Monday, April 30, 2018

An Exercise in Pacing

On the homestretch to a new PR finish

After my experience at the Boston Marathon, I came away not only frustrated by the fact that I fell sick just prior to the race, but that the weather really hampered any attempt at a true fast run for me. I had decided this week that I wasn't going to let all that hard training go to waste. Knowing I have Spartathlon looming later this Fall, I felt that it was time to have a real go at trying to actively pace myself accurately. 

Spartathlon is an interesting beast. Putting aside that the overall time cut off is 36 hours to begin with (quite a fast overall time), many of the early mile cut-offs are also quite aggressive. Without getting into the minutia of pacing, the very short version is that runners are expected to maintain what equates to about 9 min/mile pace for the first 50k in order to make the cutoffs. And these cutoffs are strict. Most runners get to 50k less than an hour ahead of the cutoff. It can definitely cause a bit of anxiety. Then up to 100k, you're still expected to maintain sub 11 min/mile pace, before finally easing up on the pace for the back 80 miles or so. Even in the late miles though, a runner still must average 14 min/mile or less (which is still a slow jog). I'm a fairly quick walker, so my big concern was how I'd fair over those first 100k.

To put in perspective what is expected of a Spartathlon runner, the qualifying standards pretty much spell it out. You have to run a 20hr 100-miler, or a sub 10hr 100k (as well as a few other standards). While I have broken 20 hrs in a hundred (barely), I wanted to see if I could both break 10 hours for a 100k, AND pace myself as though I was running AT the Spartathlon. So...I signed up for a 100k road race a few hours away in Connecticut called the Lake Waramaug Ultra. Turns out it's one of the oldest ultras in the country at over 40 years now.

I spent an evening marking up a spreadsheet of my expected pace and times so as to finish right at 10 hours. I calculated that a ~9:39 pace over 62.2 miles would give me a 10 hr finish. So, as long as I was running faster than 9:39, I'd be banking time. BUT, I didn't want to think of this exercise as "banking time". Instead, I wanted to set realistic pace goals, knowing that I'd slow down, but still reasonable so that I'd hit 10 hours. I knew going in that the first 10-20 miles would "feel" very slow, but that they'd pay dividends in the later miles by allowing me to still run (as opposed to walk). 

I told myself that aid station breaks would be quick as well. I had to practice QUICK turnarounds. There's nothing more frustrating than running a mile right on pace, only to lose 30 seconds at the very end because you stopped to chat with the aid station volunteers without thinking. So, I wanted to go in being efficient.

The course features a 4.4 mile out-n-back, followed by seven 7.6-mile loops around Lake Waramaug. Then at the very end, there's another out-n-back of 4.6 miles to bring it to 62.2 total. I set up my spreadsheet and paces based on these segments.

Roughly, my pace goals were:
Out-n-Back: 8:44
Loop 1: 8:45
Loop 2: 8:50
Loop 3: 9:05
Loop 4: 9:36
Loop 5: 9:50
Loop 6: 10:30
Loop 7: 10:37
Out-n-Back: 11:00

These goals by definition meant that all the way through the end of Loop 4, I would essentially be building up a time cushion ahead of the required 9:39 pace....but then losing time to it over remainder of the race. This was ok, as long as I stuck to this plan. I would still cross the line sub 10hr, and ideally still running and feeling better than if I went out too fast. This entire exercise would be one of proper pacing, not trying to set a PR. Turns out, I would actually end up setting two PRs employing this strategy, but I'll get to that later....

I knew I was at least capable of a 10 hr 100k as I had unofficially run one once before...although it was somewhat of a technicality. Back in 2014, I ran the Mind-the-Ducks 12hr event and hit 62.2 miles in 9 hrs 57 minutes, although I didn't know it at the time. I simply knew that I ended up with ~72.5 total miles for 12 hours.

For Lake Waramaug, I decided to also employ my virtual running partner feature on my watch. I set it to 9:39 pace and then it would allow me to see how far "ahead" I was of the required 9:39 overall pace. It would also allow me to see how fast I was adding or chewing up minutes from my "bank". Really though, I knew that as long as I was sub 9:40, I was at least breaking even, and as long as I stuck to my plan, regardless of what was happening to my bank, that I was doing what I was supposed to be doing. I had to trust my math and that my body would respond based on historical behavior and performance.

