how sleep works (or doesn’t work) in a multi-day effort. It is there you will (start to) learn how long you can really continue when you just plain hurt.

In a short-loop multi-day you can learn all those things in a very forgiving and well-supported environment. Again, I was so glad I had this experience behind me when I stepped off the ferry.

“Or… you could just do the race.”

At Harry and Ollie's, 2014
(Photo credit - Jan Redmond Walker)
In the end, though all of that will help, it will not prepare you. Don’t forget: the best training for Vol State is Vol State. No matter what you do beforehand, you will learn, adapt, and grow-into Vol State as you do it – or else you will quit. The best-prepared Vol State virgin still faces an education, and my sense tells me that even veterans returning to the race must go through a period of readjustment to the open road. Veterans joke that if you’re not in shape for the race at the start you will be by the end. It’s true though. The race is long enough that you can get fitter as you do it (and as a side note, there is ample time for blisters to heal and be forgotten before the end if you just take care of them and continue on).

The ‘day after’ my daughter and I finished (actually after just a two-hour nap, because two hours is often about all you can sleep in a multi-day no matter how tired you are, and we were still in ‘road mode’) we realized that there was no real reason we couldn’t have just headed out to continue on to someplace else. The finish, when we finally got there, seemed arbitrary, because “life on the road” had become simply “life.”

You cannot train to become that well-adapted for Vol State. Only Vol State itself can do that for you.

If the idea of this experience (as you understand it) calls to you, answer – just like that. Go. Do. Don’t wait, analyze, and ‘prepare’ until time and opportunity pass you by and you are left with regret over the road not taken. I think most veterans would agree that (even for them, even having done it once - or more than once) no matter what you do you will never feel ready for Vol State.

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