While some of this information applies to a race of any distance I’m going to focus on 100 miles as that’s what Bunny and I are currently training for.
If you read race reports of 100 mile races then you’re probably aware of this recurring theme (actual paraphrased quotes below since I don’t have permission to repost)
“…started out possibly too fast sticking with the lead pack… around mile 50 started having GI issues and couldn’t keep anything down, pace was down to 13 minute miles… by mile 75 I was down to 18 minute miles… mile 90 and the death march had set it and I was lucky to do 30minute miles”
“…started out aggressive, trying to bank time… things went sideways at mile 47… started having to stop and rest every few miles… barely made the cutoffs at the last aid station…”
“…held off on hydration and fueling for the first 20 miles trying to avoid wasting time in the aid stations… bonked hard by mile 40… dropped at mile 73…”
I literally just watched yet another video by a runner doing his or her first 100 mile race. He burned through the first 25 miles in under 5 hours. Then the GI problems started before the turn around and he barely made the finish line before the cut off as a result.
It’s my 110% firm belief that most ultra runners who post race reports and most of the ones I’ve talked to do not have a pace plan. This is anecdotal obviously. Most ‘just run by feel’.
While I believe there are a number of good runners who can do this, I do not believe the majority can do this, especially for their first serious ultra marathon. They run way too fast, out of inexperience with the 100 mile distances or out of ego or out of race jitters or out of ‘this is how fast I run my 20 and 30 mile training runs’.
It’s taken me the last 2 years to figure this out for me personally. Like most I let my ego write checks my legs couldn’t cash. I train at 11 minute miles so I should race at 10:30’s. Then I crash and burned like most race reports… report.
I put my painfully earned experience from our earlier ultra’s to use at our first 24 hour race and for the first time in an ultra I was able to maintain a consistent pacing from start to finish. This went a long way for me to validate both my pace plan and my thoughts on pacing.
As it happened Bob Stearns was also at that 24 hour race and as a result of his machine like pacing I googled him and found out in some circles he’s called “The King of Pacing” and has extremely in depth and well planned pace charts that’s taken him out to 200+ miles.
This just added more validation I think to my way of thinking.
The reason pacing is everything in an 100 mile race is once you get behind the 8 ball, once you get into a deficit it’s extremely hard to come back.
A compatible and individualized pace plan for a given runner will always feel too slow at the race start. But that pacing is critical. A runner needs time to process calories both ingested and converting fat to fuel. A runner needs time to process lactic acids and flush them out of the system. A runner needs time to process fluids to replace those lost in sweat and urine.
Without that time a runner will start running a calorie, fluid and fatigue deficit which will end badly usually. GI issues will come up and ingested items will start coming out whatever the nearest orifice is, not to be gross. Muscles will get overstressed and fatigued leading to an inability to run and navigate technical terrain. Nerves will get overstressed and start firing erratically leading to race killing cramps.
Pacing, pacing, pacing, it’s what will get a runner to the finish line, strong, in the fastest possible time, with the least risk of injury to body and health.
Pacing in fueling – A runner should start consuming calories a couple of hours pre-race and continue to consume between 200 and 350 calories an hour. The average person can process, convert ingested calories to fuel, on the order of about 250 calories an hour. Any more calories than that will start to pile up in the digestive tract leading to the dreaded GI issues as the body has very good systems to deal with excess while under high activity. i.e. you’ll start puking it out.
It’s important to note that obviously you’re burning far more than 250 calories an hour. Don’t worry, your body will start converting all that fat you’re carrying into fuel. But this requires some resources, it requires extra water, blood and energy. If you’re at the ragged edge of your abilities the body doesn’t have these to spare. And you bonk.
It’s also important to note that the brain/central nervous system runs on carbs. So during an ultra most runners, even keto/fasted/fat based runners, should focus on ingesting carbs, these are what your brain and twitch reflexes are going to be short on.
Anecdotal: I knew from training runs and our ultra races that I can process about 300-350 calories an hour safely and over our 24 hour race I stuck with this for all but the last few hours where I started increasing my intake as it was looking close to whether I’d hit my goal mileage or not. As a result I was fine for the first 21 hours. Then I started getting that bloated, sluggish, ‘thanksgiving dinner’ feeling. The extra calories hurt, not helped my performance.
Pacing in hydration – This is more individualized. On a summer run I consume between 20 and 32 oz an hour. And still lose up to a lb an hour. But stay on top of it. The early stages of dehydration have no real symptoms or feelings other than your performance will start to decrease. As the imbalance gets worse the body will start pulling water everywhere it can and the biggest source is the blood. Which unsurprisingly is a big performance hit.
Monitor your urine output and color. If it’s infrequent and dark, you’re not drinking enough. If it’s very frequent and colorless, you’re drinking too much and are potentially diluting your electrolytes to a dangerous degree. These are basic rules of thumb and subject to the individual.
If you start to pee and it’s the color of Coke, then you’re in a potentially serious situation and should consult with the medical staff at the aid stations. They will likely pull you as Rhabomylosis can be very dangerous and I speak from personal experience.
Pacing in speed – This may not be easily possible to figure out without running stupid long distances. It’s a safe bet it’s going to be 90 seconds to a 2 minutes slower than the 30 mile training pace for large number of runners especially newer ultra runners. I know it wasn’t until we’d run several ultra distances, 4 50K’s and a 50mile that I ended up with a good handle on what might be the best pacing for us for 100 miles.
I know from own training and racing that a 100 mile pace plan feels crazy slow at the race start. You want to be out there, you don’t want ‘that guy’ beating you off the line, it’s his first 100 for goodness sake. But it’s sticking with that pace plan, regardless of how ‘awesome, full of energy, great’ you feel at the start of the race that will have you reeling all those people who blew out and blew up later on down the road. Sticking with the pace plan is how you’ll PR your times while at the same time enjoy the race instead of it being a miserable trudgefest of pain, fatigue and projectile vomiting.
At least that’s my thoughts on the subject.