As expected, the first Out-n-back and first full loop "felt" very slow. I tried to average 8:45's, but somehow kept coming up a few seconds fast each mile. It wasn't enough to worry me though. I basically felt as long as I was plus/minus 10 seconds on my pace, I would be ok and could adjust as the race progressed by slowing down or speeding up where necessary (if possible). As I began the second loop, things continued to progress perfectly. I was very firm in my make it to the 50k mark before taking any significant break or really stopping at any of the aid stations. I tried to keep any visits to under 10 seconds.

At the end of Loop 2, I had my first test in making a live adjustment. Nature was calling badly, and I absolutely had to make a pit stop. I knew this would take 2-3 minutes, but I could tell I was slowing down...and it couldn't wait. By this point, I had actually accrued about 2 minutes OVER my pace chart, so knew the stop ultimately wouldn't really set me back. Needless to say, I felt infinitely better after the stop. If you look at my splits, you can actually see that mile 20 was over 11 I managed to keep the pit stop to under 3 minutes.

Before I continue, let me post the full track and stats of my run for reference:

Screen grab of my Strava Data

Starting Loop 3 was actually quite nice as it was the first loop that I was "Scheduled" to go slower than 9 min/miles. It felt nice to "slow down" a little. I was still ahead of my fatigue curve, and by slowing early, I was able to extend my comfort level much further.  In my mind, I knew loop 4 was going to be tough as I still wanted to go sub 9:39, but would be nearing the 50k mark. I noticed I was also starting to spend more time at the aid stations hemming/hawing over food and doing what I call "excused rest breaks". In other words, I was allowing myself running breaks by justifying it with aid station refueling. It's a not-so-clever way my body has for squeezing in little breaks without me trying to notice. I consciously noticed...but let it slide a bit too often as it did feel nice to eat my orange slices and potato chips without wolfing it all down on the run. On a side note related to aid stations, I ended up refueling a lot on just coke/ginger ale and simple foods. I was trying to mimic the simple aid station food at Spartathlon. As far as my own fuel. I did carry some gummies on the early miles as well as my usual Hammer Perpetuem that I refilled twice in my water bottle.

Loop 4 did go as planned, but loop 5 was when the fatigue starting inching its way in and when I became conscious of my effort. It was also the first loop where I fell a little behind my planned pace (not counting loop 3 and my bathroom pit stop). Even though loop 5 was not my overall slowest lap, it was definitely what I would consider the low point of the race for me. It's right at that awkward distance of 35-43 miles...the hardest part of a 50-miler/100k for me. Mentally it was tough as well as I knew I still had two full laps remaining. Again...this is an awkward place to be in a looped course. I fought of the negativity though and focused on my pacing. I knew that once out on loop 6, my pace chart had me slowing to 10:30 min per mile. Half-way through loop 5 I thought this drop down seemed delightful, but by the time I made it around and actually started loop 6, I had naturally slowed down to about 10:15 anyway, so it was a bit disappointing that I didn't get to really "slow down" much further. What this did make me realize though, was that I had properly gauged what my natural slow down would be...and pretty damned accurately too.

Loop 6 went ok, but it was noticeably becoming more of an effort. The good news was that the end of the loop marks exactly 50 miles. With this known, I was hoping to go for a new 50-mile PR. My current 50-mile PR was a 7:49 I ran at the Tussey Mountainback in 2011. At the 2014 Mind-the-Ducks 12-hr, I did hit 50 miles on my Garmin at 7:43 however...but I do not count that as official. At Lake Waramaug, the ending of Loop 6 is an officially recognized distance though, as there is a sanctioned 50-mile event that happens concurrently with the 100K. Of course this also means that there's an enormous temptation to drop at 50 miles and call it day. What's worse is that the race directors allow you to do this and still get a registered finish. I'd be lying if I said I didn't at least consider it once or twice. 

As I made the turn onto North Shore Rd, about 2 miles from the end of the loop, I began doing the math. It would be close if I wanted to get a PR for 50 miles. This final 2 miles also features the most rollers on the course (albeit small ones). I realized I was going to have to pick it up a bit if I wanted to ensure a sub 7:49. I pushed hard and over those two miles averaged sub 8:40 miles (over a minute and a half faster than what I was averaging). Turns out, I had it dialed in exactly as I crossed the finish line with a new PR of 7:46...exactly 3 minutes faster than my old PR. Had I not sped up, and kept my pace for those final 2 miles, it would have come down to seconds.

I was thrilled with the PR, but not super excited about doing another full loop. Before I could have the debate I started running. Before long, I was a mile into the loop and committed. At 2.3 miles into the loop, I ran past the turnaround point for the final out-n-back and knew that I'd be there in just over an hour turning around for a final 2.3 miles back to the finish line. That lifted my spirits a bit. For loop 7, I had planned a 10:37 pace (or exactly about minute slower than required pace). I felt like I was running ok, but every time I checked my pace it was floating around 10:30. Every mile that passed though I knew I was ok. I had checked my virtual runner at the start of my final lap, and it said I was still over 16 minutes ahead of my required pace. So even if I ran 90 seconds slower on every mile, I'd still theoretically finish sub-10. I didn't want to risk it though and kept pushing for 10:30's. When I hit the aid station half way around the loop, I needed another bathroom stop. On top of that, I spent almost a full minute at the aid station and walking out from the bathroom. It was the only real walk break of the day (about 2 minutes of walking). It was also my slowest mile of the entire race at 11:48. When I saw my Garmin clock 11:48, it was a very sobering reality check. As good as it felt to walk a little, I knew I couldn't afford it. So I grudgingly started running again. The stretch North along East Shore Rd (Rt. 45) was my least favorite of the course. It's farther away from the Lake, and the traffic is heavier. It feels more like a highway...and just had a tendency to drag on a bit.

At the final turn onto North Shore Rd. though I stopped in at the last aid station on the course to bid them adieu. I put down a final full cup of Coke and headed for the end of my final full loop. I was eagerly looking forward to my very final out-n-back to finish this thing off. I decided I'd wait until finishing loop 7 before doing the final math, but the quick math was promising. I just needed to keep it together for a few more miles and pending no major breakdowns, I'd likely get in just under 10. It was still looking to be uncomfortably close though.

As I came into the timing mat, I refueled very quickly, and immediately began on my final 4.6 mile out-n-back. I was excited to be almost done and that I wouldn't have to do a full loop. I looked at my virtual runner and it showed I was still over 10 minutes ahead of a 10hr finish pace. This mean I could run each mile almost 11:30 pace and still finish under 10. I hit the first mile in about 10:25...excellent. Then, the next mile in 10:20...even better.  

When I hit the turn around I stopped for about 15 seconds to take it all in. I walked for a short bit and then began my final 2.2 mile run back to the finish line. I was filled with some new vigor and picked it up a bit. I hit the 1-mile to go mark and over 16 minutes in which to do it. I knew, pending a last-minute blow up, that I could essentially walk it in. Still, I was not about to finish with a whimper. 

I run sub-10 pace for the final mile and huffed it over the line with a final time of 9:54:12!

My pacing strategy had worked splendidly, and not only did I finish right where I had hoped to, and right on schedule, BUT I had also managed to re-qualify for Spartathlon (which is good for 2 years!). I executed my race plan just about as perfectly as I could with no real unforeseen issues. Something else to note was we had about 3 hours of cold rain during the first 3 loops. This most certainly slowed all of us down slightly. Thankfully, it wasn't super cold like at Boston though, so I didn't have any issues with generating heat.

Coming into the finish!

Almost there!


I definitely learned a lot about my pacing and this entire experience really helped me to hone in on my expectations and plans for Sparathlon come September.  For now, I leave you with my detailed spreadsheet that shows all of the numbers from the race. For reference, any text in red denotes places where I "LOST" time or went slower than a planned pace. Some of the exact times a slightly off due to Excel rounding....but it's pretty close. These data clearly show that there were only 2 segments when I ran slower than my planned pace, Loop 3, and Loop 5. Both cases were at least partially due to long bathroom breaks. In addition. Loop 5 was my "low point" of the race, and this is reflected in the pacing.

Full time details

I guess that's it for now. I sit here today quite surprised at how good my legs feel. I wonder....could I have run harder? Probably. But this wasn't about trying to set a PR. It was about learning to pace properly over 100k so as to be better prepared for Spartathlon. The two PRs were just a really nice added bonus! One funny side note. On my final out-n-back, I noticed a runner about 4 minutes ahead of me as I was running towards the turnaround. As I got close to the finish, I could see his yellow wind shell off in front of me, about a minute ahead of me on the course. I didn't think much of it at the time, but turns out he was the 3rd place finisher for the 100k. I came 80 seconds from making the podium. Had I know he was a 100k runner, I might have tried to pick it up a little more! Oh well

Hike on my friends.